I recent read about two highly acclaimed men bursting with love for their fellow humans, and with hearts of solid gold. I was feeling inspired by the greatness of their altruistic deeds and somewhat embarrassed at my smallness compared to their seemingly inexhaustible wells of universal love and kindness — until I happened upon the barely-mentioned fact that both men were divorced (one of them, apparently twice — the other never remarried).
While it’s not my business, ability, or right, to judge individuals, I have to admit that on one level, this dissonant, surprising revelation, while saddening, was really not very surprising to me at all.
Today’s society tends to judge a person’s greatness from the outside-in. Career, fame, and world-shaking influence are the prime measures of success. From there, one “spirals inward” — how is he or she looked upon by their employees/co-workers, neighbors, relatives, and finally their spouse and children? These things, while if positive are certainly a plus, are merely feathers in the cap of one who’s “really made it” in the wider world.
The spiritual perspective sees it differently. The primary measure of a person’s worth is how successfully he relates to those closest to him, and particularly his wife. A man’s marriage is his core relationship — it cuts to the bone. It’s the place where he can least hide, least create an image or avatar to stand behind. It’s the place that reveals his true essence. I heard once from students of a renowned spiritual giant that their teacher would routinely tell his young married students: “Your entire spirituality is determined by how you talk to your wife.”
Once this is in place, once can (and should) begin to “spiral outward,” giving to his children (yes, even they are meant to play second fiddle to his wife), neighbors, friends and associates, and finally the wider world according to his situation and abilities. But all of this is only of true spiritual value if his core relationship — his marriage — is solid, and that these wider relationships come as its embellishments — not at its expense.
Serendipitously, I also read an article this week that exposed me for the first time to the term “pathological altruism,” which, based upon the story surrounding it of a man leaving town to bring aid to out-of-state flood victims, while his wife at home emotionally “drowned,” referred essentially to the same thing — a compulsive drive to give to those one is less directly responsible for at the expense of those to whom one is more responsible.
Jewish spiritual tradition refers to this world as being “upside-down” in relation to the spiritual world. Those perceived here as “on top” were quite often at the bottom spiritually, while many an apparent “nothing” in this world were in fact spiritually great.
While I don’t know about upside-down, I can certainly say when it comes to marriage we’d do well to open our spiritual eyes and begin looking at things the way they really are… inside-out.