pop culture, vocation

After Happily Ever After

Wedding season is winding down. Save the dates and invitations have been replaced with thank you notes. I opened up some precious real estate on my refrigerator. Presents are no longer taking up closet space. My odometer is done racking up the miles.

I have a confession. Even though I’m single and supposed to dread wedding season, I loved it. 

I am an absolute sucker for weddings.

I love watching my friends commit their lives to each other in Christian marriage. I cannot help but smile (and even let out a tear or two) as one mortal man and one wounded woman promise in front of God and man to love each other through everything.

In their vows, ordinary, imperfect people are promising to be extraordinary. They are promising to be kind instead of quick tempered, rude, pompous, or inflated, promising to forgive instead of brood over injury, promising to seek the interests of the other instead of their own, promising to remain faithful, promising to remain hopeful, promising to endure in affliction. In essence, two imperfect people are promising to love each other with a perfect love, promising to love the other, serve the other, live for the other as Christ does for His bride, the Church (Ephesians 5:21-33). That’s quite the promise.

St. Paul writes in the famous wedding reading 1st Corinthians 13 that “love never fails.” But people are quick tempered, jealous, mean. People are unforgiving, remembering little injuries from years ago that built up into resentment and bitterness. People fall into despair, thinking the worst of themselves and the people they supposedly love. People give up. Relationships fail.

How can love never fail when people do?

In retrospect, the minute I knew my last two relationships were going to fail was when my last two boyfriends mentioned they were watching the hit NBC show, “The Office.” I think I subconsciously knew our relationship was not just going to compare to the characters of Jim and Pam. I’ve been to Scranton, the real Scranton. I’ve even taken a picture of the Welcome to Scranton sign featured in the opening theme song (which, is at the Steam Town Mall, by the way). I promise you, “The Office” is fictional. Most of it was shot in Chandler Valley Center Studios in Los Angeles, California.  Still, it’s hard not to get swept up into the show and really believe it happened.

The first several seasons largely revolves around the unrequited love of paper salesman Jim for receptionist Pam who is engaged long-term to a warehouse worker named Roy. After the first initial seasons of “The Office,” Pam eventually falls in love with Jim. As their relationship hits the proverbial finish line of marriage in Season 6, the appeal of the show fades. The two characters you love and rooted for are together, happily ever after. After Season 6, the story lines surrounding them seem dull. Michael Scott, the obnoxiously awkward boss leaves. The other characters’ love stories do not have the same appeal. Why would anyone want to watch after happily ever after?

I’ve watched and stopped watching “The Office” twice. Both times I stopped watching in part because JIm and Pam were together, in part because the story lines were getting boring, and in part because my own relationships failed. I am no Pam, and in both failed relationships, I was dating no Jim. In fact, both guys were more like Andy Bernard. I’m more of a Liz Lemon from “30 Rock.” Clearly things were not going to work out. We weren’t even on the same show.

But, I resolved to finish “The Office” this year. I didn’t want a perfectly good TV show to be tainted by my own failed relationships, and I didn’t want my own failed relationships to ruin a perfectly good TV show. I mentally prepared myself to be nauseated by the love of Jim and Pam after happily ever after while I remain as single as ever once again. Instead, I blown away. Jim and Pam’s perfectly imperfect happily ever after challenged in my own selfish views of marriage.

Jim and Pam remain in their happily ever after a little longer than the average two years. Two years, according to scientific research, is the average amount of time newlyweds experience a boost in happiness. Newly wedded bliss fades as passionate love fizzles. Wedding gifts are opened and used. Appliances become used and broken. Happily ever after turns into ordinary every day living. By Season 9 of “The Office,” Jim and Pam are living their normal, boring, everyday lives.

In episode one of Season 9 called “New Guys,” Jim and Pam are finishing their camera interview when Pam asks why the crew is still documenting them. She says to the crew, “Well I don’t think anything’s gonna change in our lives now. With work and two kids there’s just nothing interesting is going to happen for us in a long, long time.” Pam appears content. With that line, however, Jim becomes anxious.

Jim’s college friend is launching a company in Philadelphia based on an idea he had in college. Meanwhile, a new guy named Pete started, and everyone is calling him, “the new Jim.” Jim does not appreciate Pete’s lack of ambition or the comparison, but as he talks to the camera crew, Jim  realizes he is very much like Pete. He is stuck in a job and has been doing “nothing.” He calls his friend and wants in on the new sports managing company called Athlead.

Jim hides the new job from Pam for a while. She is supportive of his decision to go part-time at Dunder Mifflin and work at the start-up. Soon, Jim is going to Philadelphia multiple days a week. Pam is at home alone with two small children. Money is tight as Jim put most of their savings into the new company. Jim is stressed in the new high-pressure, may-fail, could-be-a-major-success job. Phone conversations are short and not completely honest. Jim and Pam fight on the phone after Pam is unable to record their daughter’s dance recital that Jim missed due to work in Philadelphia. Jim loses his temper. Pam yells. Jim hangs up. Pam cries. They have Valentine’s lunch with a long-time friend and crew member who is getting divorced from his wife. It appears as if Jim and Pam are headed in the same direction after Pam interviews for a job in Philadelphia and tells Jim she does not want to move out of Scranton.

Finally, in episode 20, Jim and Pam go to couples therapy. It is painfully awkward to watch the perfect couple who fell in love in the most adorable manner have a conversation like this:

Pam: Oh, I made us a date to take my mom out to dinner to thank her for all that extra babysitting.
Jim: Well, you know how much I appreciate the opportunity to hang out with your mom more. So let me just put this in my calendar.
Pam: I acknowledge with gratitude that you are being kind and responsible enough to include it in your calendar.
Jim: Thank you. Your mom is a treasure.
Pam: Well, I appreciate that some opportunities can be unpleasant- [Jim’s phone rings, he answers]
Jim: Hey that’s work, hold on. Hey Wade, did Cole Hamels call back or what? Great. Good.
Pam: Uh, to speak my truth, I’d appreciate if you hung that up cause we were in the middle of a conversation. [Jim hangs up phone] I appreciate the sacrifice.
Jim: Ok to speak my truth, that was a little sarcastic. I think that’s a little unfair.
Pam: Really? I’ve been putting the kids to bed by myself every night for a months. And you had to miss one phone call. Is that your truth, Jim? That’s really your truth?
Jim: I guess I will swallow my truth.

“The Office,” Season 9, Episode 20

Sarcasm, resentment, bitterness, jealousy, quick tempered, rude. Love never fails? People clearly do.

Yet even when people fail, especially the people we love the most fail us, we have a choice. We always have a choice to love. As my favorite spiritual writer Henri Nouwen once said,

“Every time we make the decision to love someone, we open ourselves to great suffering, because those we most love cause us not only great joy but also great pain. The greatest pain comes from leaving. When the child leaves home, when the husband or wife leaves for a long period of time or for good, when the beloved friend departs to another country or dies … the pain of the leaving can tear us apart.

Still, if we want to avoid the suffering of leaving, we will never experience the joy of loving. And love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair. We have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking.”

– Henri Nouwen

Jim and Pam’s day continues with the unusual usual antics of the office. At the end of the day, Jim is getting ready to leave for Philadelphia once again. Jim and Pam have a short conversation and say their good-byes. Jim is about to leave when he hesitates. He has a chance to take a risk, a risk to love.

Before leaving, Jim says to Pam, looking deeply into her eyes, “I know this was really weird, and it was really hard. But I think we’re making progress. So I’m really sorry that I have to go but let’s keep at this. Ok?”

Pam says, “OK,” and stays at her desk as he leaves. She notices he left his umbrella and hesitates. She has a chance to take a risk, a risk to love.

Pam grabs the umbrella and runs out to give it to Jim. They say another short good-bye as the taxi stalls. Pam is heading back to the office when Jim hesitates. He has a chance to take a risk, a risk to love.

Jim hugs Pam tightly, unable to say anything else. She stands stiff, not hugging him back, when a voiceover begins.

“Love suffers long and is kind. It is not proud. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. And now these three remain: Faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

“The Office,” Season 9, Episode 20

During a brief flashback to their wedding, we the audience see the look of love that they once shared. We see two ordinary, imperfect people promising to be extraordinary, and we have now seen how they have failed.

The flashback is done, and we see Jim hugging Pam, Pam standing stiff, hesitating. She too has a chance to take a risk, a risk to love.

As voiceover says, “Love never fails,” and Pam hugs Jim firmly. They embrace tightly as the voiceover continues, “And now these three remain: Faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” And Jim and Pam kiss.

I have a confession: I shed a tear or two. Out of every episode, every kiss, every “YES!” moment in their relationship, that is my favorite. That risk to love, that vulnerability, that chasing after the other, that awkward embrace after hesitation, risk, fear, hurt, resentment, everything, that is true love.

People do fail, yes, but love, true love, never does. True love forgives. True love hopes. True love endures. True love never fails. As the famous 1st Corinthians 13 says,

“Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails…So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love”

1st Corinthians 13:5-8, 13

Hidden in that famous 1st Corinthians 13 reading is a true prediction of every marriage, every couple, every two crazy kids who decide to commit their lives to one another,

“At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.”

1st Corinthians 13:12

At the wedding, the couple knows each other only partially. No amount of dating period can ever teach us everything we need to know about our future spouse. We cannot know everything that will happen, every wound on their heart that is hidden, every trial we will face together, every little factoid we share.

Marriage is like a mirror: we see the worst and best of ourselves through someone else. In marriage and throughout marriage, spouses come to know each other fully and become fully known.

As professor of philosophy Simon Blackburn said:

“We are mirrors to each other, and we are easily wounded by finding that, in the gaze of other people, we are not quite as we would like to be.”

As passionate love fades, it can be disconcerting to see our faults, fears, failures, and other parts of ourselves we do not particularly like through the eyes of another. Yet, this is precisely the time that compassionate love has the opportunity to flourish.

Compassionate love according to researchers is a mixture of deep-seeded affection and connection. It is an intimacy that we strive for, the kind of intimacy, of fully knowing and being fully known, that we all deeply desire. Compassionate love is the love of a sweet elderly couple who still hold hands and look at each other like a bride and groom on their wedding day. No doubt their newlywed passion has faded like their natural hair color. Yet love, compassionate love, has remained.

Compassion comes from the Latin “com-” meaning “together” and “pati” meaning to suffer. Compassion in its most literal and true translation means “to suffer with.”

Compassionate love is not avoiding conflict but enduring through conflict. Compassionate love is not necessarily being in love with the other person in every moment of every day but upholding the commitment of marriage every moment of every day. Compassionate love is not never failing but getting up when you have fallen and renewing within yourself once again to uphold your wedding vows. Compassionate love, true compassionate love modeled after the compassionate love of Christ, never fails. Yes, the people involved suffer, but love remains.

Compassionate love is the love Christ has for His bride, the Church. As people and as the community of the Church, we fail. We sin, and our sin is the reason Christ hung limply, nailed to a piece of wood. I doubt Christ felt elated, blissful feelings of passionate love on the cross. He was tired, humiliated, beaten, abandoned, sorrowful, yet faith, hope, and love endured.

On the cross, Christ had faith. He cried out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23: 46). Christ says with faith that His very being is in the hands of His Father. Christ then died in faith, believing His Father would take care of Him in death as He did in life.

On the cross, Christ had hope. He cried, ““Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which is Aramaic for “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Christ says with hope the opening lines of Psalm 22, a lament in times of trouble that references the mighty deeds of God, hoping for deliverance as God has done many times before. Christ then died in hope, hoping to be delivered from death into life.

On the cross, Christ had love.  No one line from the four Gospel stories can fully capture the love of Christ at His death because His very death and His very life were given out of love for His bride, the Church. Every whip, every nail, every jeer, every doubt, all of it out of love. Christ died in love, out of love, for love of each one of us.

Clearly, the greatest of these is love.

Love, compassionate love, is why despite the heartaches, the heart breaks, the stumbling, the failures, the disappointments, the annoyances of dating, the everything, I am an absolute sucker for weddings. Weddings are a blessed time when two perfectly ordinary people promise to be extraordinary and love one another as Christ loves His bride, the Church. It is ordinary, and it is beautiful.

As Pam said in “The Office” series finale, “I think an ordinary paper company like Dunder Mifflin was a great subject for a documentary. There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things.”

As passionate love fizzles, the attention of family, friends, and strangers diminishes, the wedding day becomes a dusty album on the shelf and a fading picture on the wall, life becomes ordinary.  We may not live fairy tale lives or even live happily ever after. People fail. People are quick tempered, jealous, mean. People are unforgiving, remembering little injuries from years ago that built up into resentment and bitterness. People fall into despair, thinking the worst of themselves and the people they supposedly love. People give up.

But love, compassionate love, never fails. Even in the ordinary, the potential for an even greater beauty, a greater love, remains.

Sure, my next relationship and even marriage may not compare to the relationship of Jim and Pam. That’s fine by me. My model for love is better. It is rooted in Christ’s example. His love for His bride is the greatest love story to have ever happened.

I know being imperfect, sinful, and wounded, I’ll never quite love my husband as Christ does, but I can try. I can hesitate, risk, fight for my relationship, slow my quick temper, forgive, be kind, and otherwise love. Even when I fail, I can get back up every time I fall. I have faith I’m capable since the Lord is leading me to marriage. I hope that I will be given all the graces necessary as I need them. And most of all, greatest of all, I am learning how to love more compassionately every day.

May we all have the faith and hope to love one another as Christ has loved us, especially those being joined in holy matrimony this year. May the Lord ever infuse your marriage with His love and example. And may you only compare your love to the greatest love story in the world, to Christ’s love for His bride, the Church.

Love is not proud
Love does not boast
Love after all
Matters the most

Love does not run
Love does not hide
Love does not keep
Locked inside

Love is the river that flows through
Love never fails you

Love will sustain
Love will provide
Love will not cease
At the end of time

Love will protect
Love always hopes
Love still believes
When you don’t

Love is the arms that are holding you
Love never fails you

When my heart won’t make a sound
When I can’t turn back around
When the sky is falling down
Nothing is greater than this
Greater than this

Love is right here
Love is alive
Love is the way
The truth the life

Love is the river than flows through
Love is the arms that are holding you
Love is the place you will fly to
Love never fails you

“Love Never Fails,” by Brandon Heath on his CD What If We, available  for free listening here


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