A few years ago, I came across an article on a blog that appealed tremendously. It was on a subject that obviously I have a lot to learn about. But it was actually the tone and underlying worldview that was so instructive, not just the substance.
The article was called 15 Ways to Stay Married for 15 Years by Lydia Netzer. The first piece of advice was Go to bed mad. Normally couples are told to resolve each dispute before they call it a night. But Netzer writes that sometimes you need to just go to bed. It wont do any good to stay up late when youre tired and petulant: In the morning, eat some pancakes. Everything will seem better, I swear.
Another piece of advice is to brag about your spouse in public and let them overhear you bragging.
Later, she tells wives that they should make a husband pact with their friends. The husband pact says this: I promise to listen to you complain about your husband even in the most dire terms, without it affecting my good opinion of him. I will agree with your harshest criticism, accept your gloomiest predictions. I will nod and furrow my brow and sigh when you describe him as a hideous ogre. Then when your fight is over and love shines again like a beautiful sunbeam in your life, I promise to forget everything you said and regard him as the most charming of princes once more.
Most advice, whether on love or business or politics, is based on the premise that we can just will ourselves into being rational and good and that the correct path to happiness is a straight line. These writers, in the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People school, are essentially telling you to turn yourself into a superstar by discipline and then everything will be swell.
But Netzers piece is nicely based on the premise that we are crooked timber. We are, to varying degrees, foolish, weak and often just plain inexplicable and always will be. As Kant put it: Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.
People with a crooked timber mentality tend to see life as full of ironies. Intellectual life is ironic because really smart people often do the dumbest things precisely because they are carried away by their own brilliance. Politics is ironic because powerful people make themselves vulnerable because they think they can achieve more than they can. Marriage is ironic because you are trying to build a pure relationship out of people who are ramshackle and messy. Theres an awesome incongruity between the purity you glimpse in the love and the fact that he leaves used tissues around the house and it drives you crazy.
People with a crooked timber mentality try to find comedy in the mixture of high and low. Theres something fervent in Netzers belief in marital loyalty: You and your spouse are a team of two. It is you against the world. No one else is allowed on the team, and no one else will ever understand the teams rules. Yet the piece is written with a wry appreciation of human foibles. If you have to complain about your husbands latest outrage to somebodys mother, she writes, complain to his mother, not to yours. His mother will forgive him. Yours never will.
People with a crooked timber mentality try to adopt an attitude of bemused affection. A person with this attitude finds the annoying endearing and the silly adorable. Such a person tries to remember that we each seem more virtuous from our own vantage point than from anybody elses.
People with a crooked timber mentality are anti-perfectionist. When two people are working together there are bound to be different views, and sometimes you cant find a solution so you have to settle for an arrangement. You have to design structures that have a lot of give, for when people screw up. You have to satisfice, which is Herbert Simons term for any option that is not optimal but happens to work well enough.
Great and small enterprises often have two births: first in purity, then in maturity. The idealism of the Declaration of Independence gave way to the cold-eyed balances of the Constitution. Love starts in passion and ends in car pools.
The beauty of the first birth comes from the lofty hopes, but the beauty of the second birth comes when people begin to love frailty. (Have you noticed that people from ugly places love their cities more tenaciously than people from beautiful cities?)
The mature people one meets often have this crooked timber view, having learned from experience the intransigence of imperfection and how to make a friend of every stupid stumble. As Thornton Wilder once put it, In loves service only wounded soldiers can serve.
David Brooks became a New York Times Op-Ed columnist in September 2003.