I spent the last week at Bible camp. In the evenings, I re-visited the magnificent 2008 HBO mini-series, John Adams (available for streaming now on Amazon Prime). The series is rich in themes that continue to resonate today (big government vs. small, pugilistic politics vs. civil discourse). It powerfully portrays that gritty dirt in which America the dream was planted. It shows us that our heroes had clay feet, but that their imperfections made their accomplishments all the more great. While I am left with many insights about politics and American history, I am most impacted by the central relationship of the film–the 54-year marriage of John and Abigail Adams. I am left meditating on the messy beauty of a deep and abiding commitment.
1. Marriage means long-suffering and sacrifice.
Throughout the course of their marriage, John and Abigail Adams were frequently separated from each other during his various political appointments. They were bound by their joint commitment to duty. They believed that America could not be built without its leaders being willing to give up their own preferences and desires for the sake of the greater good. Admittedly, some of these sacrifices became unnecessarily harsh at times. When John was Commissioner to France in 1778, he failed to write as often or as ardently as he had in the past. Abigail began to feel quite neglected. And, at least as portrayed in the mini-series, John’s frequent absences had a negative impact on their children. Nevertheless, the Adams’ core principle that their marriage existed not for themselves alone helped to guide and strengthen them through long hardships (smallpox, loneliness, war). Because their commitment was rock-solid, they were able to withstand dry times as a couple. The core principles of sacrifice and self-denial sound foreign to modern ears. Today, couples fret about “falling out of love” or withdraw when their partner does not “meet their needs.” We need this vision of marriage as a long haul of sorrow and joy, devotion and sacrifice.
2. Marriage means passionate devotion.
The Adamses did suffer dry spells, but, on the whole, their attitude toward one another was one of passionate devotion. Their letters to one another are addressed to “My dearest friend.” They write with a deeply devoted romantic affection. They can hardly bear to be apart, despite the necessity of such separations. In one memorable scene, Abigail is finally re-united with John after a long absence and the couple retreat to privately and tenderly make love. This scene is striking because it is not filmed in a gratuitous way, but with enormous intimacy and longing. It is striking because it is not the normal Hollywood hot and heavy love scene, but the quiet knowing of a husband and wife long devoted to each other. It is a love that “hopes all things, endures all things, believes all things.” It is a love that brings such oneness between the couple that when it ends, Abigail confesses to the neglect she has felt, challenges John to do better, and decides not to withhold her love despite his imperfections. There is a reason the Bible refers to sexual relations in this way: “He knew his wife.” It is a euphemism, but a truism. True sexual relations mean that a man and woman come as close to each other as humanly possible. Making love is not only physical, but spiritual and emotional as well. It isn’t air-brushed; it’s real. We need portrayals like this one–love-making that is the stuff of deep commitment.
3. Marriage means honesty and challenge.
Unlike the modern woman (and unlike yours truly), Abigail Adams believed that wives held a fundamentally supportive role to their husbands. However, she also believed women had an important and powerful voice to share. She was a prescient political thinker and a wise adviser to her husband, frequently cautioning him against his tendencies to vanity and self-exalting ambition. To his credit, the irascible Adams actually valued her advice and learned from it. The Adamses show us that a healthy marriage is not just about forbearance and sacrifice, but also about honesty and challenge. If Abigail Adams had failed to judiciously share her insights, her wisdom, and her cautions, their marriage would not have had the depth it attained to. Adams’s leadership would not have attained its greatness either. “Dearest friends” lovingly challenge each other because honesty is a mark of true intimacy. “Dearest friends” receive challenge from each other because they know their spouse knows them best and is a gift from God to help them rub off their rough edges. Not every spouse is as wise as Abigail Adams, of course, but assuming your spouse is a reasonably emotionally healthy individual, they probably have a thing or two to teach you. Why not listen?
4. Marriage means appreciating your spouse’s strengths.
John Adams’s respect for his wife’s wisdom and insight is so very striking at a time when women did not even have the right to vote. Women were sublimated in colonial society in so many ways. Not only that, Adams’s pride would seem to work against his recognition of Abigail’s virtues. In truth, he didn’t appreciate her counsel every moment and sometimes wished her more demure. Nevertheless, he felt profoundly wanting without her wisdom. He needed her, and he knew it. She had a strength that he did not have. Conversely, Abigail appreciated the best in John. Yes, she was able to caution him against his temptation to vanity and ostentatious pride, but she also regarded him with tenderness and admiration. She saw his strength of character, his devotion to his principles, his brilliant mind–and she admired and praised those things in him. Clear-eyed, she saw her husband’s strengths and weaknesses, but chose to focus on his strengths. In an era in which complaining about one’s spouse is fashionable, we need this example of honor to aspire to.
Photo source: John Adams still, IMDB.com.