In Part I of “An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Chapel,” I offered up three keys that make my marriage work despite the fact that I am a Christian and my husband is an atheist. In Part II–written by my husband Jim Liner–Jim seconds two of the points I made in Part I with his own reasons and elaborations. However, rather than taking a Christian angle on the third point, he takes a more pragmatic approach to differing spiritualities in marriage. Part II offers you not only the perspective of an atheist married to a Christian, but also a caretaker married to a chronic depressive.
Part II: Jim
Focusing on shared values
As Laura Grace mentioned, one of the ways we are able to overcome our spiritual or metaphysical differences is by focusing on shared values, in particular the radical practice of love that Laura Grace sees embodied in the Jesus of the gospels. While I don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus—or for that matter, in divinity, period—I do believe in the obligation to love the other and to demonstrate that love through practice.
You’ve probably seen Mr. Rogers’s comment on love circulating through social media: “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It’s an active noun like struggle.” For me, the heart of this comment is the distinction between love as a feeling and love as an action. This way of thinking about love is not theological; it’s political. My thoughts on love are inspired by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, two theorists whose work has been especially important to me, both academically and politically. On Hardt and Negri’s take, love is not just a feeling one has for one’s partner or family; rather, it’s a way of engaging with and accepting other people in their very otherness. This is very important to me as a Marxist: any meaningful leftist politics requires solidarity and collaboration, and “love” is the name of the process by which solidarity and collaboration are built. In their book Commonwealth, Hardt and Negri write: “When we … form a social body that is more powerful than any of our individual bodies alone, we are constructing a new and common subjectivity…. [L]ove is a process of the production of the common….” Laura Grace and I can agree on the importance of this kind of love-as-collective-action, even if we disagree about the metaphysical bases of this love. And as Hardt and Negri put it, “Without this love, we are nothing.”
Compromising with compassion
Just as love is an action and not just a feeling, so also is compromise more than merely an attitude or a good intention. Rather, as Laura Grace has emphasized, compromise is work. It requires us to value each other’s needs, perspectives, and priorities, even if we sometimes have to draw a line in the sand. It isn’t always easy, though, to decide where to draw that line—a lesson I had to learn the hard way.
In 2011, we moved from Oklahoma to Washington State to share a house with a close friend of mine. Since we had decided that Laura Grace should make maintaining her mental health a higher priority than earning a paycheck, I was teaching full time as an adjunct in order to support our family, and my work on my dissertation had completely stalled out. The friend we moved in with generously covered the lion’s share of the rent so that I could reduce my teaching load and concentrate on the dissertation. I would never have finished the dissertation without my friend’s help, and I will forever be grateful to him. However, my own sense of urgency caused me to overlook telltale signs of trouble for Laura Grace’s mental health and to take risks with her mental health that I will never take again.
To begin, it was ill-advised for us ever to move in with a roommate. We knew that close proximity with anyone could make it difficult to deal with a depressive episode or an anxiety spike, yet we—I—pushed forward with our plans so that I could finish the dissertation at whatever cost. Eventually Laura Grace’s depression once again reared its head, and by the time she was in a full-blown depressive episode, I was frantically and obsessively working to finish the dissertation. When things were at their worst, Laura Grace needed constant help to manage parenting a toddler and dealing with daily life, so I spent my days taking care of her and Ada and my nights working on the dissertation. Two to three nights a week for about two months, I stayed up all night writing—and I resented every minute of it. So, when it was time for us to move again and I had still not found a full-time academic job, I didn’t hesitate to move us into my parents’ too-small-for-two-families house. It proved impossible for Laura Grace to recover there, so as she has mentioned, she and Ada moved temporarily back to Texas so that Laura Grace could recover with her family.
That move was absolutely necessary for Laura Grace’s mental health; indeed, while she was there, she started what turned out to be a successful recovery from her depressive episode, and she hasn’t had another one since. But it was also absolutely the hardest and worst time of my life. I was in my thirties, underemployed, living with my parents, and separated from my partner and small child. To this day it still pains me that Ada’s earliest memories are from the time she and mommy lived in the yellow house in Texas—without me. I pretended at the time, both to others and to myself, that I agreed the move to Texas was the best decision, but really I resigned myself to it. Laura Grace was sick and wanted to move, and I couldn’t stop her. Instead of being with my partner and raising my child, I spent an hour or so video-chatting each evening (and then going to sleep, alone, in my parents’ house). I spent Thanksgiving apart from Laura Grace and Ada. I had a week and a half with them in Texas for Christmas and New Year’s, and when I flew home without them, I had to pry myself out of Ada’s arms to board the shuttle to the airport. I was a wreck.
I don’t mention this to elicit sympathy. Far from it: I brought all this on myself. When I had the opportunity to prioritize my academic work and expedite earning my PhD, I jumped at the chance, knowing that we were playing dice with depression. When Laura Grace first started to exhibit symptoms of an incipient depressive episode, I ignored them; I didn’t have time for her to be sick. When Laura Grace needed me to be her caretaker—a job I knew I was signing up for when we got married—I responded with resentment instead of respect, with self-pity instead of empathy. When it was time to make decisions about our living situation, I chose to cross my fingers and hope for the best with Laura Grace’s mental health instead of proactively working to support her recovery. I repeatedly failed to compromise, so Laura Grace had to do for herself what her partner should have been doing with her: make mental health a top priority.
Together, we have done just that over the three years since Laura Grace and Ada returned from Texas. It hasn’t always been easy, but we have learned to compromise as a way not merely to negotiate but to work. Compromise means collaborating, not conceding—it’s not simply a matter of just giving in or giving up, but rather a way to cooperate in constructing a life that meets both of our needs and allows both of us to set and pursue the goals that are important to us, both individually and jointly. That’s where Laura Grace’s newly rediscovered faith comes in.
Laura Grace mentioned that I consider myself a materialist. One consequence of my being a materialist is that although I might take issue with the metaphysical basis of spiritual beliefs, I still recognize material results when I see them.
One result of Laura Grace’s faith that motivates my support is the sense of community that it makes available. In the last several months, Laura Grace has connected with an intimate, local community of believers. Perhaps because they are not stereotypical middleclass churchgoers, the people Laura Grace has met have been nothing but supportive of her, including those decisions and attributes that have caused her to feel isolated from other believers. Living in (as I’m proud to describe it) the secular Northwest, we don’t have many Christian friends, so this community plays an important role for Laura Grace. Plus, as a stay-at-home mother who, as readers of this blog know, has suffered from agoraphobia and social anxiety, it’s not always easy for Laura Grace to get out into the world around her. However, one particular member of this community has gone out of her way to reach out to Laura Grace, meeting her for coffee, inviting her over to her house, taking walks along the Tacoma waterfront, and in general getting her out of her shell a bit. We have made Laura Grace’s mental health a top priority, and there’s no way for me not to see the good that has come from her engagement with this group.
Even more importantly, Laura Grace’s faith has had dramatic long-term impacts in her mental health. When Laura Grace began recovering in Texas, she made her faith a cognitive foundation in her efforts to combat negative self-talk and overcome dreadful anxiety. Regardless of the ontological status of any gods, Laura Grace’s faith has helped her identify positivity where she can, feel secure in the face of precarious and uncertain living conditions, and make peace with the adversity of which life has no short supply. Since that last depressive episode, Laura Grace has been healthier for longer than any other time in the decade I’ve known her. I cannot discount the therapeutic role her faith has played, so neither can I object on critical grounds to her decision to believe.
In The Varieties of Religious Experience, psychologist and pragmatist philosopher William James examined a series of case studies of mystical or transcendent religious experiences. While James’s skepticism questioned the propositional truth of statements of faith, his pragmatism guided him to identify what he called the “cash value” of beliefs and ideas, their consequences for lived experience. In other words, he was concerned not with the truth or accuracy of religious beliefs but rather with what those beliefs did for believers: “By their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots.” There is no denying the fruits of Laura Grace’s faith. We need all the help we can get when it comes to combating depression and maintaining health. If some of that help comes from Laura Grace’s belief in God and providence, I’ll take it.
If you find yourself in a marriage with major differences of opinion, I encourage you to focus on your shared values and compromise with compassion. Whatever your spiritual beliefs, know that you are valuable and worthy of love. You do not have to be defined by labels like atheist or depressive. Fight hard for your health, persevere for love, and, if you choose to share this life with a partner, work together to build a path that you can both walk happily. I look forward to many more years of learning how to do this thing called life with Jim by my side. We both wish you all love and happiness.