The Netherlands Office of Statistics reports that the number of people without a long-term relationship is on the rise. Many do not want to start a relationship—either by choice or because this is just how life has gone. But in many other cases relationships have suffered shipwreck. Recent data show that nowadays more relationships are ended than get started. These data include not only the statistics for divorces but also the ruptures of long-term relationships of those who cohabited. In many other western countries the situation is similar, or the divorce statistics are even worse than in the Netherlands.
We have seen ample confirmation of this trend during the past year in our own circle of relatives, neighbors and friends. It is almost like a contagious disease that is spreading relentlessly. It is very sad to witness what is happening.
On the other side, our local paper regularly contains articles of visits by the mayor to people in our community who are celebrating fifty or even sixty years of marriage. And even in circles where relationships often seem very fluid, as, for instance in the showbiz world, we see couples that stay together for a very long time. This past week I read on a news website that Dolly Parton will, before too long, celebrate her golden wedding anniversary.
My wife Aafje and I will have to wait another twelve months before we can celebrate our golden wedding anniversary, but with 49 years we are well on our way. This past week we reached this mile stone.
It is a moment when you realize that it is not to be taken for granted that your relationship did endure. Of course, as one grows older, some people around you are losing their soul mate, since, after all, life is finite. Nonetheless, one wonders: why did we manage to stay together, where others found that impossible? I realize there is no one simple answer, like: ‘We have been better partners of, and for, each other than most people who saw their relationship go on the rocks.’ But rather than voicing some easy criticism: (‘People do often give up too quickly’, or: ‘Many simply have unrealistic expectations’), we ought to be grateful. Grateful for the fact that both of us are still alive and have the privilege of beginning our fiftieth year of being-together. I sincerely hope that we will complete this fiftieth year, or even reach our sixtieth wedding anniversary—and not only because this would mean that the mayor would visit us twice.
The Christmas speech of the new Dutch king Willem Alexander fittingly emphasized the importance of relationships. He was refreshingly specific, in referring to his own family and to very concrete situations in the country. Pope Francis, in his Christmas greetings, spoke movingly about peace in the world. Admittedly, making peace often involves a complex process, but invariably the restoration of good relationships is a basic element.
Confucius, a philosopher in ancient China (6th cent. BC), once said: If you want to change the world, you must first change the country in which you live; of you want to change your country, you must change the city or the village where you live; if you want to change your city, you must change your family; if you want to change your family, you must change yourself; and that only happens when you have changed your heart.
This seems to be a fitting quote to end my last blog of 2013. If you want your relationship to endure, you will first of all, have to work on yourself—and this entails more than some superficial, ‘cosmetic’ improvements.
And, since I am often writing about the church, I cannot refrain from adding something else: If you want to change the world, you much change the Christian church; if you want to change the Christian church, you must change the faith community to which you belong. And if you really want to change your faith community, you yourself must continue to change. This is the challenge for all of us who want to be a Christian, also in 2014. In the past in many Dutch living rooms one could see a simple plate on the wall with the words: Change the world, but begin by changing yourself. It is an age-old proverb, but it remains very true.