Book Review : "The Three Marriages," by David Whyte

“It's not the Destination, It's the journey.” 

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Modern life is a messy affair. With all the pressures of our current lifestyle, and the incessant hankering after "success," we have often found ourselves, or someone we know, completely burned out by the pace, the demands, the appetite, to fulfill within themselves, the society's version of a successful individual. Handling multiple roles on and off work can be severely exhausting, especially if we are not in a place where our passion lies. The term work-life balance gets thrown around quite a bit, but seldom do we pause to recognize, and understand, exactly what aspects of our vocation, and our lives, hang in balance!

David Whyte talks about the three "marriages," as he calls them, that bind us into a contract with the three seemingly disparate-but-intricately-connected aspects of our whole -- relationships, work and self. This third aspect of a contract with our inner selves is perhaps the most overlooked portion of our attempts to seek a balance between our vocation and personal space, for it has the strongest connection with the other two. The text essentially boils down to Whyte's attempt to address the three ubiquitous questions that society requires we answer, and that (according to Whyte) we are often found asking ourselves in a mirror:
  • When are you going to get married?
  • When are you going to get a job?
  • When are you really going to grow up?

Whyte begins the exploration of these questions by first defining the fundamental axioms around each of the three contracts. Our relationships, he postulates, are our attempts to make our lives better. Depending on the cultural and social context, Love may precede, or follow the binding of such contracts. Nonetheless, it is an essential component for long-term fulfillment of such a contract. If our loves are an aspiration towards our idealized form of co-habitation, then it follows that one must fall in love with ones vocation to enjoy a long-term stability in the professional path that we choose for ourselves. Whyte points out a pivotal moment in the lives of those whom we consider as extraordinary individuals - " ... some threshold of realization, some concentrated foundational insight they experienced, often quite young, that acted like a prior announcement of the drama to come." Whyte argues that in order to achieve perfection, or at least rise as close to our perception of a perfect job, we must approach the activity with a dedicated perseverance bordering on obsession! In his terms, these pivotal moments are "invitations" from the world to us, to help us realize our potential, and it is solely our responsibility to respond to this invitation and have the courage to follow the path to explore it to its finality.

But the most important aspect of this imbalance, is our relationship with our inner selves, what Wanda Gag beautifully described as the relationship between "Myself and the many Me's," the being at the center of all this commitment. Drawing on the sense of a built-in entity that is alternatively known as the soul, ego, or self through various schools of religious and philosophical thought world over, Whyte attempts to navigate the treacherous landscape of our inner worlds. Armed with a fundamental observation that this entity exists in seemingly contradictory states -- intuitively constructive, yet explicitly destructive, for one and the world around one -- he explores the spiritual implications of searching for this elusive self. But this journey is not a simple one by any means, for seldom do we even pause in our daily grind to objectively take a step back from our external selves and search deeper into our own lives.

While the ideas and the thoughts behind Whyte's explanation are sound from a logical point-of-view, the text has a quasi-religious, if not outright spiritual tone. That said, it is also true that the answers provided in the text do not rely heavily on such external forces to find the balance. Whyte draws examples from real lives, both well-known and not-so-well-known, and provides anecdotal and literary evidence to support his arguments. His style of exposition is very engaging, and while the philosopher dominates the discussion, the poet makes his presence felt on every page. In speaking about our quest for finding our inner being, he provides a most sublime example of meta-poiesis, in the words of David Ignatow -

I wish I knew the beauty
Of leaves falling
To whom are we beautiful
As we go?

Ultimately, however, the non-negotiability of each of the three marriages forces us to ask the difficult question of whether a meaningful "balance" does exist between them? Whyte argues that while an ideal balance is virtually non-existent, it is up to us to initiate a meaningful conversation between the three aspects of our lives in order to find the balance that is meaningful for us, individually. Through experience, and perseverance, he asks us to ".. bring what is inside us into a conversation with what seems to be outside us." These conversations, be they a conscious effort, or a subconscious endeavor, are often the first steps in a journey that can take us towards the realization that the ever-changing frontier between our internal and external worlds is what defines the course of this journey, as well as its destination!