Thursday, June 14, 2007

Ratcheting up the stakes

In Anne Holm's classic children's book, North to Freedom, a boy named David escapes from an Eastern European concentration camp where he had spent nearly all twelve years of his life. The man who helps him escape mysteriously instructs him to stow away on a boat to Italy and then head north to Denmark.

Freedom is at first so exhilarating, David is sure he will always be happy and content. To take in the beauty of the sea and the Italian landscape, to be clean from a bath in the stream, to be able to go wherever he pleased were luxuries he had never known before. Then he is taken in for a period of time by an Italian family and everything changes. He sees the kind of life other children live, how their parents love and care for them, how they belong to one another and can call themselves a family. By the time David hits the road again, his contentment with mere freedom could never be the same. Because now his cravings to belong to his own family have been awakened, and this new longing is destroying the former, simpler happiness he once enjoyed.

By chance he stumbles upon information that leads him to believe his mother is alive and living in Denmark. This discovery raises the stakes even higher and drives him in hard pursuit of things he hardly dared to hope for. And yet he tells himself that he would be content only to find this woman; perhaps she could tell him where he ought to go next. But by the time he arrives at her doorstep, barely able to stand, his health ruined from the journey, he realizes that unless his wildest dreams are fulfilled in this moment, he would feel that his life is no longer worth living. It is a good thing the story has a happy ending.

It is rare to find an author who is willing to be so plainly truthful about the danger of hope. That once you begin to believe in your own dignity and worth, that you deserve to be loved and valued and cared for like anyone else, this ratchets up the stakes to the point where you can no longer accept anything less, and there is no turning back. Maybe that's why people are inclined to take the easier, safer route of learning contentment in a kind of moderate degradation, where the risks are fewer and the disappointments less devastating.

What some people call "the homosexual agenda" I see as a daring movement to ratchet up the stakes to where there is no turning back. And the gay marriage movement is about as high as you can take it. It is about people wanting their love and ultimately their humanity recognized. It is about rejecting those who would insist that their love is a fraud, or that the best they could hope for is satisfying someone's desire for a single night. The fact that many gays never do move beyond those expectations is what makes the broadness of this movement all the more remarkable.

But I see tension within the movement too, as gays wonder whether they should be content with what they have already achieved, or press for the full rights they once only dreamed of. Somehow the more progress you make, the more treacherous the climb. Because drawing closer to your true goals means putting your current contentment at risk and your real dreams on the line. So I hear people talk about settling for civil unions, because that would be pretty good. I hear talk about health benefits, hospital visitation rights, inheritance rights, which you can't deny are all very important. Gay couples are living together anyway. We are just asking the government to regulate the situation. All good points--except they fall short of the real recognition everyone is craving.

It takes nerve to push for marriage. To assert that your love can be as true and as lasting as anyone else's. To believe that someone else could want you, not for a single night, but forever. Till death do us part.

The stakes have been pushed sky high already. I'm hoping it will have a happy ending.

[Update: Welcome, readers of Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish. Thanks for stopping by.]