Many years ago, I made fun of a friend of mine when she recounted the panic she’d felt when she mistakenly thought that her wedding ring was lost. I admit now that it was terribly insensitive, and the only defense I can offer is that it was a product of the naive arrogance of youth, the supreme belief that you’ve figured out the inherent truths of the universe that most folks are too indoctrinated to see or otherwise don’t have the heart to confront. And so, cruelly, I laughed at her.
I laughed not simply to be mean, but because I was, and still am, an essentialist.* I’ve struggled to define that term, but at base I think it means being the kind of person who is concerned with what’s at the heart of a an experience or a goal or an idea. It comes down to the root word — essence. What is the essential point underlying what I’m doing or what I believe? Why is it important? What about it really matters? These are the questions at the core of the way an essentialist looks at the world.
And so I laughed because there is nothing essential about a wedding ring. I may be paraphrasing the exact words I used, but my haughty mockery of my friend’s legitimate anxieties over her misplaced ring took roughly the form of “Gee, I sure hope I didn’t lose my eternal commitment to my husband.”
That thought is not completely off-base, though it misses the point. Presumably her wedding ring was worth more than a pittance, and losing it would be disappointing for her husband, but if he took her losing it as any indication as to how she felt about him, it would be, at best, sheer folly.
A wedding ring is not love incarnate. It’s metal and carbon, processed and molded to be pleasing to the eye. It is a token, a stand-in for the thing itself, but not the thing itself. And yet, I shake my head when I think of that arrogant teasing. Because with the benefit of hindsight and greater experience, I can understand her feelings now in a way that eluded me then. Her wedding ring was not inherently important in and of itself. But that piece of metal still carried a meaning with it, and while losing the ring would by no means destroy that meaning, it would nevertheless be a genuine, legitimate loss.
I have my own wedding ring now. I fiddle with it absent-mindedly at my desk. It catches my eye in the mirror when I’m getting ready in the morning. I feel it clink when I grab hold of a glass or open a door. It’s the sort of symbol that means different things to different people. For some it’s a signal of attachment — “I’m taken; hands off.” For others it signals something akin to upright moral standing — “I have made a commitment to the life of a family man.”
But for me, it’s something else. It’s a reminder. It’s a reminder that someone out there loves you, that even when you’re apart or upset or distracted, there is a bond ever present, represented by a symbol that likewise carries the mantle of permanence.
That’s a lot of the metaphysical to imbue into something I can hold in my hand. My wedding ring is a hunk of metal like anyone else’s. I ordered it online for about forty dollars. It is, if this fact is not already obvious, nothing fancy. And despite that fact, despite the reality that it is, in all likelihood, worth far less on the open market the one my friend believed she had lost, I would nevertheless be devastated to lose it.
Because it was the ring slipped onto my finger when I consecrated my commitment to my wife in the presence of those dearest to me. Because it was the ring on my finger when I told my beautiful bride, in as bare terms as I could muster in front of a crowd, what she meant to me and how she changed my life. Because it has no inherent value–it is still just a hunk of metal–but it has meaning as something different, as a symbol of something far greater than the polished alloy might portend.
I’ve come to use the word “arbitrary” as something of a derogatory term. Things that are frivolous are arbitrary. Things that lack inherent value are arbitrary. But there can still be something very powerful in things that are arbitrary.
The ring has meaning because I say it does, and also because I believe it does. If I lost my ring, and a stranger came upon it, that person would have no idea, and in fact, no way of knowing, what the ring means. And more than that, if some devious fiend managed to replace the ring with an identical one without my knowledge, I would have no means to distinguish it from the one I wore while standing at the altar.
But that simply means that the particular collection of atoms and molecules that sit, bound together on my otherwise lonely digit, don’t carry that meaning by themselves. It means that the weight of that belief is elsewhere, in the electrical signals that fire from one synapse to another in my brain.
And yet, despite that fact, I look down at my hand, and I am heartened in a way I cannot encapsulate in the shabby confines of my limited command of the English language. The ring itself is worthless, and yet it represents something invaluable.
It stands for the idea that in a cruel, faltering world, there is beauty, the beauty that comes from knowing there is another person out there, who, despite having every reason to take your faults and flaws to heart, loves you. And that despite the ways in which you find yourself lacking as a human being, as somehow less than what you ought or desire to be, that you can consider yourself virtuous in the smallest degree, for having the wherewithal to love someone utterly and completely, in ways that make you feel alive in a world that continually threatens to go numb.
These principles are too broad to be contained in any object, however beloved. They are more than any metal torn from this earth can support. But the ring, replaceable though it may be, is a reminder. It is synecdoche. It is a portal to one of the deepest beliefs and leaps of faith that a person can make — the leap of committing oneself wholeheartedly to another, and of trusting another to do the same.
I believe that people tend to confuse love and infatuation. Love is not a high, at least not all of the time. Love is a certainty. Love is an understanding and appreciation that one’s life is immeasurably and ineffably better for the presence of another. Love is the steeling calm in your bones, the steadiness that comes from knowing that whatever your screw ups in this world, whatever the seemingly intractable personal failings that keep you up at night, there is someone to come home to, who will embrace and understand and value you.
The ring is a comfort. It is, at a glance, a landmark for a person who consumes your heart, who envelops your very being, who becomes inextricable from who you are and how you hold yourself in relation to the world. It need not be that ring. It could be another ring, or any object. And if it were lost, life would go on, and a suitable substitute could be found with the knowledge that the bond it stands for would be none the lesser for the original’s absence.
But there would still be a palpable loss. Because some things have meaning because we say they do, and because we believe they do. More and more, we live in a world of a constant, hectic pace, and of irrepressible distractions. That molded metal circle is an anchor in that sea, and it is not unreasonable to feel, however arbitrarily, unmoored should it become dislodged.
So when I look at my ring, despite the absence of any particular essence, I don’t see mere metal attached to my finger. I see my darling bride, and her brilliant, sincere eyes, staring back at me. I feel the warmth of her embrace and the quiet of an intuitive connection we feel whether across a table from one another or two thousand miles apart. I see her smiling face, and I smile back.
I look down and see that symbol, of something eternal and everlasting, expressed through something finite and fungible. I marvel out how something so small can stand for something so immense and so powerful. And I, with all my snark and cynicism, carry a little more awe for this world. Despite still possessing the same naive arrogance I unleashed on my friend, the kind that I am still trying in vain to shed, I feel none the lesser for being so attached to a mere vessel, because it represents the transcendent, life-altering connection to something far greater than I could ever claim to deserve — the love of an extraordinary person who, in all her kindness and compassion, would deign to love me just as well.
*Since publishing this piece, I’ve come to learn that the term “essentialist” has also been used in the context of race and other social identities to refer the idea that individuals with these identities have basic, essential traits that are undifferentiated within their group and that any distinguishing traits are secondary. I want to state in the clearest of terms that I do not, under any circumstances, endorse this view, and that this is not, in any way, shape, or form, the meaning I intended by my use of the term in this piece.