"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
This morning I read an essay by Charles Comey, “Against Honeymoons,” and I thought of our cultural swerving on the spectrum between total cynicism and diehard idealism.
Let’s back up. “Against Honeymoons” recounts Comey’s frustrated attempts to enjoy his time on honeymoon in Hawaii, distracted as he was by the realization that he should remain present and preserve his current experiences as treasured memories in the future.
You see the irony. A person cannot be truly present in their experience if they are trying to project that experience forward for posterity.
Comey recounts the history of the honeymoon since the 1900s, when it began as a “bridal tour,” that is, an opportunity for the couple to drop in on relatives who were not able to attend the ceremony. Later, as marriages became less about the joining of two houses and more about the special love connection between two people, honeymoons became the long-awaited paradise of sexual freedom and intimacy after a long and chaste courtship.
More recently, as sexual mores have relaxed, the honeymoon has transformed into a much more symbolic rite of passage. The honeymoon is that sacred time between public commitment and grave responsibility. It is the weightless prelude to a lifetime of joint financial decisions and homemaking compromises. And finally, the honeymoon is valued chiefly as a memory to look back on, a collection of idyllic photos and treasured mementos to commemorate the hopeful start of a daring social venture.
And this symbolic weight is exactly what Comey blames for his own inability to enjoy his honeymoon.
Really, I think Comey blames society for ruining his honeymoon. Apparently, “society” told him that his honeymoon should be perfect, stress-free and private, so he bristles at the rain and the unexpected intrusion of strangers at the watering hole.
Jonathan Franzen included “Against Honeymoons” in the 2016 anthology, The Best American Essays, because it (and the other featured essays) dared to buck the trend and question accepted wisdom. But is it still all that daring to have a cynical opinion about a social institution like the honeymoon?
On the one hand, we have an idealized notion about the sweet specialness of a post-nuptial romantic getaway and, on the other, a resigned (and perhaps bitter) recognition of how the reality falls short of the hype.
But there’s another way.
Comey seems to insinuate that societal pressures make living in the present an impossibility. They don’t. And even if the burden of society were greater, that still wouldn’t negate your human agency to think your own thoughts and feel your own feelings. Just talk to Victor Frankl.
And so, if our individual agency allows us to evaluate each experience as it comes, and with practice, to stay mindful and present for most of our lives, there really isn’t much room left for cynical opinions about your honeymoon. If you had one, you either made the most of it, or you didn’t. The tragedy of Comey’s essay is not that his honeymoon fell short because of the pressure society puts on the institution, but it fell short because of the importance he put on societal pressures.
Although I admire Franzen’s work and his willingness to build a platform for iconoclastic writing, I think we may have missed the mark here. Pretty much since Nietzsche it’s been cool to tear down societal trends and scoff at the vaunted symbols of the age. Nowadays, it takes much more bravery to say to a crowded cloister of intellectuals:
“I went on my honeymoon and I had fun.”