If you have ever done gardening or visited a farm, you might have come across compost. It is this amazing dirt-like material that farmers add to their soil to fortify it with the nutrients necessary for their crops to grow well. One thing you might have also noticed is that compost smells good. That is amazing if you think about it for a moment, considering what compost actually is.
It is basically a mixture of fresh and dried organic matter, mixed in a ratio, with water added and left to sit for weeks. Well, that is putting it nicely. In farms that have livestock, their compost heap might consist of animal dung mixed in with hay or dried leaves. During the time it is left to sit, a chemical process takes place which breaks down the organic matter into beautiful, crumbly, moist dirt that is perfect for planting—I have heard one gardener call it Black Gold.
“You don’t get to choose how you’re going to die, or when. You can only decide how you’re going to live.” —Joan Baez
People don’t often think of death at the beginning of marriages (or any relationship, for that matter). We think of the endless possibilities that await us— companionship, shared memories, maybe children someday. We look at each other and consider how lucky we are to have each other. We vow to care for each other all the days of our lives, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part. What we don’t realise is that death should come at the beginning, not the end.
The concept of marriage should already clue us in to this fact. How is it possible for two distinct individuals — each with their idiosyncrasies, preferences, and habits—to become one? Furthermore, if the saying that opposites attract is to be believed, then we have an even greater problem at hand. I would be loath to accept that marriage is merely two people coexisting, tolerating each other for a lifetime. How then should we live?
For a seed to grow into a strong plant, it needs fertile soil. It needs soil that is packed with organic matter and nutrients. When planted in good soil, a seed has every opportunity it needs to germinate, take root, and grow into the strong plant it was meant to be. And it is not enough for the soil to just look good.
In Malaysia, you could buy small packs of potting mix from the local hypermarket. Those packs of soil are always dark and loose, which makes it looks like it is a good planting medium. But you are never really sure what is in those potting mixes and whether it really has the nutrients necessary for plants to grow well. If you want to give your gardening project the best chance of success, you need to provide it with real compost—preferably one you made yourself. Sowing the seed in anything less would be to rob it of its growth potential.
In many ways, marriage is like a plant that is grown from seed. If it is sown in good soil, the marriage has every potential to grow and blossom into a partnership that is healthy and life-giving. I can’t help but wonder if the reason why so many marriages end in divorces is that they were sown in bad soil — the fallow grounds of obligation or the swamps of infatuation. It is clear that you have a hand in helping the seed of your marriage or relationship grow. You provide the compost—you become the soil.
How? By dying.
It is only by you dying to self that you become the compost that nourishes the relationship you are trying to grow. Compost can only be made through death and decay. Dying to self entails willingly giving up certain rights, preferences, or habits. It is intentionally allowing the diseased parts of ourselves to decay and die—in fact, we should intentionally cut it off—so that the seed of a committed relationship can grow and flourish.
“But what about unconditional love? Isn’t love about accepting each other completely for who they are?”
Let‘s consider this for a moment. Yes, it is true that unconditional acceptance is the purest form of love. So pure that only God could ever express that level of love consistently and wholeheartedly. The rest of us who are made of flesh and bones are ultimately only capable of a limited expression of that purest form of love. We express it readily when things are going great or when we are in the throes of orgasm. But when the going gets tough, love becomes conditional. And that is understandable. After all, we are only human. That is why we need to give our relationship the best possible chance for it to grow. A committed relationship isn’t about blindly accepting each other, warts and all — it’s about growing together.
“Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.” —Norman Cousins
Who among us would look at a loved one marching down the road of destruction and not try to persuade him off that track? Which parent would not discipline her children and instruct them to change for the better? If we can care for someone enough to want them to change for the better, could we not also take the first step and change for our loved ones?
Only when you and I cut off the decaying branches of our lives and toss them into the compost pile do we produce good compost that nourishes our relationships. Dying to self gives life, that’s the paradox of love. Death isn’t the end, but the beginning.