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Knowing the value of nothing

Unjust disdain—

I undervalue what I possess,
I attach a higher value to things that are not mine . . .

THE WORLD is too much with us and we cannot escape. We rely on empty pretensions to create a world of our own, independent of reality. We overvalue our importance. We undervalue what is closest to us. We are unhappy, never seeing ourselves as we are, yet always thinking that the other person’s life is somehow better. The grass is greener on the other side, and life is better there. If only we could change places.

Montaigne argues that such absurdness is really a type of vainglory, an emptiness in which we both overestimate and underestimate the reality of every day life. My neighbor’s house, for instance, is no better than mine, and yet I see his house as more valuable than mine simply because it is not mine. If I value what is not mine more than I should, I value what is mine even less. In either scenario, I remain an unhappy pauper, or as Montaigne puts it:

I undervalue the things that I possess, just because I possess them, and attach a higher value to things that are not mine, but belong to another and are beyond my reach. This habit of mind . . . causes husbands to view their wives, and many fathers to view their children, with an unjust disdain  —II, 17: On Presumption.

This notion of disdain is not far from what we find in Holy Scripture:

Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them —Colossians 3:19.

Indeed, a woman in a troubled marriage once asked what she had done to make her husband think so little of her. She could not please him, and he became angry at the smallest things. She still loved him, but found it curious that God would have to command a man to love his wife. Love for her was normal. She simply could not understand her husband’s undirected but abiding anger.

What is it that makes a man embittered toward his wife? Is there some lingering primordial feeling, a resentment that goes back to Adam and the Garden of Eden? Sin, after all, came into the world because of the woman, but so did the Christ. One cancels out the other just as the pain in childbirth is canceled out by a mother’s first look into the face of her newborn.

It would seem, then, that a truer explanation may be closer to what Montaigne is suggesting. A man devalues his wife because she is his wife. The other woman looks better to him just as the other house looks better to him. What he does not have is more important than what he does have.

Admittedly, the underlying wrong here is covetousness. The irony, though, is that in the commandment not to covet, a wife is placed in the same category as house, as cattle, as any material possession.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife . . . nor anything that is thy neighbor’s —Exodus 20;17.

The modern perspective argues that woman here is but chattel, a possession of her husband and without a life of her own. We’ve heard the feminist perspective before, and some may even believe it, but such an explanation seems simplistic here. The underpinnings are more complex. Indeed, the modern perspective never accounts why any of us would want something that we do not have. We assume that a man covets his neighbor’s house because his neighbor has a better house, but that is not what the Scripture actually says. No, we want a different wife for the same reason we want a different car, or a different house, or a different anything. It is not because all of these things are mere impersonal objects. The real answer is that we want something other than our own life. A different house is not going to help us. A different wife is not going to please us. Living somewhere else is not going to make our life better, or less bitter. The problem is within us.

Going back to the woman in the troubled marriage, the husband is told to love his wife, not because it is not natural, but rather because it is natural. Loving his wife is the best thing he can do for himself. That’s the reality. The reason we are told, be not bitter is because disdain is the opposite of love. Seemingly, there is both a positive and a negative to the same command. We love, and in so doing, we must not be bitter, ever. When a man speaks harsh words to his wife, that is not love. That is not even natural.

The best thing a man can do for his wife is to love her for who she is. Don’t ask her to become like your neighbor’s wife. Don’t show disdain toward her, or act the part of petty machismo. That is not the way of God. The best thing a man can do for himself is to love his wife. Call it self-interest, if you wish, but it is as much self-interest and natural as is breathing. The best thing a man can do for his children is to love their mother. There is no need to look further than our own life and our own family and our own spouse: “Let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth” (Malachi 2:15).

—James Sanders

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