If there is one thing that you learn growing up in Germany, it is that there is a right way to do everything. There is a right way that closing a Mercedes car door should sound, a right way to build an Autobahn smooth as glass for driving without a speed limit and there is a right way to recycle. Of course you are going to wash your plastic containers before you throw them out. You check the symbol on the bottom and put them in the appropriate recycling bin. The right bin is one of the twenty or so available at your local recycling yard, open for two hours on Saturday mornings. Naturally you will ride your bike there to reduce your carbon footprint. What would the neighbors think if you didn’t?
Living in a society with such a strong belief structure can be extremely comforting. You know you are right as long as you follow the rules and when you see someone stepping over the line, you have the pleasure of telling them off. This is the culture that brought the world cars that are engineered to perfection, music with the mathematical precision of a Bach fugue and the Holocaust.
When I left Germany, I was well aware that I was leaving a shared belief structure, but had no idea how deeply ingrained it was in me. It is an incredibly exciting and beautiful world out there once you open yourself up to it and it can be scary like heck. If you don’t know what cereals to buy in the market how are you supposed to tackle the bigger questions of life? Of course, with time I reestablished a new set of rules, figured out that I was a little too grown up for Froot Loops and got on with life.
Alas changing one set of beliefs for another is not the same as letting go of the right way. Somewhere at the core, deeply hidden from my consciousness, lies the belief in the right way. I was ready to work hard to figure out what it was, but I knew there was a right way. Then I met Jeff. Falling in love is the most enjoyable way of going blind. Despite the piles of evidence to the contrary, I was convinced that I had met someone just like me and that it would be roses and butterflies from here to eternity. Moving in together brought up some issues, but we worked them out. We got married and it was a great party. A few years passed and we started planning for retirement and suddenly this thought: This is it! This is my life, not a trial run. That’s when my belief in the right way reappeared. Or did I grab it for support?
The best of all husbands is perfectly willing to do the dishes with me when I ask him to. He takes out the trash when he sees me getting twitchy and consolidates his collection of empty boxes when he notices that I break out in a cold sweat. But I just cannot shake the suspicion that left to his own devices he would not do the dishes the same day. He would not clean up the kitchen after our guests have left and might not even empty the trash as long as something could conceivably be stacked on top. It is not simply a question of whether I can live with someone who doesn’t see the world the way I do, but a much more fundamental one. Perhaps there is not a “right” way? Was I raised with a fascist fiction?
At first I tried channeling my mother to bring Jeff to see my side. After we were done with the kitchen and everything was clean and shiny again I offered a jaunty: “Isn’t that better? Doesn’t this feel nice?” Somehow I never got more than a grunt or at best a “glad you feel that way” in response. Over the years I have begun to accept that, yes, it makes me feel better, but to Jeff it just doesn’t make much of a difference.
Today, I still don’t know whether there is a right way. Instead, I have chosen to focus on what I know. I know I am married to a man who is willing to do things that make me comfortable even if he doesn’t feel the same way. That has to be enough.
This article was first published at Frontiers LA.