The Words of the Watabe Family
A Leap Of Faith
July 3, 2005
A lot of people think I was brainwashed. How else to explain why I would allow the Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church to choose my spouse?
Most people regard the choice of a life partner as a deeply personal decision, perhaps the most important decision anyone has the opportunity to make; and if you give up that choice, you must be out of your mind. From the outside looking in, this evaluation makes perfect sense.
Me, I like to look at things once, twice, again and again. When I was a little girl, my father, a chemical engineer, told me that if you chew a piece of bland bread over and over, holding it in your mouth, it eventually becomes sweet. He was trying to explain to me about the breakdown of the molecules into glucose and such.
But what sticks in my mind is the deeper meaning I saw in what he'd said: how anything, any experience, conversation, scene observed or moment reflected upon, is like that bland piece of bread. Look at it a while, chew it, hold it, and it becomes sweet and satisfying. There are hidden surprises and hidden flavors residing in everything and everybody. So how did I find myself on a spring day in 1987, sitting on a bench by a pond in Central Park with a complete stranger, licking vanilla ice cream cones, watching the toy sailboats racing by and discussing our future together as husband and wife?
I'd met him only an hour or two earlier. He, like me, was a member of the Unification Church and had been invited to the grand ballroom of the New Yorker Hotel where Reverend Moon was to perform a matchmaking ceremony, pairing a thousand brides with a thousand bridegrooms.
"Love your enemy," he preached, in echo of Jesus.
As we saw it, the path to world peace was through a coupling of the historically polarized: black and white, East and West, Jewish and Muslim. So many nations and religions are historical enemies. We "Moonies" were willing to sacrifice personal choice to spin gold out of the raw silk of ourselves, to help create world harmony through family harmony.
"I put you together not for your own happiness," our spiritual leader said, "but for the beautiful children your marriages will produce." Children whose very existence would challenge established notions of racism.
With me, Reverend Moon was preaching to the choir: I was the product of an intercultural marriage myself. Back in the 1950's my white Kansas-born mother had married my Chinese father, who hailed from Shanghai. When they were wed, their marriage was illegal in most of the Southern states. But my mother and father loved each other, and their racially blended relationship was a model for me.
So when Reverend Moon asked for those of us who wanted an international marriage to stand, I stepped forward. It wasn't long before he approached me, grasped the sleeve of my dress and tugged me to the middle of the room. I glanced up at the serious face of a handsome young man whom I later learned was born in Japan. We bowed briefly in silence and went off to get acquainted.
IN a room just off of the grand ballroom, I looked at the young man next to me, born halfway around the world from my American hometown. In a sense I didn't care who he was or what he looked like, only that he was willing, with me, to enter into this commitment to an ideal.
The first words he spoke to me were, "I never want to break this."
"Neither do I," I answered.
He liked to draw. So did I.
He liked to read good books. So did I.
He was a man. I was a woman.
So far, so good.
I had the feeling God was living in this space between us, and that God, like a baby or a tender plant, needed our care and attendance in order to thrive. There was an undeniable sense of holiness about the whole endeavor.
As is customary, following our engagement and marriage ceremonies several years passed before we consummated our marriage. We were sent on separate church missions: I to South Korea, he to the American Midwest. We understood that a union built upon a foundation of celibacy would purify us for married life and allow us to dedicate our hearts to God and mankind first, spouse and family second.
Was I brainwashed? I sit here writing this, 18 years and three children later, on the verge of divorce. Did he and I finally fail after all we've been through? We certainly haven't turned out to be the ideal picture-perfect family we set out to be. Even so, I still find Reverend Moon's vision a beautiful one, this path remarkable, this project admirable. It's just that my husband and I didn't know how hard and gritty the path would be.
Yet I honestly don't think I was more brainwashed than any young bride, who, starry eyed, says yes to the man of her choosing: the one she met at work, or in a coffee shop, or on a blind date, or in art class. Marriage under any circumstances requires a leap of faith no matter who you are or how your paths may have crossed. My husband and I ate our ice cream, took a chance and leapt.
It was difficult from the start of course. But we soldiered on. After all, why should achieving a peaceful marriage be any easier than creating a peaceful world?
So years passed, our children were born. One had cancer diagnosed when he was 1, and for two straight years he fought for his life. We fought with him - a hardship, I'm told, that either binds a husband and wife closer together or tears them apart. With us it did neither.
Initially I attributed our relationship's ongoing strife and my husband's overall remoteness and anger to "cultural misunderstandings." Then I shifted into the mode of telling myself, "If only I were a better wife."
Whatever the case, I didn't allow myself to consider breaking my wedding vows. My tradition-laden double whammy of being both Asian and religious made the idea of divorce extremely distasteful. Add to that the motto of our movement - "Live for the sake of others" - and any suffering I might incur from the agreement was rendered inconsequential.
I prayed. I read "Fascinating Womanhood," which my Christian friends guaranteed would yield the desired result: a happy hubby. In my attempts to be a "domestic goddess," I got my hair done, bought pretty lingerie, read the Bible and prayed harder. After consulting a spiritualist, I prepared a meal and offered it to the presumably angry ancestors of my even angrier husband by throwing it into the Hudson River. None of it worked.
Finally I came to understand what was missing. The religious call to love your enemy included loving that enemy as you would love yourself, and I didn't love myself. In all the sacrificing I'd done for marriage, children and world peace, I'd lost a sense of who I was and what I wanted.
And so I deliberately set out to recapture that sense: I began to draw, to paint and to write. I started having conversations with people from decades past, significant friends from the days before my celibacy and arranged marriage.
I got in touch with a dear old friend who was gay. He was successful, doing work he loved and, most important, he was in love.
"He fills a need in me that is so deep," he said of his lover. "If he didn't exist, I'd have had to dream him up just to go on."
These words intoxicated me. I wanted that for myself.
One evening I removed my wedding rings in front of my husband, held them up and made my declaration. "We need to do something, " I said. "We should try counseling. Something, please." I placed the rings on top of our bedroom dresser.
"When this marriage is a genuine marriage of heart," I continued, "I will put them back on."
But he wouldn't discuss the unhappiness of our marriage, and we never made it to counseling. The rings never made it back to my finger.
Eventually I fell in love with someone else whose heart miraculously chose me in return. And this experience felt more scriptural, holy and biblical than all the dogma I had tried to live up to for so many years. It was a revelation and it made me wonder, "How could I simply have given all this power away?"
People marry for all kinds of reasons other than love: to please their families, to satisfy economic demands, to submit to the guidelines of their faith. Cults do indeed come in all shapes and sizes. You don't need to become a Moonie to lose yourself; nearly any club, political party or organized religion has the necessary ingredients.
And of course marriages dissolve for all kinds of reasons, too, even those that begin with love. But in one measure my marriage was an undeniable success: my husband and I were blessed with three loving children who are happy, healthy and wise beyond their years.
Concerned about how our children were handling the separation and impending divorce, I sat down the other day with my 12-year-old daughter. I meant to reassure her, but it was she who reassured me.
"Maybe God put you and Daddy together to have the three of us," she said. "And maybe now it's O.K. for you not to be married. Just look at how happy you are these days."
A marriage can end; perhaps it even can be doomed from the start. But it's impossible for me to look at my children and regret the chance my husband and I took, that jump into the unknown we made on that beautiful spring day, sitting by the pond in Central Park.
Renee Watabe, who lives in Verona, N.J., is a patient advocate in a hospital emergency department. She is completing a book of personal essays about life-altering experiences.
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