Alternate realities and the “what-ifs?” surrounding them, particularly with regard to romantic relationships, are perennial questions that captivate our imaginations. They have once again entered the cultural milieu with the rise in popularity of the poem “If I Had Three Lives” by Sarah Russell, which has recently swept across social media feeds, particularly those of women. The poem poses as a meditation on love and longing for one’s spouse, but in fact exposes the extent of our culture’s decay with regard to romantic relationships and the self-giving necessary to create and sustain them.

The poem makes no pretense of its intentions: “If I had three lives, I’d marry you in two.” From the start, the narrator reveals reservations about the man she claims to love. The question of why she would not marry her husband in all three lives is immediately thrust before the reader, left to wonder what could captivate the narrator so thoroughly as to lead her down the unmarried road less traveled in this life. It soon becomes clear: the narrator holds back this third life for one of self-absorption. She describes “that life over there” as one filled with trips to Starbucks, “sitting alone, writing,” with “[n]o kids, probably” and “books—lots of books, and time to read.” She would be “thinner in that life, vegan,/practice yoga” and go to art films and farmers’ markets while drinking martinis and wearing “swingy skirts and big jewelry.” The isolation is palpable and heightened only by her desire to have “a man sometimes,” as she imagines wearing the flannel shirt that a weekend lover left behind and “loving the smell of sweat/and aftershave more than I did him.” After recounting the supposed joys of solo sunrise beach walks, the narrator melodramatically shifts her focus in the poem’s sentimental final lines: “And I’d wonder sometimes/if I’d ever find you.”

The poem poses as a meditation on love and longing for one’s spouse, but in fact exposes the extent of our culture’s decay with regard to romantic relationships and the self-giving necessary to create and sustain them.

Bookended as the poem is by lines referencing the narrator’s husband, and combined with its dream-like atmosphere filled with snapshots from a glamorous lifestyle, the casual reader might be forgiven for misinterpreting it as a tender reflection on how the narrator would approach an alternate life where she is involuntarily deprived of the opportunity to meet and marry her husband. But remember the first line: “If I had three lives, I’d marry you in two.” The narrator has contemplated what she would do if granted three lives and specifically rejected the possibility of marrying her husband in the third life. Instead, she chooses to spend the third life pursuing her own fashionable whims, which appear to have no purpose deeper than that of gratifying her every urge. This life is devoid of meaningful activities and relationships; the narrator mentions “[f]riends to laugh with” only in passing. Her third life’s emptiness reaches its nadir in her attitude toward men, which betrays the depth of the deception into which she has bought. This deception is radical feminism’s most pernicious and pervasive lie: that a woman finds meaning in the avoidance of commitment, in the conquest of men whom she does not care for. Her liberated worldview forecloses seeing men as fellow human beings to be cherished; instead, they are weekend dalliances whose bodies she uses to “remember what skin feels like/when it’s alive.” In other words, she seeks physical pleasure without first making the dedication that must precede the pleasure to make it meaningful; she desires the fruit of marriage without the hard work of planting the tree, caring for it, and watering it. This is not love, rightly understood as sustained sacrificial action stemming from a vow and lifelong commitment. It is hedonism accomplished through the rejection of all restraints and committed in the name of pursuing individual liberation.

The final lines where the narrator wistfully pines after her husband, wondering if she will ever find him, do not change the hollowness of this third life; these lines are only a thin veneer of sentimentalism painted over the framework of nihilism that the rest of the poem constructs. To claim to love one’s husband and then to doom oneself to an existence in which one never meets him is the antithesis of true romance and a denial of the significance of the longing the narrator describes. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Great Divorce, the purpose of inquiry is to discover truth; similarly, romantic longing is in fact romantic because it contemplates an end to the longing, a fulfillment of the desire.

The public’s fascination with this poem, whose lovely exterior conceals a rotten interior, reveals our collective cultural decay. Art serves several purposes; one is to act as a mirror to reveal all our flaws to ourselves, another is to lift us out of our limited perspective into that of another, and a third is to show us the truth about the way the world works. As a warped mirror—of ourselves, of others, and of reality—this poem accomplishes none of these goals. It glorifies selfish behavior instead of revealing the better (if harder) self-sacrificial path, mires us deeper into an individualistic perspective blinkered by self-centeredness, and lies to us about finding ultimate meaning in a life of loneliness and sexual decadence. It says we may discover purpose in a life devoid of commitment when the truth is that we find purpose in the making, and keeping, of commitments. In her third life, the narrator can find neither love nor freedom because her worldview rejects the universal wisdom that we are most free when we not only accept but embrace duty and responsibility in service to others. The paradox of love, and indeed of life, is that we are most free when we are most committed.

Reducing romance to casual sex and weekend flings plays the dangerous game of divorcing physicality from intimacy as we partake of physical pleasure without the preceding spiritual union that imbues it with value. We must instead reunite our bodies, minds, and souls, and trade the poem’s sentimental, sepia-tinted, slow-motion scenes of self-indulgence for commitment, self-sacrificial duty, and life-giving action in service to those we love. By rightly unifying our minds, bodies, and souls in the pursuit of a purpose beyond ourselves, Christian marriage embodies and models this structure for us. Such a vision of romance unifies our entire being and restores meaning to the physical aspect of a romantic relationship. Sex is indeed a good thing, but not the ultimate in eros; the marital bed plays a secondary role to the first good of marriage. When we prioritize the penultimate, it becomes empty, as the poem illustrates, but the pursuit of first things restores the joy of the penultimate by properly reordering our affections. Only then can we receive the gifts of penultimate, for its meaning and fulfillment flows from the ultimate.

None of this discussion regarding romance reaching its fulfillment in Christian marriage is to belittle or diminish the longing of those singles who still seek a spouse. Rather, it is to legitimize its existence, universal across humanity, for such longing arises from our creation in the Imago Dei, in the image of a relational, triune God who desires union with us through the self-sacrificial marriage of the church, the bride of Christ, to Jesus. Whether in marriage or singlehood, this longing may be ultimately satisfied only in service to the Bridegroom of the cosmos.

“If I had three lives, I’d marry you in two.” True romance lies in choosing the same commitment, however challenging, in any array of lives offered and engaging in self-denying, life-giving action in service of the beloved rather than relying on fleeting feelings. The One who died on the cross fought for such a romance and made it a reality. It is time we discerned the death-dealing lies of our culture and restored that rejuvenating vision of romance—and in the process, restored ourselves as well.

This article was originally published by Dappled Things on April 25, 2023 and is republished with permission.