The wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry next week touches many of us in a highly personal way. Like all famous weddings, it turns our minds to the reality of marriage, our own and everyone's. Marriage is a taken-for-granted institution that crucially binds our society and persists in all classes and beliefs. It survives in spite of all the forces that threaten it, such as easy divorce.
It's the way most people organize their private lives and the system that leads us from infancy to adulthood. A marriage creates a kind of mini-state, a midget republic with its own rules, its own secrets and its own history. Children, as citizens of the mini-state, learn from it their first notions about hierarchy, finance, responsibility and ambition.
Is marriage the best way to raise children? Probably. Even a marriage that doesn't last comes with rights and responsibilities intended to ensure continuity for children after divorce. Meghan Markle knows about that. Her parents divorced and she had an early marriage and divorce herself. Prince Harry, too, was raised by divorced parents until his mother's sudden death.
Marriage is so popular that even those whose marriages fall apart usually decide to try again. In a long life I've rarely known anyone who permanently refused to marry. An old slogan says that if the second marriage succeeds, you can't call the first one a failure.
In recent times the highly visible marital history of Prince Harry's family has not been exemplary. But among royal brides Meghan Markle is unusual in other ways, providing hope that she'll continue to prove exceptional. For one thing, she describes herself as "a strong, confident, mixed-race woman" with a Caucasian father and an African-American mother, the descendant of slaves in Georgia. She's different in another way: she's a professional, college-trained actor who worked for seven seasons on the TV series Suits, which brought her to Toronto for several years.
In addition she's studied women's economic development in India and promoted World Vision's Clean Water campaign in Rwanda. David Starkey, a widely published British historian and an expert on the monarchy, has predicted that she and Harry will become "the first globalized royal marriage" and that she's "international in a way in which no other royal has ever been."
Most of us are sensitive observers of marriage even if we always remain single. In ordinary life there are few scenes sadder than the spectacle of an unhappy marriage, two people who must have started off in happiness but have somehow lost the special sense they had together, what it was that each of them valued in the other. Now they stumble pitifully along, barely keeping their partnership alive. On the other hand, it's always warming to encounter a long-married couple whose life together grows stronger in affection and gratitude.
Marriage is the biggest gamble most of us ever make. It commits people to a lifelong (in theory) alliance that will, with luck, fulfil our emotional desires and those of our spouses. It will also go a long way toward banishing loneliness.
To succeed, Meghan and Harry, like all prospective couples, will need patience, understanding, generosity, tolerance, confidence and an easy forgiveness. No one starts out with all those qualities. They must be learned, though not quickly.
Luck is the key requirement. When we wish good fortune to the royal couple at Windsor Castle, we are wishing good fortune to ourselves and everyone we love.