Walking along the beach early one morning about 15 years ago, I kept looking for a perfect seashell. Sure that one was to be found, I stopped and stopped again, picking up one, then another.

But I never found the perfect shell.

There was always something wrong. A small crack, a tiny mar, a miniscule miss somewhere, often where it could not been seen from six feet from the sandy beach, the distance from my eyes to my feet. And I got to thinking about my task that weekend here in Chincoteague, which was to speak at the wedding of dear friends, and wondering what my walk along the sand might mean for them. Many times over the years I have been asked to speak about the moral meaning of marriage at a wedding; never the pastor, as I am not, but as a professor who has loved a student, and come to love the one that they love.

I ended up taking a few of the shells with me, and wrote out what I would say about love and hope and life for the new bride and her husband. Deciding that just as there were no perfect shells, try as we might to find one, there are no perfect marriages, try as might to find one.

We are less than that, even as our expectations are more than that. In a thousand different ways we are glorious ruins, having to make our peace with proximate happiness instead. Standing before couples in California’s great valley, on a mountain peak in Colorado, in a Methodist church in the Midwest, on the Great Lakes, in a grand, old Presbyterian church in Pittsburgh, and in the Piedmont of Virginia and Carolina, over the years I have offered one more version of this vision of marriage.

Always honoring the glory of the day, drawing on the most gifted poets, remembering the best story-tellers, I offer a window into a long-loved love. But I also ask this question: “Will you make these vows from your heart of hearts, if in 20 years you are able to look each other in the eye and know that you have found proximate happiness together, and be glad for that? Or will you require of your marriage something else? A perfect marriage born of a perfect love born from a perfect day?”

Seashells turn out to be a lot like marriages. Beautiful, incredible, unique, wonderful, and yet never perfect.

Steven Garber is the Senior Fellow for Vocation and the Common Good for the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. A teacher of many people in many places, he continues to serve as a consultant to colleges and corporations, facilitating both individual and institutional vocation. A husband, a father and a grandfather, a he has long lived in Washington DC, living a life among family, friends, and flowers.

Meet Steve