Tomorrow evening, my family and I will be joining an anniversary celebration that raises some interesting questions. See, the folks we’re toasting have been married to each other twice. They married, divorced several years later, and several years after that, married each other again, on the same date that they were married the first time. So while the date for celebration seems clear, neither they nor anyone else is ever sure what number they’re celebrating. Is it the number of years that have passed since their first wedding? The number of years that have passed since their second wedding? The net number of years they’ve been married?

How one answers might depend on one’s philosophy of life (or possibly just on how many glasses of champagne one has had at the party). Counting only the years since wedding #2 suggests that the first marriage, well, doesn’t count. It’s reminiscent of the don’t-look-back, something-might-be-gaining-on-you approach to the past that I suspect all of us take at times. “Who wants to remember old failures,” we reason, tempted to throw all our imperfect experiences down the memory hole. In contrast, counting the net–all of the years married to each other–says that what matters most is the time spent together, both the happy days and the sad. That’s a nice thought, affirming in a larger sense that the plans we’ve had that didn’t work out quite as we dreamed are not failures. They contribute meaning to our lives.

But what about that time in between? Something in it led to the second, lasting marriage–so surely it’s important too. That way of counting affirms a philosophy that everything in our lives has worth. (“The thing about working with time instead of against it . . . is that nothing is wasted. Even pain counts.” [Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed]) Of course, if we want to take that approach, then maybe we need to go farther back than the first wedding date. Every couple knows that their life together didn’t begin on their wedding day. Nothing in our lives begins on the day we mark it. The first day of school, the first love, the longed-for or hated job, the life-changing discovery made at age 50, all have roots going back to our birth, or even further back than that, past our parents’ births.

I have also been married twice, but more conventionally, to two different people. In a very real sense, the first marriage is an essential ingredient of the second, because everything in my life is an ingredient of my marriage. That’s just a subset of the larger, almost tautological statement: everything in one’s life is an ingredient of one’s life. Some parts of it make happier memories than other parts, but they all made us who we are now.

Of course, if we go too far down that road, we might end up deciding that since all dates are important, we won’t celebrate anniversaries at all. And it would be a shame to lose an excuse to go out to dinner with beloved people and wish them many more years of happy life together.

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