Why the Church Needs the Infertile Couple
Image: Michael H / Getty Images

At the center of the remarkable montage near the opening of Pixar’s Up stands the sorrow of infertility.

On one side lie the joys of a budding marriage, and on the other the delights of its twilight. In the hour of crisis, Carl sees Ellie sitting in the garden facing the sun with a forlorn look, feeling the devastation of their joint barrenness. Neither character speaks throughout the montage, but here their silence is particularly apt: the wordlessness of grief weighs heavily upon them, and upon us. Relief begins when Carl, who is by no means immune to their sadness, places Ellie’s “adventure book”—which has many more pages in it for them to fill—in her lap. It is the most beautiful depiction of infertility I know of; it is among the most tender five minutes of film I have ever seen.

But the adventures Carl and Ellie are given in the latter half of their lives are not the grand, exotic drama they had wanted. They hoped to someday live on top of a waterfall. Instead, car tires go flat, the roof needs replacing, and bones are broken. At every turn, the ordinary challenges of living in this world prevent them from pursuing the dreams of their youth. Yet if their adventure book is incomplete when Ellie dies, it is not empty; we glimpse the fullness of their love and feel like it is enough. The sadness at their separation stems not from their inability to live out their dream, but from the reality that they are no longer together.

While the montage is widely regarded as one of the most moving parts of the film, it almost failed make the final cut. Director Pete Docter said the studio was leery of showing their infertility because it was “going too far.” But the filmmakers had no real choice: Carl and Ellie’s lives lacked emotional depth when their pain was removed. The audience would not care for them quite as much if it were gone, and the rest of the plot would not pack as much punch. Carl’s subsequent adventures include making friends with an eight-year-old who is reminiscent of Carl himself as a young boy, a relationship that would not be nearly as interesting without knowing their infertility. And so the sweet and sad montage stayed, infertility and all.

Beyond sensitivity

It is easy to cast a pall over our society’s ritual celebrations of family and fertility by offering cautions that not everyone shares in the fun the same way. Pleas to remember the pain of the infertile are common these days. Such exhortations for care and concern certainly have their place, as infertility can be a heavy, unwelcome, and suffocating burden. It is impossible for those who face it to avoid the pervasive reminders that some of their deepest desires are frustrated.

Infertility reminds the church that the satisfaction marriage offers is given ultimately not through childbirth but in the resurrection from the dead.

But such cautions must be more than trigger warnings that one person’s joy might exacerbate another person’s sorrow. If we offer nothing beyond these admonitions, our view of both fertility and infertility will be too impoverished, too weak. We will obscure the gifts such couples have for each other. The infertile offer the church far more than a shadow over its joy at the gift of life. They ensure through their mourning and laments that biological children are not reduced from gifts to idols. Their presence helps the church learn endurance in the face of what feels like the endless rejection of our deepest earthly desires. Those who are infertile and have allowed hope to grow within their soul orient marriages toward their true end, the eschatological kingdom of God, in a way that not even the celibate can. All these are facts, and as the novelist Charles Williams suggested, all facts are facts of joy. We cannot excuse the fertile from mourning with those who mourn. But neither can we excuse infertile couples from rejoicing with those who rejoice. Both must stand or fall together: We need the joy and the sorrow, both, to illuminate and interpret the other. This is the way the tragic glory of the gospel takes embodied form in our churches.

September
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