A few years ago, The New York Times ran a series of essays from college students about their experience with love in the 21st century. The series was entitled "Modern Love." Unfortunately, what I read may have been modern, but it had very little to do with love.
I only read two installments, because what I saw scared the holy you-know-what out of me. It didnít bode well for the future of our civilization.
The first-prize winner, entitled "Want To Be My Boyfriend? Please Define", was a really well-written piece by a young East Coast woman about the rampant commitment-phobia among men her age. In fact, I wouldnít even call it commitment-phobia so much as just a universal agreement that variety is good and monogamy is bad. She wrote about the guy who asked to be her boyfriend and then, the next day, said he meant boyfriend "in the theoretical sense of the word." And then there was the one who slept with her, and then told her that making plans to see her again would be "way too much, way too soon", but that she should give him a call if she ever happened to be in town again.
What I found disturbing in her often amusing piece was that I didnít see any hope that she would sift through the chaff and find the guy who would find her worthy of commitment. On the contrary, she seemed to be struggling to stifle her desire for permanence and fidelity, and instead convince herself that these men are right and that variety is preferable to monogamy. She closes by saying, "I tried to remember that I was actively seeking to practice some Zenlike form of nonattachment. I tried to remember that no one is my property and neither am I theirs, and so I should just enjoy the time we spend together, because in the end itís our collected experiences that add up to a rich and fulfilling life. I tried to tell myself that Iím young, that this is the time to be casual, careless, light-hearted and fun; donít ruin it."
And speaking of stifling, the author of the second essay was very blatant about his struggle to stifle is moral reflexes. Entitled "Eating The Forbidden Ham Sandwich," it was all about his efforts to cast off the traditional morality of his childhood so that he could have sex with his girlfriend. Apparently the spirit was willing but the "flesh" wasnít cooperating, because he kept hearing his motherís voice Ė a voice, I will concede, arguing more from fear than from any love-inspired virtue.
He found his solution through a friendís advice. This friend compared his situation to a young Muslim eating a ham sandwich. The first time he tries, he throws up. Then he keeps trying until itís just like any other food.
You stifle your morality. You deaden your conscience over time.
What really horrified me was his friendís insights on how to begin that process vis a vis his sexual situation. "Stop thinking about her as a person." Yes, thatís the sage advice that finally brought about the desired result. He dehumanized his girlfriend. And, he says, it worked.
The next day, because of a condom malfunction, they went together to the pharmacy to purchase the Morning After Pill. The dehumanization mustíve worked well, because he completely failed to see the irony in this. He had overcome his reluctance, done the deed, and now he left her at risk of a life-changing event. And the solution was to further depersonalize her, and to completely disregard the life they may have created together. But he saw the events of that day only as a "rite of passage," of his next steps toward manhood.
Like I said, Iím afraid. Very afraid.
These essays indicate to me that the entire notion of love as self-donation is in danger of extinction. These young people want love Ė or at least they want something that they donít yet know to be love. On a subconscious level, they yearn for deeper connection. But they donít know how to find it, and they crumble completely before societyís dictate that we seek to gratify ourselves first.
Love in the world of "Modern Love" is completely narcissistic, completely turned in on self. Donít think about the humanity of the other. Donít get too attached to the other. It will get in the way of your own self-fulfillment.
Only they find no fulfillment at the end. The rationalize, they dehumanize, they explain away. And yet at the end they still find themselves empty and alone.
We need to help them find the way out, before "Modern Love" degenerates to "Self Love" which degenerates to "No Love At All."