Wednesday, April 13, 2016

What Aziz Ansari and JPII Both Showed Me About Love

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I downloaded Aziz Ansari's Modern Romance from the library to read in the hospital after Lily was born, thinking I was basically in for a quick read of a comedy book.  The thing, though, about downloading library books instead of borrowing the physical copies, is you miss out on reading the dust jacket, and maybe it was just me, but I actually had no idea the book is more serious than that.

Ansari set out to write a book just filled with his observations and quips on love and dating, but the more people's text messages he read aloud during his stand-up shows, and the more he talked to older generations and noticed what set their relationships apart from ours, the more he noticed young adults have a range of self-destructive habits when it comes to the intersection of dating, technology, and social media.  He changed tack and worked with sociologists and huge focus groups to get at the core of why people our age have so many complaints about finding love, and I'd argue that the book functions primarily as a social study, not as a humor book--the jokes are sprinkled throughout and are direct responses to the data.

Props, Tommy Fresh. If you can get past what I thought was pretty judiciously used cussing (and, full disclosure, mentions of a few acts that Catholics just can't get behind), I admired the heck out of this book and recommend it.  For a well-liked, truly funny celeb to call out behaviors like sexting as an opening line and refusing to commit to a relationship for the reason that things like Tinder and online dating make it seem like someone better is always around the corner, in a way that's sharp but non-judgy, letting the facts and testimonies speak for themselves, is bold.

And perceptive.  Like the JPII-lovin' cliche that I am, I couldn't ignore the echoes of Love and Responsibility I heard in the stories from Modern Romance.  I want to share them here because I know when you're surrounded by a solid, faithful community and/or are in a relationship that strives for holiness, it's a little too easy to be hard on our brothers and sisters who are out there dating the culture's way.  Whether someone recognizes it or not, every experience of longing for romance, of desire, and of wishing there was something more is an experience of longing for God, the only one in whom we'll find true love and true rest.  Each of us want that; each wandering, restless, aching heart.  Here's the proof:

Every human person is loved and willed into existence, entirely unique, and has immense dignity in God's image and likeness.  And each of us is someone, not something.  John Paul II used the phrase "unique and unrepeatable" to describe the human person in his Christmas Day homily, 1978, and it became sort of a hallmark of his outlook on human dignity.  In Love and Responsibility, he wrote, "it is because it is directed towards a particular human being that the sexual urge can provide the framework within which...the possibility of love arises."  In other words, any attraction should be aimed at someone, specific and special, and not just anyone for the sake of attraction alone.  Our generation gets it.  One young woman, jaded by online dating, said in one of Aziz's studies that "People are not products.  But, essentially, when you say, 'I want a guy that's six foot tall and has blah, blah, blah characteristics, you're treating a human being like one."  The online dating chapter of the book concludes a section with, "even people who meet through Tinder or OkCupid are much more likely to turn a random first date into a meaningful relationship if they follow the advice of [one young man who participated]: There's something uniquely valuable in everyone, and we'll be much happier and better off if we invest the time and energy it takes to find it."

The thrill of falling for someone new is amazing, but can lead us to idealize that person and be too hard on him as he reveals more of himself over time.  The Pope warns against letting emotion overtake reason, saying, "values are bestowed upon the object of love which he or she does not necessarily possess in reality.  These are ideal values, not real ones."  The idealized person can become "merely the occasion for an eruption in the subject's emotional consciousness of the values which he or she longs with all his heart to find in another person" (raise your hand if you've ever started planning your wedding seconds after meeting a new guy who's Catholic and single?).  Meantime, Modern Romance, while it makes a point not to be too down on online dating--it suggests using it not as most people do, as a way to find a relationship, but as a way to get a sense of who's nearby whom you might be interested and then to get off the computer and go talk to them face to face, without all the preamble--does make the point that the sheer number of possibilities on dating sites can overwhelm us with choice to the point of inaction, or can increase the restlessness we're already feeling.  "Seeing all these options," says the book, "are we now comparing our potential partners not to other potential partners but rather to an idealized person whom no one could measure up to?"  And when things don't go perfectly with a seemingly perfect person, "you conclude there's something wrong with the person or the relationship since it isn't as exciting as before, without ever giving companionate love a chance to bloom."

We ache for completion; for a union that can ultimately be fulfilled only by God, which manifests itself in our search for a soulmate.  Because of our uniqueness as persons, it makes sense to me that we want to be in love with someone uniquely suited to us (here's my take on soul mates).  Before reading this book, I'd never known or thought much about the fact that our grandparents' generation often met and married someone from their hometown or even their own childhood neighborhood or street, whereas it's not uncommon for young adults our age go to college and, later, work, far from where they grew up.  These couples tended to have an initial rapport, friendship, and attraction that turned into abiding, romantic love because to them, giving up on their marriages wasn't really an option (by choice, not just by social attitudes toward divorce).  I think that level of devotion and the will to love is beautiful, and marriages like my grandparents'  inspire me for the very reason that they are so lovingly, faithfully committed, but I have to say, I'm incredibly thankful to have been born when I was.   We're blessed living in a culture where marrying for love isn't a dreamy alternative to settling or to marrying for other social reasons (as good as those relationships might be); it's a reality.  It's just the navigating the dating world to get to that reality that's the hard part…

I initially set out to write my college senior thesis on the parallels between Love and Responsibility and Jane Austen's novels.  All the romantic missteps!  That JPII talked about!  That's what all of Jane's characters were doing!  I was so excited, and it probably didn't help that I was only a few months into my obsession (TOB-session?) with the Pope's writings.  Then one day, the professors I was working with sat me down and pointed out that, well, as much as the literary characters were living proof of the Pope's observations, there was no historic or academic connection between the works, a.k.a. back to the drawing board.  I ended up writing my paper on Austen and Aristotle, and I know now that my teachers were right.  But even if there's no actual link, the fact that there are so many similarities between the ideas of a 20th-century cardinal and an 18th-century young woman, both celibate, who knew the heart so well just goes to show that John Paul's writing is powerful stuff.  So yeah, Modern Romance is, you know, modern, and timely.  The cries of our hearts don't really change, though.  Ever ancient, ever new, baby.

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