Mar 26, 2020

Reflections from The Plague

Ten days ago, my city implemented “Shelter in Place”. Preceded by daily, escalating efforts to encourage social distancing and self isolation—all in response to the COVID-19 pandemic—the new ordinance stirred in me mixed sentiments. With schools, churches, and most gathering places closed, I was initially relieved to have the opportunity to slow down and rest. I felt exhausted from the accelerating spiral of uncertainty and the barrages of [generally unproductive] speculation about the future. Yet it did not take long for me to feel the loss of physical human interaction. I am thankful that technology provides ample means to keep us connected, but nothing replaces actual presence.

Though flurries of anxiety threaten to bury collective hope, there is consolation in the prospect of our society recognizing and learning from the revelation of its frail frameworks, and adjusting accordingly.[1] In other words, the present not only offers an opportunity to reinforce hygiene,[2] but the space to reassess priorities at both an individual and communal scale.

As I began to reflect,[3] I found myself drawn to Albert Camus’ novel, The Plague.[4] His meditations provide important reminders for today, such as our need for awareness, change, and love if we are to navigate any crisis well.

Awareness

Self-awareness begins with acknowledging one’s limitations, especially what can or cannot be controlled. This kind of revelation elicits a spectrum of responses, alas too often finding root in fear.
Fear spawns worry, and worry is contagious.

The definition of worry is to 1.) Feel or cause to feel anxious or troubled about actual or potential problems; or 2.) [with object] tear at or pull about with the teeth; or [no object] (worry at) Pull at or fiddle with repeatedly.[5]

Supper with a View, Dick's Pass, Pacific Crest Trail, CA 2014 (J.D. Grubb Photography)Media tends to worry a subject, willfully or not, by feeding the masses with the same information over and over, packaging it as fresh content by merely adding a few updates and/or the perspective of some individual, qualified or not. Informing the public is the most valuable contribution of the press; however, not all information is beneficial, and not all sources are reliable. Content characterized by speculation—“The forming of a theory or conjecture without firm evidence”[6]—perpetuates worry. Therefore, we have a responsibility to be wise in what we consume and share with others.

In The Plague, Camus comments repeatedly on the danger of being inattentive and uninformed. He writes, "The evil that is in the world always comes from ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding.” Most of the devastation in history is arguably the result of intellectual negligence. While we are currently called to physically self-isolate, that does not mean we are to mentally self-isolate. The human mind is a gift. Moreover, this is not only about bolstering individual safety, but that of our communities: "[the plague] revealed itself as what it really was; that is, the concern of all". Camus warns that

"Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if were not always so much wrapped up in our ourselves. In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilence. A pestilence isn't a thing made to man's measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere body of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn't always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven't taken their precautions.”

For Camus, the pestilence may be less about a malady of the body than a chronic corruption of social consciousness and will. One of his characters, Tarrou, states, “each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody's face and fasten the infection on him. . . . The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention."

Change

A tragedy of this pandemic would be for nothing to change once it passes. There should be practical adjustments to our social structures,[7] to be sure; but equally important is that this crisis leads to a change of perspective both now and after “normalcy” is restored. I think of this when Tarrou comments, "At the beginning of a pestilence and when it ends, there's always a propensity for rhetoric. In the first case, habits have not yet been lost; in the second, they're returning. It is in the thick of a calamity that one gets hardened to the truth—in other words, to silence." It is not only about becoming accustomed to the reality of our present situation, and the measures needed to weather it, but to embrace the opportunities of the present, which, thankfully, many appear to be doing as it relates to engaging family and community with fresh vigor.

Tidal Pools, Point Reyes National Seashore, CA 2016 (J.D. Grubb Photography)While some of Camus’ characters wrestle with the silence of God—a whole subject in itself,[8] which I will not delve into here, having considered it implicitly in “Is God Patient”—silence also provides an opportunity to distance oneself from all the worrisome clatter in order to reflect upon what is good. Change is good, even though sometimes uncomfortable; for comfort can lead to death—not only physically, but intellectually and creatively. It is tempting to disregard opportunities for change, yet the reality is that change is inevitable, whether embraced or not. Therefore, we should be wary of behaving "like all those others around [us] who believed, or made believe, that plague can come and go without changing anything in men's hearts."

Love

The greatest opportunity for growth or change rests in the shelter of love. It is mysterious, transcendent, and difficult to understand, but it is real. Without it, what are we? Camus writes, "Man is an idea, and a precious small idea, once he turns his back on love." Human love can be complicated and difficult[9], but the common decency inherent to it is "the only means of fighting a plague.”

A beautiful truth about love is that it cannot be contained within one definition or expression. It is living, manifest most tangibly through human interaction. Love reminds us of good, which can spark hope, "And indeed it could be said that once the faintest stirring of hope became possible, the dominion of the plague was ended.”

Love reveals the potential of mankind, while selfishness pulls our attention inward to a state of being blind and deaf to the truth. At the heart of The Plague, Camus is warning readers not so much about some biological danger, but a deeper spiritual decay. Against this, he reminds us that selfless acts inspire change, that hope can survive, and that at best "what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise."

May it be so for our world today. It is already happening if we look carefully.



[3] In part, re-examining the nature of doubt.
[4] La Peste, published in 1947.
[5] Oxford English Dictionary, Available at https://www.lexico.com/definition/worry (Accessed 24 March, 2020).
[6] Oxford English Dictionary, Available at https://www.lexico.com/definition/speculation (Accessed 24 March, 2020).
[7] Such as were implemented in airport security after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Though such were not the first instances of plane hijackings, the degree of impact woke administrations up to the reality such is both real and costly. In a similar manner, coronavirus pandemics are not new (e.g. “Bat Coronaviruses in China” and "Coronavirus: Pangolins Found to Carry Related Strains"), but now forced to the forefront of social consciousness due to scale of impact. 
[8] Not dissimilar to Silence by Shūsaku Endō.
[9] For example, Rambert states, "if there is one thing one can always yearn for and sometimes attain, it is human love." Or read my reflections on relationships in “Why Marry Someone”, “When to Marry Someone”, and “The Marriage Idol”.

Apr 30, 2019

The Marriage Idol, Part 3

Reorienting Objectification

So what is “The Marriage Idol”?

In Part 1, I reframe the question with language of identity, with another question: What defines you? In Part 2, I define words like love, marriage, and idolatry, all which can help us understand the framework. The challenge of this, as with any complex subject, is to avoid oversimplification. Considering the diversity of the world, it is unavoidable to some extent. Nonetheless, I have invested time and space to unpack each major word and idea because each person frames them differently, even if only subtly so. Such is the frailty of identity; for each of us carries assumptions based on our personal history.

Subjectivity should not be feared, but rather recognized as a normal aspect of interacting as free-thinking human beings. While communicating from our various frameworks can be confounding, it can also be inspiring in the introduction to new ways of seeing. Without some awareness of our limitations, however, there is little room left in public discourse for compassion, peace, and unity—for an atmosphere of learning. By unity, I do not necessarily mean agreement, but rather a desire to understand before being understood, allowing each other space for our differences without filling that space with defensive barriers.

When focusing on the subject of marriage, therefore, each of our visions for marriage will vary based on the facets of our individual identities. Yet I have come to wonder if marriage is even the real subject here. Perhaps it is merely the façade of a deeper need (and potentially idol).

How is Marriage Advertised?
I suspect that the idea of marriage is idolized more than the actuality of marriage.

In 1759, the essayist Samuel Johnson said, “Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement.”[1] So what does marriage promise? What images and/or ideas come to mind?

Think about it for a moment.

(Look away from this screen and draft your own initial conclusion.)

How one defines the promise of something reveals much of his or her identity. Communications professor Dr. Greg Spencer writes that “Advertising is successful because it links products with our identity. It defines the self in the context of a particular car or phone or style of vacation.” It can be quite subtle. For example, “the message is ‘Buy Extra gum,’ but the metamessage is ‘Extra gum is the way to romance.’” In other words, we are essentially “told two metamessages in almost every ad: ‘We are happy when we buy’ and ‘We are inadequate.’ . . . Advertising often convinces us that some nonmaterial good thing (love, success, happiness, etc.) can be acquired through material means (cars, beauty products, toilet paper). Coke means happiness. Dentyne gum promotes romance. Lingerie leads to sexual intimacy. Laundry soap leads to sexual intimacy. Computers, coffee, everything leads to sexual intimacy!”

Simply put, a marriage partner can be made into the “material means” for attaining a “nonmaterial good” like happiness, fulfillment, love, intimacy. While marriage can (and the healthy ones do) navigate and interconnect such needs, the danger is when marriage—or more to the point, a partner—is viewed as the direct means (i.e. object) to attaining them.[2]

Affirmation
What do these needs suggest about one’s identity? In conversations about romance, there can be a subtext about yearning for marriage or wanting it for someone else as way to resolve some form of loneliness and/or insecurity. Married and non-married people alike can talk this way. Yet promoting marriage as the answer to fundamental human needs not only places unhealthy expectations on a partner—and a tendency to idolize him or her, or even the relationship—but also risks perpetuating conflict due to a tendency to project one’s personal framework (e.g. language, expectations) onto the other’s identity.

Why does this happen? For one, it is unavoidable because each person’s framework is limited. But it is also because of an essential human need: affirmation. Affirmation is about giving “a heightened sense of value”, support, and/or validity to someone.[3] Without affirmation, one can feel barraged by a sense of isolation and loneliness: “Sadness because one has no friends or company; the quality of being unfrequented and remote.”[4]

Ultimately, without affirmation, one is vulnerable to fear, which can slowly distort a person’s view of possibilities: “What if life is always this way? What if this feeling never goes away?” Fear breeds insecurity, which can fracture identity and lead to faltering. Fear tempts one to rely too heavily on another person affirming one’s identity, or even to demanding that one’s identity be bestowed by that person. This is not just limited to a romantic partner, for co-dependency or emotional dependency can be witnessed in any kind of relationship, whether between lovers, friends, or family members.[5]

Granted, people do need to affirm one another. But when it is sought as the sole definer of self worth, the framework of identity can collapse further: “If I am not affirmed for who I am, does that I also mean I am not accepted? Will I ever be accepted? Will I ever be loved? If I am not loved, is something wrong with me? What do I do now?”

While there are various good responses to these difficult questions, my concern is that the “affirmation” of marriage is too often clung to as a primary solution—if not from one’s partner then perhaps from one’s children. It can become destructive, while on the surface first appearing constructive, to concentrate entirely on loving someone else, whether partner or child, in hopes of forgetting one’s loneliness. For this again can lead to emotional dependency.

FOMO
Our relationship with technology offers another window through which to understand the need for affirmation. Now, more than ever, influenced by advertising, our frameworks are dominated by comparison. Spencer writes, “We love to see what’s happening with our friends, but the comparison can drive any of us to the despair of not measuring up to others’ beauty, vacations, weddings, or picnic lunches in the backyard.”

With marriages crumbling into ruin as often as they are being reinforced and built up, with intimacy feeling more elusive than ever, technology is now sometimes sought as a new source of affirmation. In the context of marriage, are people turning increasingly to technology for affirmation as a result of disappointment with their spouses, turning from one false god to another?[6] Wu Song writes, “Even when we try to rest, we are restless, and we reach for our phones or tablets because our bodies and our imaginations have forgotten what else there is to reach for. . . . As Dalton Conley described, life is constantly ‘being lived elsewhere’ as our bodies are in one place, but our minds and consciousness are focused on the stuff of our screens. . . . flattening out and editing away our discomforts.”[7] Pointing back to our propensity for co-dependency, only now infused in our relationships with technology, Wu Song asks, “What types of desires do our compulsive digital practices encourage?” For example, do such practices ironically encourage greater isolation, i.e. time physically alone to focus on the emotional “togetherness” provided by technology?

Even if the idea of marriage to another person continues to churn one’s imagination, does the fear of missing out (FOMO) remain a form of motivation; this newly heightened by the comparison inherent to social media? Missing out on what those other people are enjoying—at least as it appears or is promoted with pictures and posts. Thus we return to my initial question: What does marriage promise?

As most can attest, technology usually proves to be a poor substitute for human connection. Most people realize this in their soul. Wu Song concludes, “Part of the trouble with our growing dependence on our socio-technological practices of friendship and community is the modern disregard for the fact that we are embodied persons who bring both physical presence and voice and are impinged upon by the human voice and physical presence of others.” In other words, while interacting with or through technology may be simpler—arguably less demanding; more a mirror to our identity than an autonomous, contrasting identity such as we find in relationship with other people—human relationships, while certainly more complicated, do remind us of our shared temporality: our living in the present, not alone but in community, all the while connected to the past (history) and future (hopes).

In Closing
The reality is that each of us will always be “missing out” on something. But what that is, and whether one cares about it, is subjectively defined. Though organizing and acting upon individual priorities is not a static experience, but rather ongoing, dynamic, evolving, and though the process can feel overwhelming at times, it is not to be feared. For there is someone who offers to save us from our frailty, who knows and values each of us for our true selves (Isaiah 43:1).

We need not fear loneliness. An antonym of loneliness is belonging, and belonging is fundamentally about true friendship. Loneliness begins to be fulfilled through belief in the message of Jesus Christ; that we are beloved children of God, a value shared with all humanity. Jesus heralds the fact that we are not alone; that God is with us and that His Spirit unites all who follow him. This perfect love “casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18) and has both individual and communal significance. Jesus said, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). Jesus connects our past, present, and futures with the only promise worth worshipping; that “[God] will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged” (Deuteronomy 31:8). “He is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer” (Psalm 18:2).

The marriage idol is not a new idea.[8] Therefore, I set out to process this subject not with a desire to provide concrete answers—if only I could—but rather cautions. More so, I aim to elevate awareness, to foster thoughtful discussion toward compassion, which begins with acknowledging the beauty and limits of identity.

So, whether you are single or married, I encourage you to be mindful of how you talk about marriage because how you talk about it reveals more about you than anything else. Consider the implications of your language.[9] For better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, the language we use matters.

* * *

I will conclude with two questions. For those who know me, they are characteristically amorphous, a spectrum full of possible colors and tones. In a way they frame this entire series. In a way, they defy barriers.

  1. Is marriage about two people adjusting to an idea or is it about adjusting that idea to themselves?
  2. Is intimacy about completing one’s identity or sacrificing it?
What do you think?




[1] Spencer, G. (2018) Reframing the Soul: How Words Transform Our Faith. Leafwood Publishers: Abilene, TX.
[2] Needs that only God can define and fulfill.
[3] Oxford English Dictionary. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/affirm (Accessed 30 April, 2019).
[4] Oxford English Dictionary. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/loneliness (Accessed 9 October, 2018). See also Hengtee Lim’s “Love, Sex, and Loneliness.”
[7] Wu Song, F. (2018) “Recovering Presence and Place in the Digital Age: Sociological and Theological Reflections on Technology,” in The Westmont College Magazine, Spring 2018, pp.17-21. See also Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.
[8] See “Have Christians Turned Marriage into an Idol?” by Tyler Daswick, “The Idol of Marriage” by Tyler Braun, and Breaking the Marriage Idol by Kutter Callaway (though I have not yet read the book).
[9] For example, Google “What not to say to singles.”