We are products of our culture
I remember sitting with my close friend “Ken” late one evening. He was fairly depressed because he had broken up with his girlfriend (who was another close friend of mine). We talked into the night dissecting the “failure” of the relationship. At one point, in exasperation, Ken said something to the effect of “I still keep people at a distance. I feel like I need to unlearn what I’ve learned.” I replied, “I think that is true about a lot of what we know.”
As American Catholics trying to change our culture we are susceptible to a hidden danger that is obvious when pointed out. We are products of our culture. A lot of who we are, down to basic elements of our thinking, is influenced by our culture. It is simply a fact of life, and we ignore it at our peril.
Now we counter-culture warriors may gasp in horror at this. Shouldn’t we be standing up to our culture of death? Shouldn’t we reject our pornified, materialistic, self-absorbed so-called “culture”? As far as such things turn us away from God, yes. Having said that, if we fall into the trap that our pornified, materialistic, self-absorbed culture has no effect on us we only deceive ourselves. And like in any war, knowledge of self is a prerequisite for defeating the True Enemy.
Now you will notice that the categories for this post are about the single and married life. Based on my own experience, I feel the above observation is pertinent to understanding the phenomenon of people, faithful and not, getting married much later in life than in previous generations. I know for myself, getting married at 28, that it was far past when MY plans were scheduled. Looking back however now that I have three years of marriage under my belt, I realize that had things gone according to my plan, it would have been a disaster.
I’ll take a few examples just to illustrate my point:
It’s all about sex – I’ll speak for the guys only on this one, but I’m curious about the perspectives of the ladies in the audience as well. Trying to be a chaste guy in this sex-obsessed culture is tough. From morning till night our culture attempts to simultaneously reduce sex to little more than recreational activity yet have us consume as much of it as possible. Even the activities that guys normally partake in like watching sports are filled with messages reminding us that we won’t be happy until we reduce that sexy woman to an object of pleasure, like the beer can she’s holding (which you should also buy). Now what is the Catholic way to have sex? Simple, get hitched.
While I didn’t know it at the time the anxiety of finding a spouse was less focused on a true understanding of vocation and more about finding a way to live out our culture’s understanding of sex in a Catholic context. Mind you, this was mostly unconscious as I had already accepted the teachings of the Church at least intellectually. But deep down, our culture had left a lasting impression (and continues to attempt to do so) that is contradictory to the message of the Church.
Marriage is on the to-do list – Like buying a house or getting a job, we tend to treat marriage (those of us who value it) as a milestone, something to be achieved like graduation. Those who do so fall into the “normal” category. Those who don’t are treated like the “short bus” students. We admire and pity them, while being glad we aren’t them and try not to associate with them.
For the single person who feels that they haven’t gotten married “on time” this can feel like a failure. The single person is behind on the life goals list, and this creates a sense of frustration and resentment. The single person feels that he/she is doing their part, but the Church/society is not holding up its end of the contract. But the problem is not the Church (though we as the Church can and should do a better job of integrating singles into Church life), but the attitude.
Marriage is a vocation, not a task/milestone. The feel of the call to a vocation is a part of determining if we actually do have a vocation to marriage. But the missing component is that God is ultimately who determines our vocation, and no matter how we feel we must take into account that God is the one who makes the vocation happen. The moment of clarity for me was one day after worn down emotionally and spiritually, I finally said in prayer, “God. I have no idea what you want me to do. If I’m going to fulfill my vocation you are going to have to make it happen.” The reply I got was something like “Finally you got the hint!”
Your very own personal god/goddess - For the romantically inclined another error is this notion of looking for the perfect one. The “god/goddess” to fall in love with and worship. It sounds nice in a storybook sense, but it has two major problems, which we will get to in a sec. This is a subtle one though as while we may not suffer from flights of such fancy, but we do suffer from the elements that give rise to such false ideas.
The first problem is that it puts way too much of a burden on the would-be spouse. The attempt to find perfection in a person will ultimately wind up in failure. Even if we try to make this concept relative (perfect for me) this is still attempting to project an idea of what a spouse should be vs. finding that person that God is calling us to be with. We have to be willing to let God lead us and even surprise us.
The second and far greater problem is the search for Divine Love in all the wrong places. Our culture, by removing God from the picture, has attempted to fill this void by projecting Divine Love onto human love. This is why so many relationships end in disappointment, as our attempts to find what we are truly looking for are misdirected.
What I had to learn to get over this (relatively speaking, we all suffer and continue to do so from this) came from a meditation on the Passion of the Cross. One Holy Thursday it finally hit me, God really does love ME. If I was the only person that needed to be saved He still would have died for me. More than anything else, this one truth helped me to see past my struggles with my pursuit of marriage. So to the single people I have one message. You are loved. Loved more than any person, no matter how you may perceive them, cannot match the love God has for you.
I know they are easy words to say (well…type) and know in the head, but we need to wrap our hearts around that fact.
These are just some of the ideas that I had to unlearn during my life as a single person. There is much more to say on the topic, but for right now this should demonstrate my point. Next time we will dig a little deeper into the things that singleness can actually teach us and prepare for our vocation, regardless if it is marriage of the religious life.