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Every February the New York Times invites college students nationwide to submit personal stories for its annual Modern Love College Essay Contest. If you go to the homepage for the contest, you'll see pretty multicolored hearts floating gently above the text. But if you go to read the 2015 winning essay, the picture you'll get is not so neat or sweet. What you'll see is a modern heart that is broken, bruised, and mournfully confused.
"No Labels, No Drama, Right?" is Columbia University sophomore Jordana Narin's lengthy lament about her disappointing, four-years-running emotional fixation on Jeremy. She met him at a Halloween party in eleventh grade. From that point, they communicated mostly by text and Facebook messages, her emotions rising and falling with his level of attention to her. After she started college, he invited her to spend a night with him. She accepted, hoping to get some clarity about the relationship. "Periodically I opened my mouth to ask: 'What are we doing? Who am I to you?' He stopped me with a smile, a wink or a handhold, gestures that persuaded me to shut my mouth or risk jeopardizing what we already had."
Instead of gaining clarity, she lost her virginity. She cried herself to sleep the following night, only to awaken the next morning to a text from him saying, "Let's do it again soon :)" So they have, well, "done it again" here and there for more than a year, "neither of us daring to raise the subject of what we were doing or what we meant to each other. I kept telling myself I'd be fine."
She still doesn't know what kind of relationship they have. All she knows is a roiling cocktail of emotions.
So while I teeter between anger with myself for not admitting how I feel and anger at him for not figuring it out, neither of us can be blamed. (Or we both can.) Without labels to connect us, I have no justification for my feelings and he has no obligation to acknowledge them. No labels, no drama, right?
No Labels, No Love
Of course, as you've probably gathered by now, the answer to that would be no. That's the point of the whole essay. Many of the Modern Love essayists said they avoided labeling relationships because labels can lead to expectations and responsibilities that feel constricting. But doing away with the labels doesn't rid the relationships of pain. In fact, it probably compounds it. Australian journalist Tamara Rajakariar, writing at Mercatornet, responded to Jordana with some points that shed light on why:
• Unlabeled relationships are disrespectful. Basic manners call for people to be straight with one another, especially where matters of the heart are concerned.
• They foster unhealthy emotional attachments, where hopes get aroused or dashed at the whim of the other.
• They tend to operate on a utilitarian basis, with partners engaging or disengaging in the relationship based on what they expect to get out of it.
• Because they're open-ended, there's no definitive closure point. Either party can languish indefinitely in a relational netherworld.
"It seems to me that all a long-term, unlabeled relationship provides is wasted time, broken hearts, and intimacy lost to someone who perhaps didn't deserve it," Rajakariar concluded, and with respect to Jordana, she was right on every count. Tragically, although Jordana decries the dearth of structure and terminology by which to define relationships, she accepts this status quo as the price of holding out for love. She says most people she knows have someone in their lives like Jeremy, who "we hope, against all odds, might be The One."
But nothing about her essay sounds hopeful.
The "Habit" of Modern Singlehood
Dawn Eden lived the modern single life until her conversion to Christianity at age 31. In her book, The Thrill of the Chaste (Catholic Edition): Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On, she contrasts two distinct approaches to love that an unmarried woman (or man) can take. One is the now commonplace, sex-in-the-city approach—what we see in the Modern Love essays: detached individuals hoping for love yet treating partners as objects, all the while trying to arrange for as many good feelings as possible (mostly through sex) without getting hurt.
This mode of modern singlehood, Dawn observes, seems to boil down to a single word: lack. "A single woman bases her actions on how they will or won't affect her single, lacking state. She goes to parties based on whether or not there will be new men to meet. . . . She chooses female friends who likewise define themselves as single and lacking, thus reinforcing her own cynicism."
It "ultimately devolves into the familiar merry-go-round of pursuing, or being pursued by, almost-but-not-quite-right love interests, revolving around the hope that the ever-distant Mr. Right will come along one day and stop the music." The fruits of that lifestyle, she now says, "resemble those of a drug habit more than a dating paradigm. Unmarried men and women become caught in a vicious cycle. They feel lonely because they are not loved, so they lend their bodies to 'lovers' who do not love them."
Chastity: So Out, It's In
The second approach is one Dawn developed following her Christian conversion, when she completely rethought how to "do" unmarried life. This approach offers modern singles like Jordana something they desperately need but may not even know exists: a sound alternative paradigm for love and sex—a lifestyle she calls singular. "To be singular is to understand the meaning of chastity, and chastity by its very nature goes against the popular culture's beliefs regarding sex and choice." It's "the new counterculture . . . so out, it's in."
Contrary to the pervasive bad press it's gotten from libertines, chastity isn't about "not having sex." In fact, it's about a lot more than just sex. Dawn defines it beautifully: "Chastity is the virtue that enables us to love fully and completely in every relationship, in the manner that is appropriate to the relationship." Of course, this raises the question of what determines appropriateness, but from both a scriptural and natural law standpoint, this is an easy question to answer. Sexual expression is appropriate to the marriage relationship and inappropriate to all others. Whether or not it's easy to follow is certainly another matter, and Dawn gives excellent counsel on that and other related matters, but the point here is that the categories are discrete and clearly discernible.
The Chaste Singular
More important, chaste living is grounded in something larger and more permanent than the individual. Whereas in modern singlehood, love is based on feelings, which are apt to change with the wind or even last night's dinner, chaste love is defined by and grounded in God himself. Love of God—love for God and love from God—becomes the love that orders all other loves. "For each of those whom divine providence places in your life," Dawn writes, "friends, family, the stranger on the street—you ask yourself, how can I love God through loving this person?"
Whereas the modern single is driven by an inner void that is desperately trying to get filled, the chaste singular looks to God himself to fill the void. Rather than trying to get love through the right match, the chaste singular receives love from God, the ultimate source, and then turns outward with love to give from an inner fullness.
Chaste love is respectful. It behaves with appropriate decorum, which requires forethought. What is the nature of this relationship? Why am I in it? Where is it headed? What are my intentions?
Any counselor will tell you that to be emotionally healthy, people must learn to identify and label their emotions. Similarly, if a relationship is to be healthy, rational thought and discrete boundaries will be required, especially when it comes to romantic or sexual relationships, where emotions can be so powerful. One of the reasons marriages are publicly recognized, for example, is so that everyone knows the category of the relationship and the boundaries for appropriate behavior. It is labels and boundaries that provide clarity.
This is the kind of information Jordana wanted to get from Jeremy but didn't ask for, out of fear of jeopardizing what she had (which was practically nothing).
The Oxymoron of "Modern Love"
What she and modern singles don't seem to realize, though, is that in avoiding the labels, they end up distancing themselves from what they really want, which is authentic love. Modern singlehood is very much "modern" in the academic sense of the word. Being modern in this sense means that one has cast off "old" restraints, specifically religion-based rules about sex and morality. "To be modern," wrote Marshall Berman, author of All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, "is to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom, to find one's world and oneself in perpetual disintegration and renewal, trouble and anguish, ambiguity and contradiction: to be part of a universe in which all that is solid melts into air." Boundaries, with their discrete definitions and categories of thought—especially if they're grounded in an objectively existing God—are anathema to modernism.
Modern love, then, basically means love—or more accurately the pursuit of it—after the sexual revolution did away with the rules about sex. "No rules" means anything goes—no categories, no boundaries, no obligations. But then it also means no love, because love by definition obligates itself to the one it loves. Perhaps "modern love" is itself an oxymoron.
Liberated for Love
Berman says that to be a modernist is to make yourself at home in the maelstrom. Jordana lives in a maelstrom all right, but she clearly does not like it. For modern singles like her, weary of perpetual disintegration in a universe with nothing solid, The Thrill of the Chaste offers an exit strategy that actually will liberate. It may appear counterintuitive at first, but chaste living liberates you by elucidating those boundaries the Creator himself has built into the moral and relational universe.
To be sure, chastity will require something of you. First, it requires acknowledging the black hole within that will never be filled by sex and then inviting God himself to fill it. After that, it requires discipline, responsibility, and an ongoing trust in God himself as guarantor of the outcome. It's the outward lifestyle that proceeds from a sound inward theology of sex and love.
"I learned, through discovering chastity," Dawn writes, "that the greatest tragedy is not that of being unloved. The greatest tragedy is not loving." Chaste living is holistic and comprehensive, engaging mind, body, and spirit. It's about learning to order love as love was meant to be ordered. •
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