This summer I’ve set out to read a great stack of books that I’ve been meaning to read for ages. First on the list: C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves, which I’ve started several times but never finished. From the little I’ve read so far, I can already say it’s an exceptionally wise and valuable book. I suppose I never got through it because in the past, its profound explorations of love and authenticity in loving never rang quite as true as they do for me now. I’ve concluded that there must have been certain lessons I needed to learn, certain instances of love and friendship that I had to experience first, in order for me to really understand what Lewis was trying to say.
I’m sure I’ll have more reflections to offer once I’m done with the book, but for now I wanted to share a contemporary take on the same subject: Jonathan Franzen’s op-ed in the NY Times called “Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts.” It seems as though Franzen sets out to rehash a popular criticism of social media: that in a world that is becoming increasingly materialistic and permeated by technology, people are in more danger than ever of defining themselves by the (often inauthentic) persona they present in social media like Facebook and (eek!) personal blogs. I’ve heard this take before, and it has made me cautious – and I hope, more prudent – about the way I use such technology; however, I have not heard anyone go quite as far as Franzen does in this piece regarding the consequences of such behavior.
The real danger, he says, in all of this technology, is that it can (and often does) stunt the growth of real love in us – not by isolating us and making face-to-face contact with others less frequent (though, sadly, this is often the case), but rather by turning us into narcissists who prefer liking and being superficially liked by everyone to loving and being truly loved by specific people.
“The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life.
“Suddenly there’s a real choice to be made … Do I love this person? And, for the other person, does this person love me?
“There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the techno-consumerist order: it exposes the lie.”
This is why, I would add, real love – true Christian charity – is the antidote to our vanities and arrogance and egotism: it makes us vulnerable and shows us, in a way that we cannot deny, who we really are. It reminds us that we are far from perfect, that we need divine assistance if we wish to truly love others as they are (and allow them to love us as we are), faults and all.
Pretty perceptive stuff for an op-ed column, especially one written by someone who seems to be coming from a purely secular point of view. You can read the whole column here – it’s really quite good.