Sexless in the City

Sometimes reading romance novels doesn’t quite prepare you for a love life...

For this 30-year-old urbanite, love is always a misadventure: The Harvard Lickwit, Hippie the Groper, the 5% Man, and the Ad Weasel. These and many other men wander in and out of her life — but never her bed.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Sex and death, pt. 2

And now the conclusion to Sex and death, pt. 1.

Clearly plenty hedonists agree with me that sex looks damn near the best of this world’s good stuff. But that charade also puts the heat on all we folks supposedly faced more toward the future than the present. Just what is it we’re passing up for, um, God? The older you get, the longer you’re single, the worse it gets. Sometimes it seems like you’re literally smelling the smoke of your share of good stuff slowly burning up because God forgot to light the fire of your youth until you had a lover at your side to share it with. Right? Can I hear an Amen? Oh, sorry. Sometimes Mingus makes me forget myself.

But seriously, that’s where this blog came from. A girl torn between the world-renouncement she thought a God it was mighty hard to believe in, much less trust, asked her to do, and what seemed to be her dwindling share of what good was for certain in this world she was sposed to believe isn’t all there is. Somewhere along the line that forces you to a reckoning. And if you believe those are your two options — embrace the world or have nothing to do with it — that reckoning produces either things like repression and undue conservatism or hasty marriage, masturbation, technical virgins (if you still try to hold to your faith), or, if you’re honest, recanting all faith and choosing sex over God.

But notice I said if you believe your two options are renouncing or embracing. What if we’ve gotten that wrong? In Christianspeak, the distinction I’ve been talking about is often put in terms of the world and heaven, the world and the kingdom. Jesus talked a lot about the kingdom, especially in Matthew. But he didn’t have the either/or split it’s so easy to lapse into. His vision of the kingdom involved faithfulness now — important work to be done in the present — that somehow prepared the workers for and connected them to the glorious kingdom coming in full in the future. In other words, present labor and good stuff connected to even-better good stuff in the future. Not one versus the other.

Interestingly, a metaphor Jesus often used in his parables or stories of the kingdom is cultivation. Which implies both lack (imperfection, brokenness) and worth (since a harvest will come from this ground). But also sowing instead of necessarily reaping; giving instead of taking. Recall that I started this off by discussing the typical obsession with maximizing our own personal share of what good’s to be gotten in life or afterlife. Both world-renouncing and world-embracing typically encourage if not rely on such selfishness. Because of that, attempts to address disparities in goods-distribution can be half-hearted and even self-serving (driven more by one’s self-righteousness than a true concern with justice or compassion for the needy). After all, for most of us the drive to maximize pleasure is fueled by an obsessive escapism — a need to insulate ourselves against the pain and suffering of this life. How much benevolence is a token gesture to address overwhelming problems merely so we can justify ignoring their gravity most of the time?

This then is how mere good things become our gods — by promising a temporary escape from all that misery, they become our stopgap saviors. I used to think loneliness and silence were some of the worst things about life, because they were the worst things in my life. Only the family a marriage and sex could produce seemed like the antidote to that. But as I began realizing this summer, should I obtain such good things, the good news of that “acquisition” is good only for me, not most other people (except those for whom it makes me an easier person to get along with). And furthermore, the most it can provide is an escape — it hasn’t fixed the underlying brokenness that produced the conditions of loneliness and silence that drove me to idolize sex and marriage in the first place.

For all these reasons, I find myself increasingly drawn to Jesus’ image of cultivation. It both affirms my sense of the beauty and pleasure in life (its worth) while acknowledging the painful reality of how imperfect and fleeting are those joys (its lack). And it frees me from needing to use good things as medication against the pain (hence the increasingly addictive consumption or pursuit of my fix of choice). Instead I can merely enjoy them as the temporal blessings they are. Furthermore, a world-cultivating attitude means thinking about just that — the good of the whole and the healing of it, not just what’s good for me. It’s a curb against the envy when others get the things I think I “need” while I do not.

And it means life need not turn boring and humdrum should I wind up with a family. If it’s not just about my needs and happiness, the adventures don’t end with attaining my goals and dreams, but encompass seeking the flourishing and healing of others (so much as it depends on me). For that’s the other thing I feared just as much as dying a virgin, you see — that if and when I did get married, I’d still be stuck with the rest of a life and no more adventures to have; a purpose fulfilled and run out before my days themselves were up. Perhaps that’s why I was secretly so scared to get the one thing I said I wanted above all else. But if my purpose increasingly is fulfilled by hewing to Jesus’ world-cultivating model, I can have a meaningful life until my death — whether or not sex is a part of it (though, really, it’s not the sex as much as it is the intimacy that matters). So no, Brent, I’m not less committed to abstinence, and I won’t say that that absence has lost its sting, but what I feel less and less is the faux deprivation of living without a nonessential good that one has made a life-sustaining god.