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The New Narcissus

“To take love seriously and to bear and to learn it like a task,” Rilke writes in his Letters to a Young Poet, “that is what young people need.” In a social-media saturated culture, many of us tend to hide behind our glowing screens. We cultivate a safe distance from a real encounter with others, avoiding the space authentic communication can flourish and the kind of sharing of the self that leads to love. In a digitally-mediated millennial generation, a hook-up culture flourishes—texting as “talking” is the new normal, and dating has been displaced by “hanging out.” In the modern millennial romance, “talking” is texting, and the art of conversation—on the phone and in letters—is dying.

The statistics in Aziz Ansari’s new book Modern Romance, co-authored with sociologist Eric Klinenberg, are fascinating. The digital matchmaking industry is $2.4 billion dollar one, and 38% of single people have participated in it. Digital dating apps are the new matchmakers for modern relationships. When a generation departs from the communities of our childhood, winding up displaced in large, bustling cities with fellow displaced twenty-somethings, it seems as if the best place to find someone is in a similarly large, bustling place filled with displaced millennials: the Internet. For those in large cities like New York and Washington, dating apps like Hinge and Tinder have become the go-to medium for dating.

Yet with apps like Tinder, young people today are not, as David Brooks so beautifully illustrates in his essay “Love Story,” being prepared for a truly great love. Nearly every aspect of modern dating is sabotaging our chance for a truly great love.

Millennials are a generation that has become lazy in love. Yet for many it’s much more than mere lethargy in love—millennials suffer from an acute aversion to risk. We prefer ephemeral chat bubbles to long phone calls, seeking maximal personal satisfaction with minimal effort. The modern millennial is prone, in the words of Christopher Lasch, to “approach personal relations with a heightened appreciation of their emotional risks.” This risk-avoidant behavior is a hallmark of modern romance, reflected in the image of glowing screens on date nights.

But this attitude, this approach to amorous affairs, is precisely the opposite of what is required of courtship and marriage. “Determined to manipulate the emotions of others while protecting themselves against emotional injury,” Lasch writes in the Culture of Narcissism, “both sexes cultivate a protective shallowness, a cynical detachment they do not altogether feel but which soon becomes habitual and in any case embitters personal relations.” In today’s world of deferred responsibility and flight from emotional vulnerability, we are habituating not for a lifelong romantic attachment to another, but for a series of emotional detachments, which is effectively preparing our hearts to be hardened to love.

Idealization is one of the most powerful inclinations of the human heart. The ideal of women like Beatrice can serve as a source of inspiration for poets like Dante and the ideal of saints like Teresa of Avila can stir a pagan to seek sanctity. But we must be careful not to allow idealization — of either ourselves or others — to fuel a narcissistic love. In reducing the other to a handful of images and a sentence or two on a screen, we run the risk of commodifying an essentially ineffable, indescribable human experience: the mystery of attraction. This withdrawal from real flesh-and-blood encounters with others can lead to a kind of digital idealization in which we substitute twenty-five year old Athena from Manhattan with a goddess — a beautiful object for tonight’s Tinder conquest.

The erotic egotism fueled by online dating is only one facet of the problem. Dating apps like Tinder flip on its head the traditional hierarchy or pyramid of values and needs that most individuals throughout history have sought in a spouse. For centuries, finding a suitable spouse meant finding a person with shared values, usually tied to a faith community, which inform every aspect of a person’s life: The nice Catholic boy seeks a nice Catholic girl who shares his core values: a relationship with God, a church community, and a loving family. All of these essential aspects fall at the base of the pyramid and form the foundation of a life together. Only after the essentials are established would other considerations come into play: location, career plans, physical attraction, etc.

Dating applications like Tinder turn courtship on its head: instead of bonding over the essentials of faith and family, you decide to swipe left or right based upon the ephemeral attraction of a face on a screen. Imagine what the history of Western civilization would look like if centuries of marriages, and not merely extramarital affairs, were based upon the fleeting decision to pursue a beautiful face.

The preparation for love requires patience, focus, humility, and devotion. Loving another requires a letting go of the ego in preparation for two to become one flesh. To habituate oneself to the ways of Tinder—the commodification of the face, the instant gratification of the chat, the disposability of the digital encounter—is to habituate oneself to vice. If this mindset permeates our relationships with others, and eventually our marriage, we are effectively setting ourselves up for failure. There will always be a more tempting opportunity than the one we have, always a more beautiful face, a more alluring set of hobbies.

The human heart’s thirst for newness and longing for affection is nearly insatiable. But this is not what love is about. Love is making a choice, a decision to give ourselves to one person. With the Tinder mindset ruling our hearts, we allow ourselves to settle for several minor “yesses,” rather than waiting in preparation for one great “yes” on our wedding day.

“The student who made fun of playing the guitar under a girl’s window will never read or write poetry under her influence,” writes Allan Bloom. “His defective eros cannot provide his soul with images of the beautiful, and it will remain coarse and slack. It is not that he will fail to adorn or idealize the world; it is that he will not see what is there.” The boy he describes is the new Narcissus, borne of the erotic egotism of his age. He is in love with his own image, an image reflected in the validation of others behind the screen.

To mend the defective eros of our digital age is a challenge that requires a cultivation of virtuous habits. It begins with looking up from our screens: “When a man loves a woman,” says Fulton Sheen, “he has to become worthy of her. The higher her virtue, the more noble her character; the more a man has to aspire to be worthy of her.” We must restore our vision of love and purify our approach to dating if we are to prepare ourselves for our own love story.

 

Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • CSD

    Sensitive response to the sexual chaos that prevails among the Millennials. It is not clear how to address this issue. Your concluding remarks which draw inspiration from the sentiment of Fulton Sheen are certainly apropos, but one despairs over the prospect of meeting in this debased “hook-up” culture a woman of “high virtue” and “noble character.” Many of us may be in the unfortunate position of having to “restore our vision of love” and “purify our approach to dating” without the promise of “our own love story” in which we are linked with a woman of whom we ever could aspire to be worthy.