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Posts Tagged ‘Relationships’

When I was reading about Want-ology last week, I came across this wonderful phrase: the outsourcing of the self. It says so much, without needing to be explained; it gives enormous satisfaction by filling a definite lexicological gap.

outsourced self

This is how Rhys Blakely got onto the subject:

Look no further than the growing list of intimate tasks, or ‘hyper-personal services’, that can be outsourced to paid strangers in LA.

There are nameologists to name children, who are then potty trained by hired baby-whisperers; there are ‘elderly-care managers’ and professional graveside-visitors; there are love coaches and ‘decluttering consultants’, and I once met a banker who hired somebody to read his children bedtime stories down the phone.

So is it really surprising to learn that you can now pay someone to tell you what you want?

[Times2, p4, March 14, 2013]

It’s hard to believe some of this Californian excess, but there are plenty of more mainstream examples.

I don’t know if she actually coined the phrase, but Arlie Russell Hochschild is the author of The Outsourced Self. This is from a review by Judith Shuleviz.

In “The Outsourced Self,” Hochschild talks to love coaches, wedding planners, surrogate mothers, nannies, household consultants and elder-care managers, but also, and with deep empathy, their clients. A majority of these people are middle-aged or near middle age; the main thing is, they’re not young, which means they are not yet used to a virtualized and monetized social existence and can still express doubts about it. Most are women, who have long been the main providers of care, love and charity.

Hochschild’s consumers buy hyperpersonal services because they lack the family support or social capital or sheer time to meet potential mates, put on weddings, whip up children’s birthday parties, build children’s school projects, or care for deteriorating parents.

Or these folks think they just couldn’t perform such tasks as well as the pros. The providers sell their services because the service economy is where the money is, or because they take pleasure in helping others. Everybody worries about preserving the human element in the commercial encounter. Very few succeed.

Shuleviz gives this example:

Evan Katz is a love coach who teaches would-be online daters “How to Write a Profile That Attracts People You Want to Meet.” One of his clients is Grace (virtually all names have been changed), a divorced 49-year-old engineer who wants to search for love as methodically as she solves an engineering problem. Katz tells her “to show the real you through real stories.” When Grace comes up with a story about learning humility by scrubbing toilets at a Zen monastery, he reels her back in: “That might be a little too out there.”

On a mass medium like the Internet, the best “real you” is average, not quirky: “Everyone needs to aim for the middle so they can widen their market,” Katz says. He encourages daters to rate themselves from 1 to 10, and not to aim higher than their own rating.

On the other hand, he worries that daters will objectify themselves and others so zealously they’ll equate dating and shopping: “They want to quickly comb through the racks and snap their fingers, next . . . next . . . next. . . . You can be too efficient, too focused on your list of desired characteristics, so intent on getting the best deal that you pass over the right one.” Luckily, Grace escapes that trap when she agrees to go out with a tattooed, bald musician who doesn’t fit the criteria on her list, and falls in love.

We are outsourcing the self all the time. It’s part of what makes us human, that our personal lives are never completely separated from the culture, and that there is often a transactional element to this.

We share tasks; we give and take; we are responsible for each other in different ways. The line between what is personal, familial, cultural, technological, and commercial is always being re-negotiated. That doesn’t mean we can’t make mistakes or cross a line into a kind of existence that is almost depersonalised. This is the real question that Hochschild is raising.

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times square by joshua davis photography

From celibacy (my last post) to dating. I hear a lot, in pastoral conversations, about how difficult it can be for single people to meet others; or, having met them, how hard it is to take the relationship to a deeper and more committed level. But the extra difficulty today, it seems, is that many people don’t even know what they are looking for in a relationship; and if they do, they are psychologically hard-wired – because of mobile phones and social media – to undermine the very relationship they want.

Rebecca Holman moves from examining her own relationships to some more general points about why dating is so difficult today.

I have called myself single for the past decade. Strange then, I realised recently, that I have rarely been properly on my own. I haven’t lived with a boyfriend, introduced anyone to my parents, or been on a mini-break. Yet even without an official ‘boyfriend’ there are normally several text conversations with potential beaus buzzing away on my phone.

I also tend to have a few guys on a low-level stalk on Facebook, and there’s always that frisson of excitement when an attractive man retweets one of my ‘LOLz-ier’ status updates. I might be missing out on love, but I’m never short of intrigue, and right now intrigue seems more fun.

Some of this intrigue even becomes actual, real-life, human interaction and perhaps… more. But mostly I’ve found myself in a perpetual state of limbo – stuck somewhere between first encounter, a hook-up and a full-blown relationship. It’s thanks in part to social media. Twitter, Facebook and Google have turned the dating world upside-down, changing how we meet people, what we know about them before we do – and introducing a new layer of ambiguity into single life that generations before us never had to contend with.

I am not in a relationship – or in what someone 20 years older than me would consider a relationship – yet rarely am I definitively single. There is not quite a word for what I am. Our vocabulary is straining as much as we are to encompass the world of modern dating.

What’s going on historically/psychologically here? It’s partly the fear of commitment, the need to endlessly keep one’s options open, and the mismatch between unrealistic fantasy and reality. Holman explains:

If, like me, you’re a ‘millennial’ (born between 1983 and 2000) you will have never known adulthood – or adult relationships – without a mobile phone. Like me, you are probably so used to keeping your options open – and not deciding what you’re doing on a Friday night until about 6.59pm that evening – that the idea of ‘dating’ seems pretty foreign. Actually phone someone up to ask them out and agree on a date at some point in the future and put it in my diary? Unthinkable. What if I get a better offer? Instead, millennials like to keep it vague. Instead of dating (an American term anyway) we might be ‘seeing someone’, ‘having a thing’, ‘hooking up’. Increasingly, we ‘hang out’ – and not necessarily as a twosome.

Ours is a generation of contradictions. We bravely (recklessly?) let the rest of the world into our online world with gay abandon: you’d like to see 50 pictures of me on a bikini on the beach? Go ahead! Want to know how I’m feeling at this exact moment? Here you are! But in the world of endless options, where nothing seems permanent, and you never have to interact with anyone face to face if you don’t want to, me actually picking up the phone, telling someone how I feel about them, or even asking them out for dinner seems like too big a risk. Why make a phone-call or suggest a date when you can send a non-committal text that merely dangles the possibility of meeting? If they’re keen, you’ll see each other; if not, they’ll plead prior plans. No one’s feelings get hurt.

But at least one of you can end up feeling confused. The social psychologist Ben Voyer warns that while texting and online messaging are perceived to be easier than face-to-face contact or a telephone conversation, in the medium to long term they can make things more difficult. (Was last Friday a ‘date’? Your guess is as good as mine.)

‘Face-to-face contact is much richer. We have more visual and audio cues to help us form an impression of someone.’ Of course endless texting will never offer the same insight into someone’s personality as even a single face-to-face conversation. The I-don’t-know-what-is-going-on phase of a proto-relationship can continue far longer now. You can become vastly experienced in the heady yet confusing dance of Early Days – I have had years of it, and know all the steps – yet remain an ignoramus about the mysterious state of proper Girlfriend and Boyfriend.

Yet it’s so easy to get carried away with texting or instant messaging. Having just counselled a friend through an ambiguous ‘relationship’ characterised by furious text conversations and the occasional meet-up, I then found myself helping another friend decide what to wear when she met up with a man whose activities she’d been obsessively following on Facebook for months. So, how did it go? ‘It wasn’t as thrilling as I’d hoped it would be…’ admitted my friend afterwards. ‘I think he was a little tired.’

Such disappointment shouldn’t come as a surprise, says Emma Weighill-Baskerville, a psychotherapist and relationship specialist. ‘The person may not fulfil the fantasy created through literary communication alone – this is only one piece of an individual. With texts, you are allowing a large space for fantasy to take over.’

The common business of ‘researching’ potential dates on Facebook, Twitter and Google can lead to similar disappointment – especially for a generation like mine, who curate their Facebook pages to PR-worthy standards. One friend furiously edits her Facebook page when a man she likes accepts her friend request. ‘I don’t bother to use Facebook the rest of the time, but when someone interesting pops up I’m all over it, uploading flattering pictures, subjecting my friends to a barrage of witty status updates.’

As Voyer explains, ‘People are increasingly constructing two identities – their online identity, and their offline identity.’ He points to Twitter in particular, saying that ‘new ways of interacting have widened the gap between our actual selves – who we actually are – and our “ought” selves – who we think other people want us to be.’

So, proper, honest, face-to-face communication is key. Unfortunately, for a generation practically weaned on telecommunication devices, person-to-person communication is not exactly our strong suit…

You can read the whole article here – which has some extra paragraphs about how technology can actually help a relationship as well as hinder it.

What do you think – all you single people out there? (And all the non-single people who have been dating recently…)

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Stepping away from the politics and polemic surrounding marriage for a moment, how do you actually form children and young people – in an age-appropriate way – to understand the true meaning of love, friendship, sexuality and relationships?

A scene from the Play 'Nine Months' by Ten Ten Theatre

A scene from the Play ‘Nine Months’ by Ten Ten Theatre

 

I happened to see this article by Martin O’Brien that appeared in the Universe this month.

First of all, he recognises the challenges:

Educating children and young people with a sound understanding of Church teaching on relationships, sexual morality, love, marriage and family life remains one of the most challenging issues for any Catholic school.  Problems arise:  How we do we speak to children in their own language and culture but avoid reinforcing it?  Beyond the rules and regulations, what exactly is the Church teaching?  How am I supposed to teach it if my own life and values don’t live up to the ideal?

It was within this environment six years ago that Ten Ten Theatre – an award-winning Catholic theatre company – began devising, writing and producing a programme of Catholic Sex and Relationship Education which has now been established in hundreds of primary schools, secondary schools and parishes throughout the UK.

We take our inspiration from Blessed John Paul II’s teaching known as The Theology of the Body.  It has been our task over the last few years to identify some of the core values of the teaching and write accessible, contemporary stories to explore these ideas.  Karol Wojtyla himself was a keen actor and dramatist who believed passionately in the power of story and character to examine the human person.  At Ten Ten we aim to do the same, encouraging our children and young people to reflect on their own lives and experiences in order to understand more deeply their Call to Love.

Then he gives some examples from their work with teenagers:

The play “Chased” for the 13-14 age group follows the story of Scott and Carly who are so confused by the world they inhabit – pressure from friends, influence of the media, physical development – that they almost lose sight of their core dignity.  And yet through the story they begin to understand the deepest longings of the heart: to be honourable, to be cherished, to be loved and to love as Christ loves.

By taking the characters on this journey, and following it up with discussion, sharing, reflection and prayer, the young people understand what it means to be “in” the world but not “of” the world.

This begs the question, which O’Brien asks: What about primary school children?  How can we promote these values without corrupting children with sexual imagery and inappropriate information?

tt2

One example is “The Gift”, a lovely play for 7-9 year-olds.  It tells the story of twins Harry and Kate who learn about the preciousness of gifts: Kate’s treasured musical box, given to her by her Auntie who passed away, is accidentally smashed to pieces by Harry.  Harry doesn’t understand why Kate is so upset. “After all,” he says, “you can get another one from the pound shop… for a pound!” Through the story, both Harry and Kate (and the children watching) learn about the true value of gifts, what it means to make a gift of yourself and the importance of forgiveness.

These are precisely the same values we promote through the play “Chased” but at an age-appropriate level.   In the follow-up workshop to “The Gift”, the actors ask the children to think more deeply about the best gift they have ever been given, who gave it to them and why is it so special.  Sometimes the responses are material: Playstations and puppies are always very popular.  Other responses tell of something deeper: my life or my baby brother.

However, a few weeks ago at a school in Merseyside, one particular response really touched us.“What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?” we asked.   “My mum,” said the boy.   “And why is she so special?”   “Because she adopted me and without her I wouldn’t have been brought up happy,” said the boy.   The boy’s mother, in fact, also taught at the school.  Later that day, when she was told what her adopted son had said, she crumbled into tears.

I can understand why.  This woman has likely given her entire life as a gift to the boy, making a decision to love him, protect him and care for him with all of her heart.  Surely this is one of the greatest gifts that a person could choose to give.  And yet it is a gift that people throughout the world make moment after moment, day after day.  Now, as a result of the visit of Ten Ten, this particular mother knew that her seven-year-old adopted son valued and appreciated the great sacrifice she has made.

You can follow the Ten Ten blog here. For more information see their main website here.

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wedding rings

Here is the gay marriage question no-one seems to be asking: If it’s all the same, then what’s the difference? With so much talk about equality, love, commitment and stability, is there simply no difference between gay marriage and marriage between a man and a woman? Is there absolutely nothing distinctive about marriage as it has traditionally been understood?

The answer is obvious but too easily forgotten: A life-long commitment between a man and a woman is a relationship involving sexual difference, involving male-female complementarity. For this reason, it allows children to be conceived and born within the life-long union of their own natural parents, and it is a form of commitment and family life that allows children to grow up with their own natural parents over a lifetime. This simply isn’t possible for a same-sex couple.

This doesn’t mean that a man and a woman are obliged to have children, or that they are always capable of having children. It’s simply a recognition that one distinctive aspect of this kind of male-female relationship is that, in ordinary circumstances, it can involve conceiving and bringing up their own children. (It’s not uncommon to talk about the ‘distinctive characteristics’ of something, even if there are exceptions. For example, it’s a distinctive characteristic of human beings that we use language; and the fact that some human beings cannot talk or choose not to talk does not undermine this).

This is not a religious argument (appealing to the Bible, the Anglican marriage service, or the Pope); it’s not a historical or sociological argument (highlighting national traditions or cultural norms); it’s not even a moral argument (although it does have moral implications). Nor is it a crude ‘biologist’ argument, reducing people to their genitalia and their reproductive capacities, because sexuality involves the whole person and not just procreation.

It is actually a humanist argument, appealing to an irrefutable truth about human nature that any rational person can acknowledge: that children can only be conceived by a man and a woman, and that marriage between their own parents is a form of family life that will allow children to grow up within the life-long embrace of their natural mother and father.

We have a word for this kind of life-long and public commitment between a man and a woman: it’s called marriage. It doesn’t exclude the fact that there are many other kinds of relationships, some of them involving love, stability and life-long commitments; nor does it rule out other forms of family life that come about for all sorts of different reasons. We have an assortment of words to help us understand some of the distinctions (‘marriage’ being one of them), and we need these words for the sake of clarity and honesty about some of the differences there are between different kinds of relationships.

This is why it’s misleading and even deceptive to claim that allowing gay marriage would make no difference to traditional marriage and to all those men and women who are already married. It’s often asked, rhetorically: What harm would it do? What difference would it make? Is it not just about allowing more people to share in the benefits of marriage? Is it not just about adding something rather than taking something away? Are we not simply increasing rights and widening the franchise?

This is simply untrue. If marriage is redefined to include gay marriage, it means that the core understanding of marriage will no longer include that aspect of sexual difference and complementarity, and that aspect of creating a family where one’s own children may be conceived and raised (even if this doesn’t happen for every couple). The definition of marriage will be narrowed (or perhaps we should say widened) to a relationship of love, friendship and mutual support. This is not just an addition or a minor change; it is a radical undoing of marriage as it is commonly understood. It makes it impossible for a man and woman to have their marriage recognised as a union that involves sexual-difference, because they are being told – in the new definition – that their sexual difference has nothing to do with the nature of their marriage. A right has been taken away and not just added.

There is a strange and perhaps unintended effect of the proposed legislation. It will not actually allow gay people to marry (where marriage keeps its traditional meaning); it will change marriage into a form of civil partnership. It will mean that marriage as it has traditionally been understood will cease to exist; and for a man and a woman wanting to commit themselves to each other in a life-long partnership, their only option will be a form of commitment that replicates the present civil partnership commitments for gay couples.

The fact is, of course, that many men and women will continue to marry, and the majority of them will conceive and raise their own children. Marriage as it has traditionally been understood will seem to go on, but we won’t have a specific word or public institution for it any more; and the irony is that if we are not allowed to use the word ‘marriage’ we will have to invent one which describes exactly what the word marriage used to describe.

But this is not just about words and definitions. Our whole society, not just ‘the state’, has until now recognised that marriage (as a life-long commitment between a man and woman) has been a relationship that deserves special recognition and special privileges. This is not because it is the only kind of life-long or loving relationship (it’s obvious that there are many others); nor is it because society scorns these other relationships (it’s got nothing to do with homophobia or gay rights); it is simply because – to state the obvious once again – marriage between a man and a woman, unlike a same-sex relationship, allows children to grow up with their own natural parents.

This non-religious and non-moral humanistic fact does lead to a moral question: Is it good and desirable, all things being equal, for parents to conceive and bring up their own natural children, and for children to be brought up within the loving union of their own natural mother and father? Most people would say yes. This isn’t to discriminate against other forms of relationship and other forms of parenting and family life, it is simply to acknowledge the unique meaning of marriage between a man and a woman, and to recognise that this distinctive relationship brings particular benefits to individuals and to society. That’s why we have a special word for this relationship, ‘marriage’; and that’s why this relationship is ‘institutionalised’ and given a special place in our society.

To deny the distinctive nature of marriage between a man and a woman, and to promote gay marriage, is actually to deny the commonly held assumption that (all things being equal) it is good for children to be brought up by their own natural mother and father. This might seem like a big leap of logic, but it’s true: To define marriage only in terms of love, commitment, stability, etc – to make gay marriage ‘equal’ – means that there will no longer be any social or legal recognition of the particular family unit where children are conceived and raised by their own natural mother and father in a public and life-long commitment. At present, we recognise different kinds of family life, and we preserve a special place in our society for the kind of family where parents can try to raise their own natural children in the context of a life-long and public commitment, and where children can grow up with their own natural parents in this same context. If gay marriage legislation is passed, it will no longer be possible to promote the idea that marriage between a man and a woman has a distinctive meaning and a particular benefit for children and for society.

Let me try to summarise all this. The distinctiveness of marriage between a man and a woman is not something that depends on religion or tradition or morality: it is a fact of human nature and of the nature of society, that this kind of relationship (unlike a same-sex relationship) involves sexual difference and complementarity, and that this kind of relationship (unlike a same-sex relationship) is a union in which parents can conceive and raise their own natural children – even though there may be particular reasons why a particular couple are unable to do this.

But the argument against gay marriage is a moral one, because it involves what is understood to be good for children, for family life and for society. This is not because of any prejudice against gay people; it is because society recognises the particular benefits that come when children can be brought up by their own mother and father in a loving and life-long relationship, in a commitment that has been made to each other and before others. This isn’t always possible; but when it is possible, it’s a good thing – to be loved by your own natural mother and father, and to be supported by their own continuing love for each other; to love your own children, and to know the continuing love of the person with whom you conceived these children. Very few people would deny that these are good things, for individuals and for society, even if they are sometimes difficult to achieve. That’s why we should acknowledge the particular relationship that can allow and nurture them. That’s why we should keep marriage as it is.

[Last edited - in response to feedback - on 19 Dec 2012]

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Fascinating figures recently out from Ofcom. For the first time ever, despite the fact that mobile phone sales are still surging, the time we spend talking on the mobile has actually dropped. So this isn’t just the decline of the landline conversation, which has been happening for a long time. It’s the decline of conversation full-stop, even though it is cheaper and easier than ever before.

Tiffany Jenkins gives the facts:

Have you noticed how little we talk on the telephone, compared to how much we used to? That’s talk; not text. Speak; not message. I rarely pick up the land-line, or my mobile, to dial those with whom I work.

Admittedly, I occasionally call a select group of friends and family, but even these have been filtered down to leave only a few on the line.

More often than not we e-mail each other instead of speaking to one another, or we text and instant message, contacting people through social networking sites. The answerphone is redundant, quiet in the corner. The landline retained only for its internet connection.

These observations are not confined to personal experience. Figures released by Ofcom, earlier this year, showed that the volume of landline calls have gone down dramatically. Last year, they fell by 10 percent. Today, it is surprising when it rings, and when – if ever it does, you are more likely find a salesperson at the end of the line than someone you actually know.

Fixed-line voice calls have been in decline for some time, but what is significant is that there has also been a drop in mobile voice calls.

The figures published by Ofcom show they are on the wane – the overall time spent talking on mobile phones dropped by over 1 per cent in 2011, for the first time ever. My mobile constantly bleeps and buzzes at the sound of new activity, but I hear the ring tone less and less.

People are still communicating, they just don’t do it directly. Instead we are switching to texts, e-mails and online communication of various sorts.

The average UK consumer now sends 50 texts per week which has more than doubled in four years.

What does it all mean? Jenkins reflects:

Developments in technology allow us to get in touch whenever, quickly, cheaply, and apparently efficiently, but separated at a distance. It isn’t face to face, nor on an open line. Walking into a once noisy office recently, where I used to work, I found that everyone was silently typing away. They were interacting with each other – and others – but though the internet. Text based communications and the computer are acting as a chaperone [...].

This connection at a distance concerns me. Why does it feel too intimate to call someone without an arrangement? What is so scary about an open line? And why do we need to be constantly in touch, but with technology coming between us, putting us at arms – or rather text – length?

And she writes about Sherry Turkle, professor of social sciences at Massachusetes Institute of Technology, who makes some pertinent points in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (which I haven’t yet read).

Her central point is that we are turning to technology to fill an emotional void and desire for intimacy, but that it in fact creates a new solitude. “Connectivity offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship”, she says.

That we seek intimacy in technology, and not with each other, suggests that we are too fearful of real-life connections, relying on technology as a shield. We are turning away from one another, typing away in isolation, and developing virtual connections, because it feels safer than speaking in person. But we cannot make friends, or sustain relationships without commitment, without exposing our true selves.

Social media will not be truly “social” if it is a crutch that we use in place of communicating with each other in real-time. It strikes me that we should pick up the telephone and speak to one another. Go on, take a risk and give someone a call. It is good to talk.

Do you talk less than you used to? Here is a tip/experiment: Instead of checking your email or Facebook or internet news at the end of the day, try calling someone just for a ten minute catch-up. Try it for a week. See if it has made a difference…

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Go and see Ruby Sparks. I nearly walked out after fifteen minutes, because it seemed like the most saccharine and cliché-ridden romantic comedy. But then she appears – the writer’s dream becomes his reality – and you realise that under the guise of a good-natured rom-com there lies a dark and disturbing psycho-drama and a clever philosophical meditation on love, power, freedom and identity. It’s one of the most thought-provoking films I’ve seen this year.

Minor plot-spoilers follow, but not much more than is in the trailer. He is a writer; he starts writing about a woman who has appeared in his dreams, and he creates the perfect woman who will fill his lonely heart. Then she appears, for real, and after the slapstick scenes of him and his brother coming to terms with that, he has to get on with the business of really knowing and loving her.

And of course the person he has created stops fitting into his model. So he breaks his self-imposed rule, and starts re-writing who she is, even as he is in the middle of the relationship. It goes funny, and pear-shaped, and self-defeating, and then very, very dark, before the inevitable (and I thought quite beautiful) light-filled resolution.

Like any good fairy-tale or parable, it presents in an outlandish form something that is so normal we have stopped seeing it. In this case, that we are attracted to people (not just romantically) because they match what we find attractive, what we hope to find in another; and that – often – we subtly and not-so-subtly pressure and manipulate people to conform to our expectations of what the relationship should be about.

So there is a joy in discovering ‘the other’, but the other is objectified and can become a projection of our own hopes. Then we realise that they are more than the person we want them to be – they are the person they want to be, and a person we may never appreciate or even understand.

Is the first kind of attraction inherently narcissistic and manipulative? Is all love, at least at the beginning, a form of fantasy? How do we keep the delight in finding someone who fits with our dreams at the same time as giving them the space to surprise and unsettle and disturb? We objectify someone, but we can’t live with an object for very long.

And if, to take the questioning much further, the person begins to realise that they have in some sense been created by another, where does that leave them? How do we set them free, without losing everything? How do they set themselves free? This isn’t such a fantasy: think of the myriad ways in which we have all been ‘created’, formed, by others – by parents, teachers, friends, culture, society…

I’m being very heavy, because I came away with my head spinning. It’s not as heavy as I have made it out – in fact it feels like a bit of fluff. That’s what makes it so clever, it’s a breezy romcom that reads, afterwards, like a lecture in philosophy or psychology. It’s intriguing and great fun.

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A friend sent a link to this article by Tim Kreider about our need to be busy all the time. Is he being harsh? Is it really all self-imposed? Are we really this dysfunctional, this afraid, this disconnected, this fidgety?

Or is this really about America, or about New York – and everything is fine here in London thank you very much?

If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs  who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work. They schedule in time with friends the way students with 4.0 G.P.A.’s  make sure to sign up for community service because it looks good on their college applications. I recently wrote a friend to ask if he wanted to do something this week, and he answered that he didn’t have a lot of time but if something was going on to let him know and maybe he could ditch work for a few hours. I wanted to clarify that my question had not been a preliminary heads-up to some future invitation; this was the invitation. But his busyness was like some vast churning noise through which he was shouting out at me, and I gave up trying to shout back over it.

Even children are busy now, scheduled down to the half-hour with classes and extracurricular activities. They come home at the end of the day as tired as grown-ups. I was a member of the latchkey generation and had three hours of totally unstructured, largely unsupervised time every afternoon, time I used to do everything from surfing the World Book Encyclopedia to making animated films to getting together with friends in the woods to chuck dirt clods directly into one another’s eyes, all of which provided me with important skills and insights that remain valuable to this day. Those free hours became the model for how I wanted to live the rest of my life.

The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it. Not long ago I  Skyped with a friend who was driven out of the city by high rent and now has an artist’s residency in a small town in the south of France. She described herself as happy and relaxed for the first time in years. She still gets her work done, but it doesn’t consume her entire day and brain. She says it feels like college — she has a big circle of friends who all go out to the cafe together every night. She has a boyfriend again. (She once ruefully summarized dating in New York: “Everyone’s too busy and everyone thinks they can do better.”) What she had mistakenly assumed was her personality — driven, cranky, anxious and sad — turned out to be a deformative effect of her environment. It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do.

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

Read on here if you want.

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It seems so obvious: you love someone, marriage is a possibility, you are not 100% sure or 100% ready, so you move in together to test the water and test each other. It will help you, surely, to get to know each other better, to deepen your mutual love, to see whether you are truly compatible, and to lay the foundations for a happy and lasting marriage. It seems so obvious, but it isn’t true.

Lino Print: Map To My House by Matt callow

I’m not speaking about ‘sexual morality’ here (although you can’t separate the moral aspect from everything else); nor am I speaking about a ‘Christian’ or ‘religious’ view of marriage. It is simply the psychological and statistical data that show how living together before you get married makes it harder for you to choose the right person and harder to prepare for a lifelong marriage together.

Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, presents some recent findings in psychology and sociology:

Cohabitation in the United States has increased by more than 1,500 percent in the past half century. In 1960, about 450,000 unmarried couples lived together. Now the number is more than 7.5 million. The majority of young adults in their 20s will live with a romantic partner at least once, and more than half of all marriages will be preceded by cohabitation. This shift has been attributed to the sexual revolution and the availability of birth control, and in our current economy, sharing the bills makes cohabiting appealing. But when you talk to people in their 20s, you also hear about something else: cohabitation as prophylaxis.

In a nationwide survey conducted in 2001 by the National Marriage Project, then at Rutgers and now at the University of Virginia, nearly half of 20-somethings agreed with the statement, “You would only marry someone if he or she agreed to live together with you first, so that you could find out whether you really get along.” About two-thirds said they believed that moving in together before marriage was a good way to avoid divorce.

But that belief is contradicted by experience. Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages — and more likely to divorce — than couples who do not. These negative outcomes are called the cohabitation effect.

Researchers originally attributed the cohabitation effect to selection, or the idea that cohabitors were less conventional about marriage and thus more open to divorce. As cohabitation has become a norm, however, studies have shown that the effect is not entirely explained by individual characteristics like religion, education or politics. Research suggests that at least some of the risks may lie in cohabitation itself.

But why is this? It’s due to a factor called ‘sliding, not deciding’.

Moving from dating to sleeping over to sleeping over a lot to cohabitation can be a gradual slope, one not marked by rings or ceremonies or sometimes even a conversation. Couples bypass talking about why they want to live together and what it will mean.

WHEN researchers ask cohabitors these questions, partners often have different, unspoken — even unconscious — agendas. Women are more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while men are more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship or postpone commitment, and this gender asymmetry is associated with negative interactions and lower levels of commitment even after the relationship progresses to marriage. One thing men and women do agree on, however, is that their standards for a live-in partner are lower than they are for a spouse.

Sliding into cohabitation wouldn’t be a problem if sliding out were as easy. But it isn’t. Too often, young adults enter into what they imagine will be low-cost, low-risk living situations only to find themselves unable to get out months, even years, later. It’s like signing up for a credit card with 0 percent interest. At the end of 12 months when the interest goes up to 23 percent you feel stuck because your balance is too high to pay off. In fact, cohabitation can be exactly like that. In behavioral economics, it’s called consumer lock-in.

Lock-in is the decreased likelihood to search for, or change to, another option once an investment in something has been made. The greater the setup costs, the less likely we are to move to another, even better, situation, especially when faced with switching costs, or the time, money and effort it requires to make a change.

Jay writes about her own experience of working as a clinical psychologist.

I’ve had other clients who also wish they hadn’t sunk years of their 20s into relationships that would have lasted only months had they not been living together. Others want to feel committed to their partners, yet they are confused about whether they have consciously chosen their mates. Founding relationships on convenience or ambiguity can interfere with the process of claiming the people we love. A life built on top of “maybe you’ll do” simply may not feel as dedicated as a life built on top of the “we do” of commitment or marriage.

And this is her non-moralising but very practical conclusion:

I am not for or against living together, but I am for young adults knowing that, far from safeguarding against divorce and unhappiness, moving in with someone can increase your chances of making a mistake — or of spending too much time on a mistake. A mentor of mine used to say, “The best time to work on someone’s marriage is before he or she has one,” and in our era, that may mean before cohabitation.

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So this is the week in which Barack Obama came out in favour of ‘gay marriage’, the Queen remained silent (in her address to parliament), David Cameron seemed a little less sure about where this is going politically (despite the renewed commitments of equalities minister Lynne Featherstone), and Mitt Romney reaffirmed his conviction that marriage is between a man and a woman.

In an editorial this morning the Times said this is ‘a cornerstone issue of civil rights’. You can see how this ‘framing’ of the question closes down any serious debate; it turns it into a battle between the good people who are for civil rights and the bad people who are against them; it completely avoids the much more serious and consequential issue of whether this proposed legislation in favour of same-sex ‘marriage’ will actually change the nature of marriage and the family or not, and what the effects of this change will be for individuals and for society. The Times doesn’t acknowledge that you are not just giving an apparent right to gay people, you are also redefining – for every person and for the whole of society - the nature of marriage and the family as it has been almost universally understood.

There is still time to respond to the Government’s consultation – see the link here. And to sign the Coalition for Marriage petition here.

There is no space for lengthy replies on the consultation website – they limit the word count quite strictly. It’s good in some ways, because it means you have to clarify your thoughts and cut out the flannel.

Here is the reply I wrote for the consultation, and sent to my MP:

I am against this proposal for five reasons.

First, it radically transforms the meaning of marriage for all couples (not just same-sex couples) and turns it into simply a committed relationship between any two consenting adults.

Second, it makes different forms of family life equivalent, and disregards the evidence that it is in the best interests of children to be brought up by their own natural/biological parents. Marriage between a man and a woman is the only relationship that allows children to be conceived by their own natural/biological parents and raised in that lifelong family unit, which is why it is given a special status. This is not a prejudice but a natural reality.

Third, this proposal will increase prejudice and intolerance against those who believe and teach that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

Fourth, it drives a wedge between civil and religious views of marriage, which can only harm society. At present there is a single understanding of marriage, shared by both religious and non-religious people, but celebrated in different contexts (civil or religious).

Fifth, this proposal has been ‘forced’ onto the political agenda; it was not in any party manifestos; it is not a pressing political issue for most people; and 70% of people support the traditional understanding of marriage (according to a recent poll).

[This is slightly over the consultation word count, so I had to cut a couple of phrases - I can't remember which!]

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I posted on Saturday about the topic of same-sex ‘marriage’ in general, without discussing the process of consultation that is taking place over these next twelve weeks.

The document from the Government Equalities Office shows a staggering narrowness and an unapologetic lack of interest in consulting about the two main issues that anyone, surely, would be concerned about – whatever their views. Namely, what the social effects of this redefinition would be, and whether it is a good thing for our society to redefine marriage in this way. The fundamental questions of what and whether are simply bypassed in the main opening sections. The only question asked in the main topic box on page 2 is how: ‘how to provide equal access to civil marriage for same sex couples’; just as the only question asked in the Ministerial Foreword on page 1 is ‘how we can remove the ban on same-sex couples having a civil marriage in a way that works for everyone’. Granted, the first of the detailed consultation questions is, ‘Do you agree or disagree with enabling all couples regardless of their gender to have a civil marriage ceremony?’ But this is in the context of a consultation that has already defined itself in its introductory statements as a means to working out how and not whether.

Catholic Voices analyses this much better than I can:

The Government’s consultation paper, published yesterday under the misleading title of Equal civil marriage: a consultation reveals both the shoddiness of its thinking and the extraordinary authoritarianism of a process which Lynne Featherstone, the equalities minister, has repeatedly made clear has only one outcome.

The Government’s proposal fundamentally to alter – and in the process radically redefine in such a way as to render it meaningless — a major social public institution which has traditionally been protected by the state is one of the most audacious uses of unaccountable state power in more than a generation.

The proposal was in no party manifesto prior to the May 2010 general election. There has been no Green Paper or White Paper. Yet the Government makes clear that this is a consultation not on whether to introduce gay marriage but on how to. And they have also made clear that the strength of public opinion – manifest in the Coalition for Marriage’s historically large petition in protest (now exceeding 200,000), as well as in the ComRes poll for Catholic Voices advertised in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph showing 70% of British people in favour of retaining the current definition – will simply be ignored. The Government’s response to the consultation, they say on p. 2, “will be based on a consideration of the points made in consultation responses, not the number of responses received.”

As Greg Daly points out, the Consultation continually confuses weddings and marriages, in such a way as to imply that civil and religious marriages are two separate legal realities. In fact, in law there is only marriage, with two ways into it — via the state (civil ceremonies) or the Church (church weddings), with each (state and Church) recognising the other’s ceremonies as valid. This is because both Church and state recognise the reality of marriage as an institution embedded in civil society which precedes and predates both state and Church — and which lies beyond their control to redefine. The Government utterly fails to grasp this essential point, and appears baffled, therefore, at the Churches’ vigorous opposition to the move.

The description of same-sex marriage as “equal” marriage is a naked attempt at hijacking the term; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights already makes clear that men and women have the an equal right to marriage. The notion that redefining marriage is for the sake of “equality” is nakedly absurd, as the Catholic Voices briefing paper (recently updated) makes clear.

The other massive flaw in the Consultation, one which exposes the poverty of the Government’s thinking about marriage, is the complete absence from it of children. As the Archbishop of Westminster pointed out in last night’s Newsnight (beginning at 11’40):

‘To me it is utterly astonishing that in the whole consultation document … there is not one reference to a child. There is no reference to children at all. And I think that shows that the vision of marriage contained in the consultation document is reduced. It is excluding things that are of the very nature of marriage.’

The Consultation lasts until June. At present, the debate is being cast as a disagreement between the entire political establishment and the Churches, almost alone in their organised opposition. The leaders of all three political parties, cowed by the efficient lobbying of Stonewall – whose £4m annual budget allows it to employ teams of lawyers and lobbyists — are in favour of the proposal. Unless civil society organises, and a proper debate is enjoined, the state will be allowed to reshape society in a way that can only be described as totalitarian. The choice is ours.

Public reactions do influence the thinking of politicians. If you want to sign the petition organised by Coalition for Marriage, you can visit the site here.

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You might be sick to death of media discussions about same-sex marriage, but just in case you need a bit more background and food for thought, here is the latest briefing paper from Catholic Voices. (There is a link to the paper in the 5th paragraph here.) Despite the ‘Catholic Voices’ label, it doesn’t try to argue against redefining marriage from a religious point of view; instead it appeals to a vision of how marriage as presently understood serves the common good of society – for people of no faith as much as for people of faith; and it argues that redefining marriage will harm the whole of society and not just the religious groups that might be promised some kind of ‘exemption’.

Here are a few choice paragraphs. First, on the implications of the redefinition for society as a whole:

It is also inadequate to assert, as does the gay rights lobby Stonewall, that “if Roman Catholics don’t approve of same-sex marriage, they should make sure they don’t get married to someone of the same sex.”  The question of whether marriage should be redefined such that its meaning and nature cease to be conjugal is a one which affects the whole of society; and a matter on which all people – whether gay or straight, married or unmarried, religious or unreligious – are entitled to express a view.  Marriage has an intrinsic cultural and social meaning – a conjugal meaning – which is not specific to religious understandings of marriage, although religion gives it extra meaning. Whether entered by the religious or the civil route, marriage is marriage; its intrinsic conjugal meaning will need to be rejected in order to allow same-sex marriage.

Second, on the impoverished vision of marriage being presented in the re-definition:

When the Prime Minister, David Cameron, last year addressed his party’s conference, his justification for legalising gay marriage differed from that of his Equalities Minister. “Yes, it’s about equality,” he said, “but it’s also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other.” This frame allowed him to claim that he did not support gay marriage “despite” but “because of” being a Conservative.

Similarly, the liberal-conservative Economist asserted that “the real nature of marriage … is a binding commitment, at once legal, social and personal, between two people to take on special obligations to one another.” The magazine went on to ask: “If homosexuals want to make such marital commitments to one another, and to society, then why should they be prevented from doing so while other adults, equivalent in all other ways, are allowed to do so?”

This same truncated thinking underlies the Government’s consultation paper, which gives as one of its “principles for change” the following statement: “The Government recognises that the commitment made between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, in a civil partnership is as significant as the commitment between a man and a woman in a civil marriage.”

These definitions of marriage as merely an expression of commitment between two individuals are severely truncated: as Archbishop Vincent Nichols has pointed out, “equality and commitment do not amount to marriage”. The quotes above make no reference to the key element in the conjugal understanding of marriage which has permeated our culture and history and which – as our poll shows – remains widespread. Unlike the Prime Minister, most people see marriage as a union of a man and a woman for the sake of the bearing and nurturing of children (even if children do not always result). This conjugal understanding of marriage is not just marriage’s real meaning; it is also the reason it is respected and promoted by the state.

Then a passage about the importance of marriage for the common good:

Marriage’s importance to society rests on three premises:

  1. The family is the founding unit of civil society
  2. At the heart of the family is the sexual union of a man and a woman given to each other for their sake and for the good of their children;
  3. Marriage provides the ideal, irreplaceable environment for the raising of children, who benefit psychologically, emotionally, and in countless other ways by being brought up by their mother and father.

Marriage has many “goods” – emotional commitment and stability among them. But the reason the state promotes marriage is because of its link to, and benefits for, children. These benefits are inextricably bound up with the conjugal union of man and a woman, who become mother and father to the children they generate. Other arrangements for bringing up children are not promoted and legitimised by the state because, however loving the carers, they are far less beneficial. Children brought up by divorced or single parents, by adopted parents or by relatives, by same-sex couples or in foster homes, are all missing something essential to their well-being; and that is why society (and the state) do not promote and institutionalise such arrangements. For while there are bad marriages and bad families, and sad cases where children are abused by their parents, the overwhelming, unchanging norm is that a child raised by his or her mother and father stands the best chance in life. It is not simply the presence of two parents of opposite genders, but the presence of two biological parents, that best supports children’s development – and this is something recognised, as our survey shows, by 84 per cent of British people.

Although marriage is indissolubly linked to children, it is not simply a means for procreation. Couples who cannot for some reason reproduce can still be married: both Church and state accept that a marriage exists as long as it can be consummated – that is, as long as the behavioural conditions for procreation can be fulfilled.

Marriage is singled out and promoted by state, religion, and civil society, because it serves a far-reaching social good – the welfare of children. No compelling case exists for the state recognising same-sex (or other, non-marital) relationships in the same way as it supports marriage.

And finally, on how a redefinition would impact on everyone, and not just on the gay couples who would choose to ‘marry’ in this way:

One thing is clear: the redefinition which the Government proposes would require the state renouncing the conjugal understanding of marriage. Because society takes its cue from laws and the state, that redefinition will send a clear message that the state no longer holds to that conjugal understanding. The implication will be that the union of husband and wife is not, after all, a privileged context for the upbringing of a child. No kind of arrangement for the rearing of children can any longer be proposed by the state (and therefore society) as an ideal.

To suggest otherwise will in time be considered narrow-minded and intolerant. The very terms “husband and wife”, “mother and father”, would need to disappear from public and educational literature to avoid “exclusive” or “intolerant” language. The redefinition of marriage will require the cultural dethroning of the conjugal ideal. This is not a smaller matter for future generations of children, whose interests risk being sacrificed on the altar of an ideological view that same-sex relationships are as worthy as heterosexual ones of being upheld by the state. “Redefining marriage will have huge implications for what is taught in our schools, and for wider society. It will redefine society since the institution of marriage is one of the fundamental building blocks of society. The repercussions of enacting same-sex marriage into law will be immense” [Cardinal Keith O'Brien].

Losing the idea of gender complementarity as necessary for children will also have consequences. “Having two opposite-sex parents provides the child with the capacity to relate intimately to both males and females, and to adopt an engendered role from both influences … It is not in any child’s best interests to choose, through a redefinition of marriage, deliberately to deny these facts and then to institutionalise this denial” [Archbishop Peter Smith]. As the columnist Matthew Parris, who is gay, writes: “I am glad I had both a mother and a father, and that as after childhood I was to spend my life among both men and women, and as men and women are not the same, I would have missed something if I had not learned first about the world from, and with, both a woman and a man, and in the love of both.”

Do read the whole text, which partly deals with some of the objections that you might be raising as you read these summary paragraphs. There is a link to the paper in this report.

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Is boarding school bad for you? Stefanie Marsh, in a trenchant and fairly one-sided article, looks at the work of psychotherapist Joy Schaverien. In her paper ‘Boarding School: The Trauma of the Privileged Child’, Schaverien claims to identify something called Boarding School Syndrome, an emotional dysfunction stemming primarily from the trauma of early separation from one’s parents, that manifests itself in intimacy problems in later life.

Eton College

In Schaverien’s words:

Parents bankrupt themselves to send their children to school when they are just babies really. This is a terrible burden for the child. But it is like sending a child into care. Nowadays there are duvets on the beds and they are allowed teddy bears but it doesn’t make up for the fact that children leave their mothers, their primary attachment figures, when they are essentially still babies.

Stefanie Marsh fills in some of the psychological details:

‘Attachment theory’, a core tenet of contemporary psychology, was formulated by the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, who, in the Second World War, observed the effects on children who had lost parents or been evacuated. During the 1980s, his theories were extrapolated and applied to adults – separation anxiety and grief in childhood, it is now commonly held, can create different ‘attachment styles’ in adult romantic relationship: secure-avoidant, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant.

Boarding school ‘survivors’, as they have been collectively termed by the psychotherapist Nick Duffell, are said to most frequently exhibit avoidant styles, viewing themselves as self-sufficient, invulnerable to attachment feelings and not needing close relationships. Often they suppress their feelings, cope with rejection by distancing themselves from partners or feel uncomfortable with emotional or physical closeness.

So this isn’t about identifying particular problems that can develop in the culture of a boarding school, it’s about the very fact of being separated from one’s parents at an ‘early’ age. I think the focus is more on those who board at ‘prep’ school, i.e. those who leave home not at 13, but sometime between the ages of 7 and 13. (David Cameron went to board at prep school at age 7; Stephen Fry at 7; Boris Johnson at 9; Price William at 8; Sienna Miller at 8…)

What do you think? What’s your own experience? Is there another side to this story?

[Times, Modern section, 23 June, pp. 4-5; subscription only]

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A young couple fall in love and panic about the consequences of commitment. A woman hides away in the bathroom at her own fortieth birthday party because she can’t face being reminded of so many years lost in an unhappy marriage. A young man confronts his widowed mother because she doesn’t seem to trust the woman he wants to marry.

There were constant glimpses of the beauty and the fragility of human love, and the way it inevitably uncovers a longing for something even deeper, something more mysterious. An indescribable longing, as one of the characters says.

You might expect a Polish bishop to preach about some of these themes, but not to dramatise them and bring them to the underground theatre of his day.

It was a marvellous play. I wish I could urge you all to go and see it, but there were only two performances. Martin O’Brien is the artistic director of Ten Ten Theatre. He’s adapted a play called The Jeweller’s Shop by Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II.

It’s hard to present profound spiritual themes in the context of our contemporary culture without trivialising them, or sounding preachy. The most fruitful way is often through the medium of human experience. We live in the age of Big Brother and YouTube. Lives are exposed. We are constantly confronted with an unmediated human experience. So when grace is working through that ordinary human experience, it gives an opportunity to touch the fringe of God’s cloak and be lifted up for a moment into the transcendent, without stepping into church or lighting a candle.

Formal religion and popular devotions have lost none of their significance, but the fact is they are outside the bounds of most people’s reality. That’s why a bishop in the late 1950s, and a cutting-edge playwright in our own time, have tried to put the focus on everyday human relationships. Through those relationships, with the ambiguous longings of the human heart exposed so clearly, we catch a glimpse of the divine; just a whisper – quiet enough to be missed, clear enough to unsettle and enchant.

The Jeweller’s Shop by Karol Wojtyla is published by Ignatius Press. The Jeweller, by Martin O’Brien, was performed at Leicester Square Theatre on 22 June, directed by Paul Jepson, as part of the Spirit in the City festival. If you can help Ten Ten Theatre put on a longer run of this wonderful play, see their fundraising page here.

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I’m reading Susan Maushart’s The Winter of Our Disconnect, about ‘How three totally wired teenagers (and a mother who slept with her iPhone) pulled the plug on their technology and lived to tell the tale’.

First, Maushart describes the extent to which electronic media were an inescapable part of their family life:

At ages fourteen, fifteen, and eighteen, my daughters and my son don’t use media. They inhabit media. And they do so exactly as fish inhabit a pond. Gracefully. Unblinkingly. And utterly without consciousness or curiosity as to how they got there [...]

For Generation M, as the Kaiser report dubbed these eight- to eighteen-year-olds, media use is not an activity – like exercise, or playing Monopoly, or bickering with your brother in the back seat. It’s an environment: pervasive, invisible, shrink-wrapped around pretty much everything kids do and say and think.

Then why did she have so many doubts and uncertainties?

“Only connect”, implored E.M. Forster in his acclaimed novel Howards End

So… How connected, I found myself wondering, is connected enough? As a social scientist, journalist, and mother, I’ve always been an enthusiastic user of information technology (and I’m awfully fond of my dryer too). But I was also growing sceptical of the redemptive power of media to improve our lives – let alone to make them ‘easier’ or simplify them. Like many other parents, I’d noticed that the more we seemed to communicate as individuals, the less we seemed to cohere as a family. (Talk about a disconnect!)

There were contradictions on a broader scale too – and they have been widely noted. That the more facts we have at our fingertips, the less we seem to know. That the ‘convenience’ of messaging media (e-mail, SMS, IM) consumes ever larger and more indigestable chunks of our time and headspace. That as a culture we are practically swimming in entertainment, yet remain more depressed than any people who have ever lived. Basically, I started considering a scenario E.M. Forster never anticipated: the possibility that the more we connect, the further we may drift, the more fragmented we may become.

What’s your experience? Has all this connectivity made us more connected? Happy? Freer? Less alone? More alive? More at peace with ourselves and one with each other?

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One of the many topics explored at the Theology of the Body conference over the weekend was shame. Not the moral shame we feel when we’ve done something wrong and wish we could undo or hide it; but another kind of ‘anthropological’ shame we feel as an instinctive response to those who treat us as if we were just objects.

Christ raising Adam and Eve

John Crosby explained how in Pope John Paul’s anthropology, we long to be recognised as persons, with an innate dignity and an inner life of our own. This is one part of his ‘personalilst’ philosophy. If someone simply looks at us (we might say stares at us), they don’t get beyond the surface sheen of our body – so we become objectified or ‘instrumentalised’ (as the jargon goes), turned into ‘instruments’ for the use of another – even if they mean no harm – and denied our own personhood and subjectivity.

This happens all the time, and usually it doesn’t matter too much. It does no harm that we are only able to glance at the hundreds of people in the high street, and that we can’t engage with them enough to appreciate their inner beauty. But if someone quite consciously stares at another, looks at them without seeing them as a person, it becomes an intrusion; and this is even more the case if they are being turned through this look into a purely sexual object.

Shame is our natural defence against this intrusion. This is quite distinct from the shame that comes if we are guilty of doing something wrong and desperate to hide our wrongdoing. The ‘good shame’ takes place almost at an existential level, rather than a moral one. It involves an inner withdrawal. To stop myself being turned into an object, I hide myself – physically, emotionally, psychologically and even spiritually. I don’t want to allow the ‘shameless’ look of the other to trap me and reduce me to the sheer materiality of my bodily existence. The shame I experience is much more than a feeling – it is a strategic response, a form of legitimate self-protection.

The goal, ultimately, is to recover that original innocence of the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve could stand without shame before each other in their nakedness – truly ‘seeing’ each other in all their personal depths, delighting in their humanity. I don’t mean this literally – there are other important reasons why we are not naturists. But the idea of standing before each other without shame, and of allowing others to come before us without the need to feel this anthropological shame, is part of our redemption and a return to innocence.

There are simpler words to express all this: the need for respect, acceptance, reverence, humility, gentleness, openness, sincerity, etc. Pope John Paul just wants to get behind the language to see why it really matters at the level of his personalist philosophy.

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What an amazing day. I was at St Mary’s University College yesterday for the Third International Symposium on Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and I saw the fastest man in the world! The fastest man in the world ever! 100m in 9.58 seconds. (I didn’t see him do the 9.58 seconds.)

Let’s deal with Usain Bolt first. He was at St Mary’s for an afternoon of interviews and publicity. I heard this on the grapevine and snuck down to the gym where he was doing a photo-shoot. I don’t have tickets to the 100m final at the Olympics, so I presume this is as close as I will ever get to the legend. It was a sweet moment just to see him in the flesh, and to imagine watching the Olympics on the TV next summer.

Here is the world record run:

And the conference. It’s just getting started, but there were two interesting talks from Michael Waldstein and William Newton. Newton asked a fascinating question: Why does Pope John Paul talk about the spousal meaning of the body instead of the fraternal meaning of the body? There are many different ways of loving and relating and bonding, many different kinds of friendship, so why put the emphasis on the love shared by a husband and wife?

He gave what I thought was a good answer. He didn’t say that spousal love is the deepest kind of love, as if all other loves and relationships were a hidden longing for this – which wouldn’t make sense of the Christian understanding of heaven, and which would seem like a slight or an impossible burden to those of us (over 50% in the UK!) who are not married. Instead he said that spousal love provides an icon of the deepest meaning of all love; it shows with a particular clarity how every relationship – at its best – is about giving oneself in order to deepen the bonds of communion and friendship, a friendship that leads to new life for those in the relationship and for others.

In other words (I’m going a bit further than Newton did in his talk), all relationships, despite their radical differences – think of friends, siblings, parents and children, colleagues, fellow citizens, etc – have at heart an element of giving oneself, and receiving the gift of who the other person is, for the sake of communion and the giving of new life; they are unitive and procreative. It’s not that everyone has a vocation to be a husband or wife; it’s that everyone longs to give themselves to others in a way that has a particular iconic clarity in the love between husband and wife. This is why, according to Pope John Paul, the spousal meaning of the body has significance for all of us – married and unmarried.

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Just a follow-up from yesterday’s post about community: Robin Dunbar also writes about the kinds of friendships we form and the number of friends we typically have.

Don’t start over-analysing this and getting depressed about how many friends you don’t have – it’s not a competition or a test of psychological well-being!

On average, we have five intimate friends, 15 good friends (including the five intimate ones), 50 friends and 150 acquaintances. While it is not altogether clear why our relationships are constrained in this way, one possibility is time. A relationship’s quality seems to depend on how much time we devote to it, and since time is limited, we necessarily have to distribute what time we do have for social engagement unevenly. We focus most of it on our inner core of five intimates. Alternatively, it might just be a memory problem: we have a job keeping track of who’s doing what, and can only really keep serious tabs on the inner core of five.

The point about how difficult (and probably unwise) it is to have a large number of ‘intimate friends’ is not different from what Aristotle says about ‘perfect friendship’ in Book 8 of the Nicomachean Ethics.

But it is natural that such friendships should be infrequent; for such people are rare. Further, such friendship requires time and familiarity; as the proverb says, people cannot know each other till they have ‘eaten salt together’; nor can they admit each other to friendship or be friends till each has been found lovable and been trusted by each. Those who quickly show the marks of friendship to each other wish to be friends, but are not friends unless they both are lovable and know the fact; for a wish for friendship may arise quickly, but friendship does not.

Dunbar then connects the question of friendship with yesterday’s question about the ideal size for a community.

But there is one more serious problem lurking behind all this. In traditional small-scale societies, everyone shares the same 150 friends. This was true even in Europe until well into the 20th century, and probably still is true today of isolated rural communities. You might well fall out with them from time to time, but, like the Hutterites, you are bound together by mutual obligation and densely interwoven relationships. And of these, shared kinship was perhaps the most pervasive and important: offend Jim down the road, and you bring granny down on your back because Jim is her second-cousin-once-removed, and she’s got her own sister, Jim’s grandmother, on to her about it.

In the modern world of economic mobility, this simple balance has upset: we grow up here, go to university there, and move on to several elsewheres in a succession of job moves. The consequence is that our social networks become fragmented and distributed: we end up with small pockets of friends scattered around the country, most of whom don’t know each other and, perhaps more importantly, don’t know the family part of our networks. You can offend Jim, and almost no one will care. And if they do, you can afford to move on and leave that whole subset of friends behind. Networks are no longer self-policing.

Because modern geographical communities no longer have the social coherence they had up until the 1950s, it is perhaps inevitable that people become less willing to remonstrate with miscreants because others are unlikely to back them up. Bearing these factors in mind, is it any wonder that some inner-city communities fall victim to gang violence? Our real problem for the future is how to overcome this social fragmentation by recreating a sense of community in our increasingly urbanised and mobile world.

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What’s wrong with a bit of harmless gossip? So what if I use the odd half-truth to spice up a bit of conversation? Or pass on an unsubstantiated rumour? Isn’t it important that I know what’s going on, or what might be going on, or what could in theory in some alternative universe be going on? And that you know it too?

Laura Barton ponders these issues after seeing Lillian Helman’s 1934 play The Children’s Hour, that deals with the fall-out from a malicious accusation made against two teachers in a girls’ boarding school in New England.

‘Gossip,” the grande dame of rumourmongers, Liz Smith, once noted, “is just news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress.”

Few of us are immune to the lure of celebrity gossip. Like many women I know, I find even a casual visit to the Daily Mail website is akin to falling down a rabbit-hole: hours lost in the trials and tribulations of the Kardashian sisters, or the wardrobe choices of Kelly Brook, or in riveting accounts of Britney Spears paying an afternoon visit to Starbucks. And my conclusion is that the mud does stick: I can tell you with some accuracy, for example, the romantic history of Shia LaBoeuf, or the fitness regime of weather-girl Claire Nasir, and I have a working knowledge of the US television series Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, without ever once having seen it.

Gossip has always been deemed a largely female preserve, and there have been numerous studies of women’s relationships with hearsay and tattle, of the way it builds our social networks, cements our relationships, of the way we revel in its endless narrative – the weight gained, lost and gained once again; the bikini shots; the red-carpet outfits; the marriages; the births; the infidelities – in much the same way that many men (and, yes, women too) relish the rise and fall of a football team and its players.

But these days gossip seems to have outdone itself: its magazines (chiefly aimed at a female audience) flourish in a flagging market, while websites such as TMZ broadcast endless videos of Lindsey Lohan buying shoes or Justin Bieber inspecting his nails, and with this increased exposure we have come to believe these are things we have a right to know…

And this is what I fear we are in danger of forgetting: that gossip is harmful. And it is harmful not just to those who are gossiped about; it is harmful, too, to those of us who relentlessly consume it.

Nearly 50 years ago, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, in which she spoke of the widespread unhappiness and lack of fulfilment of women in the 50s and 60s. “The problem that has no name” was what she called it, and she defined it as “simply the fact that American women are kept from growing to their full human capacities”. It was, she said, “taking a far greater toll on the physical and mental health of our country than any known disease”.

Times are different now. Women have greater access to education, to careers, to intellectual fulfilment than ever before. And yet now we choose to dumb ourselves down, to subdue our own minds by sedating ourselves with online visits to the Daily Mail and buying gossip weeklies at the newsstand. “The feminine mystique has succeeded in burying millions of American women alive,” Friedan wrote in 1963, and there are times when I fear we are doing no better – burying ourselves alive in a mire of half-true tales about Sienna Miller.

We need to nourish our minds, we need to recognise that if we continue to feed ourselves with this bilge, this drivel, then we are imprisoning ourselves. Isn’t it time we became less about the red satin dress and more about the news?

Is it really predominantly a ‘women’s issue’? And if so – why?

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A friend introduced me to a branch of psychology called ‘self-determination theory’. It looks at how human beings grow and mature in the context of their relationships and their social environment.

The theory suggests that there are three basic needs that we all have in our journey towards psychological maturity and well-being: autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

‘Autonomy’ is our need to be ourselves, to have a sense of freedom and responsibility for who we are and for the choices we make. ‘Relatedness’ is our need to connect with others, in love and friendship; and the need to belong in wider ways, through different types of community and communication. ‘Competence’ highlights the fact that it is not enough just to discover ourselves or to belong. We also need to have a purpose, a role, a skill, something to contribute to a bigger project. It’s not just that we want to be valued in the subjective eyes of others; we also want to be objectively valuable.

I found this very useful, thinking about the different kinds of social environments I have belonged to in my life, and the subtle motivations and needs that have been in play there: in my family, school, college, workplace, seminary, parish, etc. All three basic needs have been present, jostling with each other, often hardly acknowledged. What happens if one need is not met? If you have lots of personal freedom but no commitment to others? If you give and receive lots of love but have nothing worthwhile to do? If you have much to give but no-one to give it to? 

It struck me that the different needs are represented by our names. I know how much the tradition of naming varies in each culture. Your first name is personal. It’s not unique (there are many Stephens in the world), but it points to your individuality within your own family, to your autonomy. Your surname is your family name; it signifies your relatedness to your family in the present, and to the family as it extends back into the past – but often only on your father’s side! And many surnames used to represent your competence, your social role: Smith, Potter, Thatcher, Fisher, Cook, Bowman, Mason, etc.

And what about middle names? Quite often in Britain a middle name is a way of connecting an individual with a particularly loved relation, e.g. an uncle or aunt, a grandfather and grandmother. Or it’s just another random personal name. The Chinese custom is particularly interesting. You are given a personal name, the same as in Britain. But you are also given a generational name – something we don’t have in the British tradition. It’s a name given to all the males or females in your generation, across the extended family. So if you are a boy, you share this generational name with your brothers and with all your male first cousins. If you are a girl, you share a different name with all your sisters and with all your female first cousins. It shows this extra level of relatedness within the family.

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Berlin Wall 1987 by fjords.

The Berlin Wall 1987

The Church is often criticised, not just for being an institution with many weaknesses, but for being an institution full-stop. As if institutions by their very nature repress the human spirit and undermine authentic relationships.

Francis Fukayama writes about the reasons behind the successes and failures of recent democratic movements. I don’t know enough politics to judge whether all his analysis is correct, but the sociological point he makes about the importance of institutions is worth noting, for religion as much as for politics:

The collapse of the Orange Revolution should teach us that enduring democracy is not just a matter of ideas and political passions, but of concrete institutions embodying democratic values. It is also about the human agents who create them: the right leaders can make or break a transition to democracy.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall more than 20 years ago, there has been a huge disparity in post-communist outcomes. In Poland, Hungary, the Baltic states, and the Czech republic, there has been solid support for democratic, rule-of-law states that could qualify to join the European Union. In Russia, by contrast, there was huge disagreement after 1991 not just over whether the state should be democratic or authoritarian, but over the country’s borders, ethnic identity, and relations with neighbouring countries. So the single most important determinant of which countries would go on to become successful, stable liberal democracies was the degree of consensus in favour of strong new state institutions. [Spectator, 13 Feb 2010]

Values need embodying in institutions, in customs, in laws. Of course they can become ossified, and of course not all institutions are good institutions. But if you try and share your values without having an eye to how they can be carried forward in concrete practices, they will probably not take hold and endure.

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Quite a few friends of mine have done online dating; some with great success.

It gives you a bigger pool of people to meet; and it allows you to check them out through the all-important profile: age, work, interests, where you live, religion, background, favourite film, favourite band, etc. And of course it allows you to create your own online persona through your own profile.

But, according to some new statistics from one such site, it’s still the photograph that matters. There’s a New York Times article here; and some quotes from Jonathan Richards here:

Men should show off their abs (if they have them), make no eye contact, and not to be drinking. Women should look flirtatiously at the camera… possibly be doing something interesting such as playing a guitar, and under no circumstance have their pet to hand. Those would be some of the lessons for singletons mulling what type of picture of themselves to post on a dating website.

Leading US-based dating site OkCupid.com examined the profile pictures of 7000 of its users aged between 18 and 32 and assessed them according to a range of criteria, such as ‘basic look’ (Was the subject of making eye contact? Smiling?) and context (Were they showing off any flesh? Indoors or outdoors?). The site then gauged the photo’s ‘performance’ by measuring, among other things, how many times the subject was contacted, and what kind of response rate they’d had.

Sam Yagan, one of OkCupid’s co-founders, said that many of the rules about dating in the real world applied online: ‘A girl might find a man staring straight at her intimidating, so the ‘look away’ profile shot softens him a little’. Meanwhile, intimidation for guys, it seems, comes in the form of a woman holding a drink or, worse still, a cat. [TheTimesMagazine, 7 Feb 2010]

This is all to be taken with a pinch of salt. But I couldn’t help smiling at the idea that women with pets receive 24% fewer contacts from men, but men with an animal meet 50% more women. What does it all mean?

Rudy's Dream (pet portrait) by The Lone Beader.

And it’s interesting that at least in this unscientific survey men are attracted to women who look at them, but women are attracted to men who are looking somewhere else. Perhaps this is something to do with the Mars-Venus stuff…

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A young friend of mine got a Lego kit for Christmas, some spaceship from Star Wars that I vaguely recognised. I’d always thought that they make new pieces for each of these specially designed kits — they look so authentic. But when I expressed this thought around the dining table there were gasps of incredulity.

Let's play Lego Star Wars by Stéfan.

The challenge, apparently, is for the Lego engineers to create a new design without using any new pieces, just by sticking to the back catalogue. This is the heart of the Lego philosophy: To build something amazing from the tools at hand. There is a purity about this. And I began to notice how the hyperspace thrusters (or whatever they are called) looked remarkably like wheel rims; and the probes or guns on the side of the spaceship looked like gear sticks…

This is an example of how a limitation can be a factor in releasing creativity. The rules of a game, the grammar of a language, the size of a canvas, one’s commitment to a relationship — these constraints are often the very conditions that allow the human intellect and imagination to soar.

But of course there are exceptions! And when you hit a brick wall you sometimes need to change the rules. It turns out, I was told, that you can produce a new Lego brick, if there is simply no other solution. This decision falls to a high-priesthood of Lego elders, meeting in committee, who make such a solemn judgment only out of absolute necessity – fully aware that it risks shaking the foundations of the Lego ecosystem.

[While we are on Lego, see this page of "20 Incredible LEGO Artworks by Nathan Sawaya".]

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