The following is a post by Pastor Rob Golding of First Artesia Christian Reformed Church. He also writes for the Westminster Theological Seminary Magazine.
The perennial frog in the kettle does not know he is being heated until it is too late. Tepid water feels just fine as it is heated, degree by degree, but a boil begins to roll at some point. In America, at least, if not the Western world, we are beginning to succumb to a new phenomenon—relational fragility. In isolation, manifestations of this trend are not all that interesting—cancel culture, “ghosting,” the divorce rate, family estrangement, and political witch-hunts. On the other hand, combined, we can discern a cultural shift that is quite literally tearing at the fabric of American society. We are now in a time when people are trying harder than ever to be connected but are, ironically, sprinting away from one another at breakneck speed.
It is not readily apparent why it is becoming increasingly easy to disengage with human relationships at a time when people are self-reporting to be lonelier than they ever have been. On the one hand, it seems we should be craving social structures that emphasize enduring relationships. Lonely people naturally crave stable relationships (or they should). On the other hand, we are moving in the opposite direction. Lonely people engage in person less, online more; they date more and marry less; they leave their families and do not produce new ones; they cannot even look you in the eye as they walk along the street. We are a society increasingly filled with lonely people who pursue greater and greater degrees of isolation, like burn victims shuffling onto a flame. Or, in another sense, we are like drug addicts craving the cause of our dope sickness. The difference is drug addicts have a high they crave, no matter the bone-crushing effects to follow. For us, the motivation is harder to determine. Why are these lonely people (burn victims) embracing lonely lifestyles (the flame)?
Humans are, by default, social creatures. Sex drive—the desire to be with another human in the most intimate way possible—is so fundamental to our physiological makeup that it quite literally drives large sectors of our society. Selling cars, cologne, or even toothpaste is hard without leveraging sex to the seller’s advantage. The fact that it is hard to think of a situation in which “sex sells” does not apply, indicates that this phenomenon has pervaded our society to the point that it is hardly noticed anymore. Sex is such a staple of American focus it needed its own Revolution. Now, many years after the late 1960s, sex has its own Agenda, its own industry, its own pharmaceuticals, its own therapists, its own performers, and even its own cults. In other words, good, bad, or indifferent (and I would argue for a modified version of the middle adjective), sex is a preoccupation of modern human beings. If a human desire came along that undermined that primal instinct—that primal instinct for human connection—it would be a strong one indeed. Such a desire is now here.
This change in desires is the situation in which we find ourselves. Younger generations are becoming so isolated that they are having premarital sex less than their parents’ generation. While this may seem like a positive trend to some, the reason is not that they are “saving it for marriage.” On the contrary, they are not getting married. A decreased desire to get married makes some sense (“why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”) but a decrease in the desire to engage in the act of sexuality? What could possibly explain this cultural trend? Again, to some, this may seem like a good thing. And perhaps, in some respects, it is. But, when we understand the reason for this trend, many will pine for the days of yesteryear when sex was foisted as a selfish instrument for personal fulfillment. What could be worse than that? Today.
While in ages past, sex was a mechanism for pursuing one’s own desires, today, the desires of modern people have expanded. We are no longer like little children satisfied by the twenty-five cent candy proffered on the way to the exit of the grocery store. We want a fine meal at a fine establishment provided by servants attending to our every beck and call. Free sex is like a gumball. It titillates as it makes its colorful, spiraled descent into our hands. But the fun is quickly over. The flavor runs out, and what is left is not only useless but messy. Ours is a more demanding craving for something costlier and, therefore, “wholistic.”
If sexual “fulfillment” was a gumball, “wholistic fulfillment” (as I would like to call it) is the new five-course meal. We still want some of the elements of the old “fulfillment,” but now we want so much more. The 21st-century American no longer wants meager control over his own body—the ability to do whatever with whoever he pleases. Instead, he wants the control necessary to use his body to achieve “wholistic fulfillment.” Before, we wanted to fulfill our deepest desires. Now, we want to fulfill all of our desires.
Just as the Sexual Revolution “enabled” Americans to act on their every sexual desire, our modern move toward wholistic fulfillment has “enabled” us to do the same thing, but with every desire we experience. Back then, we had to argue for the “right” to take pictures of prostitutes and sell them. Years later, we put the prostitutes on a stage and called them “Adult Film Stars.” Years later, we still had to argue for the right to abandon our families in the name of our “mental health” or in order to “respect ourselves.” Now, we put the least socially bonded people on a stage and call them “Self-Help Gurus,” “Influencers,” or, worse still, “Therapists.” In each case, it is nothing more than a celebration of those who give us what we want, no matter the cost to our human nature. It is the same thing; we are just further down the road. The result is increased social isolation.
What are we to think of those who disagree with our new desire for “wholistic fulfillment”? Well, of course, they are like nuns picketing Woodstock. They are oppressors of our freedoms. They are the enemies of our happiness. With these sociological lenses in place, we can make sense of much (or at least some) of the social isolation in the air today.
How so? Wholistic fulfillment is the desire to be fulfilled in each and every desire. Suppose I have the desire to be anxiety free. In that case, I have the right to pursue not only therapeutic and pharmaceutical remedies to this malady but also to seek remedies that are seen by the sole arbiter—me—to be beneficial to this end. The world is my Prozac.
We have learned that it is improper to “judge” the particular sexual tastes of other people. If they are not hurting anyone, who are we to judge them as they seek to get their desires fulfilled? Now, in wholistic fulfillment, we are not to judge the ways in which people seek to meet the rest of their desires. If a woman needs to leave her loving husband and children in order to meet her desire for joy, who are we to judge? But, of course, our desires are multifaceted, complicated, and even inexhaustible. It is not only the myriad of maladies like anxiety, stress, depression, frustration (and all its variants—sexual, professional, familial), lack of personal meaning, and the multiple other problems that could be listed. It is also the myriad upon myriad of solutions to these problems that glitter our current landscape (drugs, removing relationships, adding relationships, therapy, changing jobs, changing milieu). There is a never-ending combination of problems and solutions, and we are given carte blanche.
When two people disagree, therefore, the odds are likely that at least one party (and probably both) will understand the disagreement to be a violation of his or her right to wholistic fulfillment. Take a mundane instance, for example, one we are all familiar with. A grandmother gives advice on raising children to her daughter. The daughter hears this advice as damaging not only to her but to her children, who are facing the brunt of unwanted and, worse, outdated advice. The daughter must erect “boundaries” to prevent the grandmother from assaulting her (and, by proxy, her children’s) right to wholistic fulfillment. In this way (and countless others), we see that the demand for wholistic fulfillment can be an (unwitting?) tool for the disintegration of social relationships. If your mother gives “stressful” advice regarding rearing your children, cut her off from “your” family. If your neighbor removes your right to being fulfilled in your political views and the isolation thereof, move to a city that will support your choice of political echo chamber. If your family denies your sexual preferences, find a new one (friends make great family, as is seen in the replacement of Thanksgiving with “Friendsgiving”). If your coworkers reject your work ethic (or lack thereof), use your mental health day and complain of a toxic work environment to your boss, HR, and your social media community; then “doxx” your boss if he does not listen. If the person you have been dating fails to excite you, simply stop responding to her text messages and “ghost her.” If an author has an opinion out of line with your own (or, worse still, if the author has facts out of line with your own), demand the perpetrator be canceled so others will not suffer under the thumb of his rejection of your wholistic fulfillment. All of these are recent trends, and none would be possible without our newfound preoccupation with wholistic fulfillment. At this point, we see that an adjective is essential for a full description—narcissistic wholistic fulfillment.
Whatever the offense may be to our narcissistic wholistic fulfillment, there is a myriad (or should I say Legion) of mechanisms at our beck and call to deal with said offenses. In this way, our new desire for wholistic fulfillment has created a society of islands constantly ready to go to war as they drift further and further out into the unknown world of post-postmodernism (the idea that truth is subjective on the one hand but objective when I start believing it). We have been taught to fight for our personal fulfillment, and this is precisely what we are doing. This, of course, makes us very lonely since no two people share the same idea of personal fulfillment. It is always a solo race. But the only tool we have for this problem is the one that got us here in the first place. It is a vicious cycle—we reject others to be fulfilled; we get lonely; we raise the bar of personal fulfillment to feel better; more people fail to meet our standards; we reject even more people; we get lonelier still.
The solution for some is a porcelain existence without real relationships. They bounce from relationship to relationship or even practice “open” relationships or polygamy. They have friends that talk behind their backs as part of the game. They have “friends” they have never met in person. They have pretend sex with prostitutes via the internet or robots. They pretend the people they work with are family and never see their flesh-and-blood. They do not get married. They do not have children. They call their pets “babies” because they will never grow up to challenge their narcissistic wholistic fulfillment (dogs do not have teenage angst, and when they misbehave, you can lock them in a kennel). They cloister themselves like monks dedicated to self-fulfillment in ever-diminishing monasteries until they find themselves perpetually alone in the “mono”stery of their living rooms. And there they will die. They fear the outside since all people pose a threat to their narcissistic wholistic fulfillment. They have a new form of agoraphobia based not on physical harm but on the dreaded diluting of their desires. For others, this solution is empty. They go the other way—self-inflicted death. Either way, we cannot live without one another, yet we are all desperately trying to get away.
How did we get here? In the same way that sexual license did. We live in a society today that can no longer see the myriad of ways our every sexual impulse is being drawn upon. We demanded the right to free sex, and now it is so free we do not even notice pornography in our shows. We are inundated with sex so constantly that desensitized young men cannot perform sexual functions with other human beings without the assistance of medication. Even young children are sexualized, and there are people with Ph.Ds who argue that pedophilia (not to mention zoophilia) should be legalized. This is the air we breathe, and the vast majority of our society has absolutely zero problems with it. What is worse, they celebrate it with pride. The point of this article, however, is that a second stage is upon us:
Our children will live in a world, if we do not turn course, where they will no longer see the myriad of ways their every desire (not just their sexual desire) is being drawn upon. They will not notice divorce-celebrating faux-psychology in their shows. They will not be able to have relationships with other human beings without medication. Their young children will become victims of their unstable desires, and people with Ph.Ds will argue that they should be terminated (Peter Singer, a world-renowned Ph.D., argues this is the case with children as old as 5). They will walk through life rejecting every person that even hints at being a block to their wholistic fulfillment. They will get increasingly lonely. They will increase in zeal on their quest for wholistic fulfillment. They will reject even more people and get even more lonely. Then, they will wake up in a world where everyone has been rejected, save one—themselves. And even then, it will take everything within them not to take another step.