relationships

A Society of Shawn Spencers

–my latest over at The Mirror 

When Psych aired its last episode ever in 2014, it finished its career as one of the most popular TV shows of the past decade. Following the hyper-observant Shawn Spencer and his friends as he fakes his way around Santa Barbara pretending to be a psychic and solving crime, the show was heavy on the laughs and light on the morals. Predictably, as the central character, Shawn pretty consistently reflected the image of what many modern millennial Americans think of themselves: fun, hip, informal; independent and free-spirited and not bound by the traditional rules of operation; but basically good at heart.

But if that’s the case, then it’s also the case that Shawn Spencer reflects a lot problems common to the modern 25-to-30-something American guy. He comes from a dysfunctional family. He’s immature and struggles to comprehend how to be responsible. He’s scared of commitment. He doesn’t know how to hold a serious conversation with the people he loves. And, in his own words, he totally sucks at relationships. The climax of Psych takes place when Shawn finally brings closure to all of the many broken and problematic relationships in his life; when he takes the time to apologize, to come clean, to admit love, and to propose marriage to the woman he’s cohabitating with.

Other popular shows (from Friends to Burn Notice to How I Met Your Mother) frequently feature characters that share similar personal dysfunctions: broken home life and a terrible track record when it comes to relationships. It seems to be the standard for our generation. Want a character the millenial audience can relate to? Give him a terrible relationship with his (divorced) parents and a crippling inability to commit himself to a loving and fruitful relationship.

This repetitious stereotype of the millennials might have more truth than appears at first glance. Although men often bear the stamp of the stereotype more heavily, the women are typically no better than the men. They often give their boyfriends sex without even introducing the responsibility of fertility or even expecting the commitment of marriage. They vaguely hope for marriage “someday” or tacitly expect that their live-in boyfriends will get more mature with time, but they have no problem inviting them into the bedroom until then.

And why would they? Why would millennials seek or expect a more faithful and permanent kind of love? They simply don’t know a better functioning way to relate to one another.

The popular TV show characters aren’t so much encouraging a stereotype as they are simply reflecting a modern reality. As Shawn in Psych confesses his faults, we get a picture of his generation: a generation that sucks at “the important stuff,” at “engaging,” at relationships; a generation terrified of commitments. Generationally, millennials are putting off serious life commitments further and further or forgoing them altogether—because this generation has “commitment” issues. Hookups and cohabitation are the norm, not because this generation is particularly cowardly or lazy, but because dysfunctional families have become ordinary to them, and they don’t know to expect something better.

The fact is, most millienials have grown up in a world practically devoid of real examples of functioning, successful, committed relationships. They just don’t know at all what it looks like in practice.

Our parents and grandparents’ generations used contraception and divorce to take the responsibility and permanence out of the stable relationships which form the building blocks of society. They took life out of sex and love out of marriage and splintered and fractured the family unit in a million ways. For them, contraception and divorce made sex possible without permanence, without fidelity, and without consequences. Then, as millennial children were left behind to sort through the wreckage of these kinds of relationships, the digital revolution threw another stumbling block in their way. The widespread rise of porn made sexual pleasure possible without human relationship: sexual pleasure without any relationship to another person at all became a cultural standard.

But they know they’re not happy. They know these imperfect, even pathetic attempts at human relationships are not enough. Shawn (and his millennial fans) know the show can’t end without a happily ever after. They want love, and they want stability, and, somewhere in their hearts, they know the two need to go together.

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Love Is Here to Stay

On Brittany Maynard and George Gershwin 

In 1938, George Gershwin, gifted composer and songwriter with his brother Ira, died at a tragically young age of brain cancer. His death was sudden, and Ira was devastated. George had left one song melody to which Ira had not yet written the words. When he finally sat down to write them, he entitled it, “Love is Here to Stay.”

In the sentimental lyrics, it’s easy to hear the echoes of Ira’s grief as he copes with George’s death. Most renditions don’t include the intro, but it speaks poignantly of a search for stability in a tragic world:

photo credit: wmky

The more I read the papers
The less I comprehend
The world and all its capers
And how it all will end.

Nothing seems to be lasting—
But that isn’t our affair
We’ve got something permanent,
I mean, in the way we care.

The song then enters its main theme, the theme of everlasting love:

It’s very clear,
Our love is here to stay
Not for a year
But ever and a day.

The radio and the telephone
And the movies that we know
May just be passing fancies
And in time they go—
But oh, my dear, our love is here to stay. . . .

In time the Rockies may crumble,
Gibraltar may tumble;
They’re only made of clay,
But our love is here to stay.

Of all the songs the brothers wrote together, this posthumous one touches the most powerful truth: that human beings, in the midst of suffering, want a love that doesn’t end. They don’t want a world that constantly changes, that gives only to take away, a pain-filled world that crumbles around us leaving us empty and longing for something permanent. It’s hard enough to cope not only with “the world and all it’s capers,” but, like Ira Gershwin, with a more personal—we can even say, more painful—loss. Even surrounded by a disintegrating world, the human heart finds solace in the permanence of love and in knowing that love makes perseverance through suffering valuable.

Yet, not everyone sees value in suffering with love. For some, love is a many-splendored but totally temporal thing, which suffering renders impotent and death cuts off with finality. To them, heartache, pain, and suffering are simply to be avoided at all costs, and ultimately an invitation to despair.

I was reminded of this sadder perspective when I encountered the recent buzz over another individual suffering from brain cancer—Brittany Maynard, a woman who has very publicly decided she would rather commit suicide than accept suffering for herself or her family. Her response—at root a pitiable but also selfish one—stands out in particular contrast, for me, with the other people I know who have battled similar illnesses.

One woman, Elise, who is battling breast cancer, has five children, one of them an infant, and is facing this battle with a radically different attitude: an attitude of loving trust, of confident surrender to the Providence of God. Or I think of Andre, a 14 year old hero, who lived every day of his short life to the fullest even though he spent his final years suffering in a hospitable bed with a very low “quality of life.” His suffering, his sacrifice, his courage and joy, and especially his faith in God, fundamentally impacted—even sanctified—the people around him.

This is the difference: people like Brittany see no value in suffering that is offered up in love, but people like Andre and Elise really live their belief in a loving God who can bring goodness out of the worst heartache or most devastating medical diagnoses. They really live the love only hinted at in the sweet 1930s love song—that real and perfect love, the love of God, which is here to stay. It is a permanent, life-changing event, in the face of which death and suffering have lost their sting. Unlike Brittany, they face the painful, frightening battle or suffering and death with a response of love—a love that fills their suffering with significance far beyond the comprehension of the world.

And that mystery is why, while everything may indeed be going to hell in a handbasket and maybe after all the world is coming to an imminent end around us, Christians live differently. “We’ve got something permanent—I mean, in the way we care.” We don’t face radical loss the same way as other people do. We face it with the confidence that no matter what comes, this changing life is not all.

Christians live differently, because for us, this life is just the beginning. As impermanent as this world is, we know we’re destined for something more. This life is only the prelude, the intro to the final love song—when Love will be here to stay.

photo credit: classicfm

Mrs. Mike

~This post first appeared over at The Mirror Magazine.~

“It is the possibility of loss that makes love tender.”

I’ll be honest: I anticipated something much less intense than what this slim, chick-flick-ish novella cover disguises. In fact, I expected a quaint romance with a little adventure thrown in and possibly a love triangle or something, but ending with the standard romantic proposal and happily ever after.

I was wrong.

Published in 1947, this little gem of a book was highly recommended to me by a friend, as a romance based on a true story–-“But I’m pretty sure it’s out of print now,” she added dolefully. Intrigued, I began begging everyone who I knew lived within 50 miles of used book stores to start searching the shelves to see if they could find me a copy. I ended up with two, miraculously, and eagerly began delving into its pages.

The cover bills Mrs. Mike as a “heartwarming classic story about the girl who married a rugged Canadian Mountie,” but unlike the conventional romance setup, the real love story does not end in a wedding but begins with it. Sixty pages in, 16-year-old Katherine Mary has already wed handsome Mountie Mike Flannigan, and I asked incredulously: “But, where is the story going to GO from here?!”

Authors Benedict and Nancy Freedman, a married couple themselves, clearly utilized their experiential insight into the “feel” of a marital relationship, it’s struggles and tensions, it’s highs and lows, and what it means for two people wedded to each other to cope with adversity, suffering, and loss.

The story traces Katherine and Mike through years upon years–-making this a real story of their love and their marriage, not just of their (admittedly loving and tender) romance. And that makes it particularly unusual in a world where popular romance lit is dominated by porn-fests like Fifty Shades of Grey.

Neither Mike nor Katherine is perfect. Katherine has a hot temper and a tendency to daydream her way out of the struggles of daily life in the Canadian frontier, pushing away her husband’s affection through her escapism. Mike, in turn, withdraws into his shell when faced with marital stress and personal grief, thus isolating his wife when she most needs his help to heal.

Besides the romantic content, a word should be said for the fairly unusual setting of the story: the Canadian wilderness (two words I’ve rarely heard put together, and never encountered as the stage for a story before now). From the snow and frozen rivers to unbearably mosquito-infested summers (who knew?!), from the dangers of fur-trapping to vivid native culture, the Freedmans bring both the beauty and the danger of this stunning setting to life–a backdrop fitting to the passionate and unpredictable love of Kathy and Mike.When I learned that the authors were Hollywood scriptwriters from the 1940s, I imagined an idealized version of pioneer life in Canada, a la Little House on the Prairie. However, while the Freedmans definitely spend plenty of page time praising the natural beauty of the Albertan wilderness, the portrait of Flannigans’ life is punctuated by the all-too-gritty details of pioneer hardships. Ignorance, mental illness, misogyny, abortion, violence, petty thievery, and disease far away from the comforts of civilization, all play prominent roles in the tale. Death, especially, recurs as a theme again and again with grim inevitability. The authors don’t shy away from tragedies that provoke the deep, heart-searching questions: “Why? Why did this have to happen to me, or to you?”

In the end, Mrs. Mike is fundamentally a romantic adventure, with a stingingly realistic twist; it offers significant insight into the workings of human relationships and the role of Providence in the pattern of a human life. It’s not exactly Brideshead Revisited, and perhaps doesn’t plumb the answers as deeply as it could, but if you’re looking for page turner that still has substance, and a tender look at the intricacies of the human heart, Mrs. Mike is well worth the read– and a masterful alternative to trash like Fifty Shades of Grey.