Relativism’s Failure: Why Anyone Cared about the Dress

–my latest over at The Mirror!

The dress.

The dress

Is it gold and white, or black and blue?

When this picture of a dress became a wildfire trend across social media, no one could agree on its color. Within hours, it went from Tumblr to the New York Times, its meteoric rise in popularity complete with clearly delineated camps of opponents and dozens of proposed theories on why no one could agree on the color of one woman’s wardrobe choice.

One could point out that it’s stupid to get excited about a dress when children are dying in the Middle East. But surely no one would agree that it was as important as tragic news like that. The question is, then—why on earth did it become such a thing?

What the dress controversy highlighted, more than anything, is that human beings care about truth, which they usually equate with what their senses tell them. The dress in a way aroused fundamental questions about perception and reality, and whether reality is the same for all human beings.

the dress

With the tongue-in-cheek hysteria and sense of irony so easily spread across the internet, some social media users used the dress as a springboard (or diving board) for questioning the nature of reality itself. In users’ avowed comments that “if that isn’t gold my whole life has been a lie” and “what is reality” and “this dress made me realize all of life is an illusion,” it’s almost as if we heard Pontius Pilate’s unconviction ringing down the centuries and into our Facebook feeds: “What is truth?”

The truth is, in fact, one that philosophers have struggled with for ages. If we can’t trust what we see, what can we trust? Using science to explain away this little optical mystery doesn’t really get to the heart of the conundrum that sprung up around it. If we can’t agree on what can and should be plain and simple fact—like the color of a dress—what does that say about the human experience? That all is subjective, and that everything is merely colored—excuse the pun—by our point of view? Are we living the nightmare of philosophers? Can we be certain of truth?

The reason #thedress became more than a mere blip on a Tumblr account, the reason it became a “trending” topic, was because, despite all cultural programming to the contrary, human beings care about truth, and we won’t accept mutually exclusive statements as both equally true.

We’ve been taught for years—nay, generations—to modify our speech with the dainty clauses of moral relativism; to passively accept “your truth” and “my truth” as equally true and equally valid, even if they are wildly different. We’ve sunk into a passive approval of all things, a flattening of the dramatic contrast between the goodness of truth and the evil of falsehood; relativism, seeping into our worldview, has demanded a rejection of the very existence of truth and brought about a moral, political, literary, and social landscape that is one boring, equal shade of grey.

But despite this relentless conditioning in favor of moral relativism, human beings have an innate aversion to this kind of apathy, the uninterested neutrality that naturally results in the heart of someone who has really accepted the premises of relativism. The reason it was a controversy at all was simply because human beings want truth, not relativism; we want reliable answers, not a world whose meaning is reduced merely to subjective impressions or opinions that vary person to person.

In that, one could almost say that #thedress, ludicrous as it perhaps was, lays bare an unchangeable—and thus hopeful—trait of human nature. We want truth; we want reality to be clear. Perhaps, then, in the end, we see the reason that relativism will ultimately remain rootless, sown on the hostile soil of the human soul. Despite all social posturing to the contrary, we don’t really think that “it doesn’t matter if what you believe is different from what I believe.”

We want to see the meaning and truth at the heart of life, and we want it to be black and white—or black and blue.

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.

Moms Are Not Rugged Individualists

–my latest at The Mirror Magazine

Pope Francis has been making headlines lately (as he tends to do), this time for his comments about motherhood. Most recently, his name got splattered all across the newsfeeds for dipping into a controversial topic in mommy wars: he welcomed women who wanted to breastfeed their children in the Sistine Chapel.  But earlier this week, he made an even more compelling comment about motherhood. “Mothers,” he said,” are the “antidote to individualism.”

Americans aren’t accustomed to thinking of individualism as a bad thing. In fact, as a culture we kind of applaud it. So if your average American Joe glanced at this headline, he might have done some head-scratching.

lone-ranger-394478_1280

Americans admire the “rugged individualist” (a term favored by Herbert Hoover): the lone ranger, the man above the crowd who fights his way to self-sufficiency and success. A pioneer, a man who pulls himself up by his bootstraps, someone who is so uniquely strong and powerful an individual that he can’t be tied down, can’t be defeated, and most of all, has a completely independent, unhampered personality. This is the recurring image of the hero as he typically appears in our films, our literature, even our propaganda.

Of course, we know, deep down, that there is an element of selfishness to individualism. We get frustrated with our heroes if they reject any sort of interdependence with their fellow human beings; we get annoyed when Iron Man is too focused on himself and his own pursuits to pay attention to Pepper Potts; we like Shane and know he can’t be tied down, but we’d like him to at least form some sort of connection with the little boy and the family he’s staying with. All the same, we also continue to encourage our young adults to use their youth to enjoy “independence.” Be free! You have no strings attached! Use this time for YOU!

What does that even mean? Individualism is the favoring of the self-reliant, independent person over the interdependent community or the group. We like independence, we like autonomy. We don’t want to be tied down. So, as a society, we tend toward individualism. But Pope Francis says individualism needs an antidote. What gives?

The truth is, individualism is not how man is meant to operate. “No man is an island,” wrote John Donne, “Every man is a piece of the continent.” The individual is meant to live in the context of community—ideally, a community that is fundamentally a family. Society must be built on this building block of familial community—or it will crumble. A society of rugged individualists holds together just about as well as bricks without mortar, model airplanes without glue–better yet, like a cake without flour or water. The human heart is meant to flourish in the context of community.

And this is exactly the reality that women in their role as mothers make manifest, as Pope Francis pointed out.

“To be a mother is a gift, the Pope said, and explained that through their sacrifices, mothers assist in helping society to overcome its self-centered tendencies, as well as its lack of openness, generosity and concern for others. ‘In this sense motherhood is more than childbearing; it is a life choice entailing sacrifice, respect for life, and commitment to passing on those human and religious values which are essential for a healthy society,’ he said.”

mother-589730_1280Motherhood is not a calling in which women are meant to lose their individual identity. Rather, motherhood uniquely points out the interdependent essence of the human person—how man is meant to exist, from his very origin, in relationship to other human beings. In that way, to be a mom in to day’s world is to commit to living a message radically different from the self-focused, no-strings-attached lifestyle so popular in modern America. Motherhood takes those strings—and weaves them into the tapestry of human relationships which is the backdrop for all healthy societies.

My Phone’s Dead, but God’s Not

iphone-500291_1280For millenials, the shift from physical to virtual interactions, from social life to social networks, from phone calls to text messages, has been so connatural to our growing up that it sometimes requires some mental heavy lifting for us to realize just how drastically our concept of relationships has changed in the past ten years. The relative norm for us is to be in semi-instant contact, being able to text and expect a reply within twenty minutes to an hour—-depending on the closeness of the relationship. When there is unexplained or unexpected silence in regular communication, we may get antsy, impatient, or anxious. Hey, did you get my text? Answer your phone. Is everything ok?

Those who remember a pre-smartphone world may indulge in a self-deprecatory chuckle when they catch themselves in a situation like this. And yet when the modus operandi of modern relationships has changed, this kind of scenario can actually signal a real interruption of the norm. If two people are having a texting conversation, and one of them suddenly enters a “dead” zone, the unheralded break in communication can lead to serious misunderstandings—but this problem is unlikely to arise if the conversation happened in person.

Subtly, the very dynamic of relationships is morphing as we grow accustomed to constant contact, in which absences from communication must always be accounted for. When someone goes “off the grid” for awhile, it usually merits a notice to their closest friends and family, to prevent concerns arising. We thus can tend to plan our relationships around our ability to connect virtually.

I realized how pervasive the “always connected” mindset was becoming in my own life when I passed a place on my daily commute where I typically have no reception for the space of about ten minutes. Pausing in my rosary, I thought, “Oh, I should wait til I have reception again. God won’t be able to hear me.” Then I caught myself. I was stunned. Even my prayer had been morphed into the mental box of either “connected” or not.

And here is where we must actively re-think how we perceive relationships: when it comes to God.  A human person may sometimes be available and sometimes not. He might be busy, sick, or sleeping. He may be “off the grid.” Even on the grid, a human being is not always the best communicator or listener. But reaching God does not require a device; your phone may run out of battery when you’re talking to your girlfriend, but God doesn’t. He is always “on.” He is always there.

This reality plays the central part in Elijah’s ironic triumph over the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings. When the prophets of the false god have exhausted themselves calling out in vain to a non-existent god, Elijah delivers what is perhaps the most satirical comment in the entire Old Testament: “And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is musing, or he has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.’” (I Kings 18:27)

The joke is on the prophets of Baal; for God is never “on a journey” or “asleep” or too busy “musing” to talk to us. If we fear God isn’t photo (5)hearing our prayers, the problem is not a network outage. God can hear us from the emptiness and silence of the desert; He can be reached amidst the rushing crowds of a busy city, the isolation of the country, and even from the death-chambers of Auschwitz. In a world where we’re used to relationships that may be either “off” or “on,” we must remember that time and distance can make no barrier between His heart and ours. Don’t worry—He can hear you.

And yet, God knows that the way we are, as human beings living in a temporal world, we’re not satisfied just with virtual connectivity, with hoping that our reception doesn’t give out right when we hit “Send.” We don’t want a “I’ll message you” kind of relationship. At the end of the day, we want to come home to those we love, we want to see them on special holidays face to face, we want to hug them and watch the way they break into laughter and hear them tell us in person about their day.

God knew all this; He knew that if we were to be in a relationship with Him, we wouldn’t be fulfilled with long distance communication—even if we had perfect reception.

So He took it to the next level. He came down. He said, “Look, I’m getting all your messages. I saw your post on my wall. But that’s not enough. I love you and I want to be with you. See you soon.” And that’s why, this Christmas, we celebrate the birth of the God of more-than-virtual relationships. That’s why He didn’t say, “That was great, we should get together again soon, I’ll email you. Call me.” He said, “Hey, I am available for you to come visit me in person, physically, literally every day in the Eucharist.  I’m here, I love you. Come see me.” He indicated that this very tangible, very personal real-world connection is the way He likes to operate a thousand times in Scripture. When He creates Adam and Eve, He wants to walk with them in the evenings in the Garden. When Andrew asks our Lord “Where are you staying?” Jesus says, “Come and see.”

So, if you’re wondering whether God is hearing your prayers this Advent, remember that He doesn’t offer us just a “call me maybe” kind of love.

It’s more of a “I will be with you, even until the end of time” kind of love.