The summer before my senior year of college, I had an epiphany: In less than one year, I would graduate with $50,000 of college debt. So I knew that if I wanted to start putting a dent into my student loans, I couldn’t settle for a job at the local coffee shop. But if I worked hard and networked well enough, I thought, a good job opportunity could pop up anywhere in the world: Washington, D.C.; New York City; London; Los Angeles — it could be anywhere.
But I also was seriously dating a young lady. I loved her and told her so. I even started gingerly bringing up the “m” word the spring semester of our junior year. Happily, she was reciprocating.
Enter one evening that summer before my senior year of college. She was at home in Ohio, I was in Manhattan. We began discussing the future — including the possibility of marriage — and where we each might live and work after college graduation.
With the $50,000 college debt and the possibility of attractive job offers anywhere in the world in the back of my mind, I haltingly mentioned that I could very well foresee me going to, say, Washington, D.C., for a couple of years before marriage and her living … well, wherever she found a job. I didn’t like the way it sounded, but I comforted myself with my pragmatism.
Silence on the other end of the line. Then, hesitation and what sounded like hurt in her voice: “OK.”
Silence again. I pretended that nothing was wrong and changed the subject.
So there I was with a choice: Should I establish my career ahead of my girlfriend (and probably marriage), or put my girlfriend ahead of establishing my career (and risk the possibility that we might not ever get married)?
Freedom for What?
The prevailing social script provides a straightforward answer to my dilemma: Get an education, get established in a career, get financially established, and only then get married. (Of course, a hike across the globe is acceptable, even preferred, any time in between.) With relatively prosperous parents to support us, leisure time to spare, and an interconnected globe to explore, young adults today have the luxury of a cornucopia of options that a typical middle-class young adult did not have in earlier American periods.
But it’s not just that we have more wealth and options. We also live in a culture enamored by a therapeutic philosophy that counsels self-development as the greatest good. Yes, we want to get married eventually — but only after we’ve experienced the freedom of our 20s and had a chance “to get to know ourselves better.”
The script assumes that we should wait to “settle down” and exercise our new freedoms in the service of self-development — freedom to explore our identity, freedom to do things we could never (supposedly) do later, and perhaps most importantly, the freedom to “become your own person.”
In his book Emerging Adulthood, psychologist Jeffrey Arnett interviews a young woman who captures the sentiment well:
I’m just trying to focus on me and get my life together…. I’m just really trying to get into myself so that when I come out of that, I can deal with someone else. Right now, I just gotta keep the tunnel vision.
Her sentiment sounds similar to the way young adults today talk about dating and marriage: “I’m focusing my 20s on personal growth and saving commitment for later,” “I have to become my own person before I get married,” “I’m going to focus on me now so I can better focus on another person later,” “I won’t commit my life to another person until I’m whole.”
While there is a kernel of truth to these sentiments, there are at least three serious problems.
First, phrases like “personal growth” and “becoming my own person” are morally vacuous terms that one can fill with any meaning he wishes. This intellectual sloppiness makes it difficult to distinguish between the sheep and the goats. For instance, by “personal growth” one person might mean growth in virtue (a noble desire) and another person might mean growth in individual autonomy (a suspect desire). Similarly, by “becoming my own person” one person might mean becoming basically responsible (which is laudable) and another person might mean becoming more “me-focused” (which is selfish).
Further, consider the line “I’m using my freedom in my single years to do good that I couldn’t do if I were married now”: For every unmarried young adult who is doing good and for whom this kind of situation is true, I suspect there is another young adult who uses the same language as a mere cloak for perpetuating adolescence.
And I suspect we are often unsure of exactly what we mean by these phrases — which only exacerbates the problem. When intellectual sloppiness abounds, vice abounds all the more. As George Orwell astutely observed, “[Language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
At best, ambiguity about what we mean by phrases like “becoming my own person” leaves even the most well-meaning person vulnerable to selfishness. At worst, the ambiguity allows us already frail creatures to conceal our actual selfishness with phrases that, while rhetorically enticing, are meaningless psychobabble. Instead of bandying banal phrases like “self-realization” and “personal growth,” we would do well to say exactly what we mean.
2. Selfish now, selfish later
Second, let’s recognize the statement “I’m going to focus on me now so I can better focus on another person later” for what it is: selfishness. It’s an understandable response, to be sure, that has a ring of truth to it — but also an echo of error.
That ringing of truth you hear is the common-sense knowledge that a responsible, charitable and reasonably confident person is better prepared to love another person in marriage than a lazy, selfish and insecure person. That echo of error you may detect is contemporary psychology’s narcissistic counsel that only the self-realized person (whoever that is!) can truly love another person. In other words, the more selfish one is for a little while, the greater his love can be for a long while.
It’s an error because it forgets Aristotle’s observation that we become morally virtuous precisely by doing virtuous actions. One who has been accustomed to focusing on his needs his whole life does not suddenly become aware of others’ needs when he gets married.
Because we are creatures of habit, our actions today affect our actions 10 years from today. Every day that one focuses more on becoming his own separate self is one day more that he becomes further removed from the possibility of giving himself — especially in a one-flesh marriage union. In other words, the excuse to be selfish now so that one can be others-focused later is a recipe not for greater future charity but for greater future selfishness.
3. Individual autonomy
Finally, many of the exhortations to “personal growth” and to “become your own person” are based on a secular humanist philosophy in which individual autonomy, not worship of God or conformity to truth, is the goal. As Christian psychologist Paul Vitz explains in Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship, the 20th century witnessed the popularization of ideas like “self-actualization” and “personal growth” — ideas that were first articulated by academic psychologists who explicitly rejected religion and assumed the priority of self-autonomy above, say, love of God and love of neighbor.
For instance, popular psychologist Carl Rogers in his 1972 book Becoming Partners: Marriage and Its Alternatives discusses the importance in romantic relationships of “becoming a separate self.” The sentiment “I commit myself wholly to you and your welfare” is admirable, he admits, but finally disastrous because it can lead to the loss of self.
For him, the pledge to love another person “until death do us part” is meaningless because unless each person is always satisfied in the relationship, they will “demean and destroy themselves or each other.” So why, if it means the frustration of one’s personal goals, should the self-actualized, autonomous husband care for his suddenly terminally ill wife, or move across the country to care for his aging parents? That a person would sacrifice his career aspirations and life goals out of love for another person goes against the inner logic of self-autonomy.
Free to Commit
There’s a better way: Christian humanism. It shares secular humanism’s belief that freedom necessarily follows from the dignity of the human person, but it differs importantly with secular humanism on how man should exercise that freedom. Christian humanism assumes that the highest use of one’s freedom is in the service of love, not the autonomous self.
One of its greatest exponents has been John Paul II, who before he became Pope, wrote a little-known book called Love and Responsibility that contains an excellent discussion of the purpose of freedom in the context of love and marriage. One of his basic points is that authentic married love can flourish only when two persons are oriented, not by the logic of self-autonomy, but by the logic of self-gift. As he says,
Love consists of a commitment which limits one’s freedom — it is a giving of the self, and to give oneself means just that: to limit one’s freedom on behalf of another. Limitation of one’s freedom might seem to be something negative and unpleasant, but love makes it a positive, joyful and creative thing. Freedom exists for the sake of love. If freedom is not used, is not taken advantage of by love it becomes a negative thing and gives human beings a feeling of emptiness and unfulfillment.
In other words, love is “a giving of the self” — and the purpose of freedom is to love God and other people by it. Yes, we may refuse to commit our freedom in the service of love — but we then abuse our freedom, and thus purge it of its meaning. We are left empty and unfulfilled if we insist on “commitment-less” freedom because freedom is only a means to the end of love.
This truth is echoed in the social science findings that married people live longer than non-married people. With the important caveat that these studies typically don’t control for intentionally celibate men and women — who make the very meaningful commitment of a life consecrated completely to God — it suggests that because married people have made a meaningful commitment, they enjoy more meaningful lives and are thus healthier.
While a lifetime of endless summers watching Phillies baseball games at my local bar, with no wife to go home to and no children to take care of, sounds attractive to me sometimes, I’m reminded that the middle-aged men with whom I watch Phillies games at the bar are pretty lonely.
If freedom is a means to the end of love, the way we live our 20s should reflect this. “But surely,” one might say, “before I make the commitment to love another person for life, I need to be the kind of person that is ready to give myself completely in love to another person.” All too true! But do we learn to love by focusing on “me,” or by practicing now, in a non-marital way, the self-giving that marriage invites us to?
We can take a cue from the great saints throughout history: Rarely, if ever, do we hear them talk about finding themselves — to the contrary, they talk (disturbingly to us) a lot about losing themselves! They remind us that the most needful thing is not that we discover ourselves, but that we discover love. And we learn to love not so much by staring at a reflection of ourselves but by devoting ourselves in love to God and to our neighbor.
Of course, the little secret is that in love we find what it means to be authentically ourselves. As the Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft notes, “the way to happiness is self-forgetful love and the way to unhappiness is self-regard, self-worry, and the search for personal happiness.”
So, that summer evening in my Manhattan apartment, I had a second epiphany: Since I knew that I wanted to eventually marry my girlfriend, loving her was more important than any career aspiration or any further “identity exploration” I could embark upon. I knew that I could pay off just as much debt, if not more, by getting married after college graduation. I knew she was a woman of integrity, and she knew I was a man of integrity. We shared similar life goals. Even more importantly, we shared a bedrock commitment to each other and to lifelong marriage. So why, I thought, should I sacrifice married love — even if only for a few years — on the altar of career and more self-development? I proposed soon afterward, and we got married after college graduation.
Does it follow that every 20-something should hasten to make the commitment of marriage? No! Each person has a different story. There may be many legitimate reasons to delay marriage into the late 20s and beyond — for instance, lack of marriageable partners, graduate studies, financial instability — and there is at least one very good reason to never get married — celibacy.
But the logic of self-gift does call into question the knee-jerk reaction that “I’m young and free, so I will avoid meaningful commitments until later.” As Christians, the logic of self-gift reminds us of the importance of recognizing life as a vocation. Yes, a vocation like marriage demands commitment — but it also reflects the greatness to which persons made in the image of God are called. And that deserves our free commitment.
Copyright 2010 David Lapp. All rights reserved.