Contributed by Kerry Cronin
How I found myself talking with young adults about hookup culture, dating, and relationships is still a bit mysterious to me, but one thing I know for sure si that about 10 years ago I started to sense a genuine loneliness amount the otherwise bright, involved, connected, and accomplished students at my university.
When I asked about their lives—not just about their academic lives, but about their personal, moral, and spiritual lives—what troubled and saddened me more than whether or not they were having sex (though that certainly concerns me, no doubt), is how little sex and sexual intimacy even mattered to them. Still today, not only do many of them think that sex is “no big deal,” they usually display little hope that it will ever amount to all that much. They are deeply ambivalent about sex having any significant meaning, and in the context of their mostly ironic culture, they are wary of being duped by grand claims about intimacy, sexual or otherwise. As they say, it’s all “just a thing.” And they have plenty of evidence from their own lives, the lives of their families and friends, and from the wider, sexualized culture to prove it. But when I started to really pay attention to what young adults were saying and doing in their hookups, dating, and relationships, I found what I would call a low- level, grinding despair.
I spotted that despair in a Q&A session following a talk I gave a number of years ago in a residential hall lounge packed full of first-year students about six months into their first year of college.
A student thanked me for my talk on hookup culture and said that she wholly agreed with my critique of it. She went on to say that this was all well and good, but what she really needed to know was how to go about making herself not care while she was partying and hooking up, because, well, that was just how things went.
Her voice broke a bit as she asked the question and the room became really quiet with the question just hanging in the air. I was dumbstruck. She silently but openly wept as I eventually responded that I would never, ever want to make it easier for her not to care about another person and or to ask so little for herself, body and soul. She seemed completely emotionally exhausted. I must admit that though I get questions like this all the time from young adults, each time I am left a little breathless by it.
When I talk about hooking up, dating, and relationships now, I do so in all sorts of venues and to all sorts of audiences, from large crowds in auditoriums to small groups in residence hall programs. And for the most part, I don’t talk all that much about sex, because I find that what really concerns young adults—what really scares them, what fascinates them, what moves them—are not really questions of sex but rather questions of intimacy. In the midst of their ubiquitous posting and twittering and snapchatting, despite their seemingly constant connecting through all modes of social media, the students I meet speak overwhelmingly about feeling quite disconnected, lonely, and fundamentally not known by others. This isn’t the death knell of relationships, of men or of sex, as some authors have recently claimed, but it certainly seems to signal a crisis of intimacy. So what is it then that is missing in the lives of these young adults and how can we help them, and ourselves, find what is lost? .
Clearly, intimacy is not an easy notion to understand. Its meaning is broad and wide-ranging and it is often only recognized in its absence. While we regularly reduce its meaning to the closeness of a sexual relationship, there’s little doubt that intimacy characterizes other relationships in our lives, those of parents and children, siblings, and good and caring friends. Isn’t intimacy with God what we are striving for in a prayer life? It strikes me as helpful to pose the question: What are we doing when we are being intimate with another person, and why is that being intimate?
Common to all of the intimate relationships in my life is one central and abiding fact: that I have the distinct feeling that I matter to the other person. In those relationships, others who love me—my parents who are my biggest fans and like me more than I probably deserve, family members who’ve known me through all of the awkward moments of my life, friends who have been with me through bitterly sad and tremendously joyful times—share in my cares and concerns because I matter to them. And I in turn am willing to try to enter into the meanings and values of their lives and take their cares and concerns on as my own, not as facts and data, but as something meaningful and moving, because they matter to me. This may seem overly simplistic, but I find it helpful when talking with young adults about intimacy to ask if they notice these patterns in their different relationships—success and failures alike.
Do you feel like you matter to your friends, your roommates, your older brother, your girlfriend or boyfriend? If so, how is that shown to you? Do you know how to show someone else that she truly matters to you? How do you know if you truly matter to him? How would you know? What do you do when it becomes clear that you don’t matter to a person you love?
These are sometimes very painful questions to ask and answer. Young adulthood is when most of us first begin to recognize how very much is riding on our closest emotional ties. And it’s a lot. It is also often when we discover how devastatingly precarious some of those emotional ties can be.
When I talk to students about their fears and desires and ask them to think about what they long for most in their lives, they assume that their desire to be loved and to be truly known by someone else will happen in marriage. While that will be true for most of them, I also ask them to consider the different kinds of love and closeness they have in their lives now. In most cases, young people can identify at least one friend who fits the description of Aristotle’s “Friend of the Good,” the highest and best type of friendship depicted in his Nicomachean Ethics. This type of friend comprehends what is good in me, brings more of that out in me, and wants the best for me. But truly wanting the best for someone involves knowing and seeing who she really is, not merely who she is for me. To have and to be a friend like this activates our ability to be moved by someone else, to allow the meanings of my life to be changed and transformed by someone who wants what is good for me, which is perhaps not fully known to me. Intimacy that is found in friendships like this allows us to glimpse the best parts of ourselves and brings those parts into the light. It also builds in us a capacity for seeing the good in someone else and for letting the good in us be seen.
As JPII rightly surmised and wrote about beautifully in his Theology of the Body, intimacy involves truly being seen by another. This seems really right to me. It is in the gaze of someone who thinks I truly matter, who wants to value what I value, who desires what I truly desire, who wants to understand what I mean when I speak and act, that I begin to be recognized and known in the way I really long for. To be held in a gaze like that is the way of love that God wants for us, because it is the way that God loves us.
In the lives of young adults, this isn’t easy to come by. Everyone has her own set of needs and worries, and the pace of keeping up and getting ahead means that really stopping and seeing another person or being seen demands so much time and asks perhaps too much of us. But again, intimacy is keenly felt in its absence, and young adults suffer its absence tremendously. What haunts them most is not the dismal job market, not their ballooning student loans, not the skyrocketing cost of living in most major American cities. What haunts them most is not ever being seen, or recognized, or loved by anyone beyond their own family circles. In worse cases, their fear is not mattering to anyone even within those most important first circles. In the very worst cases, there is the darkness of feeling that you do not matter even to God, that you are not held by God.
To be intimate with someone is to be held—to be held in the gaze of someone who really sees me, to be held up by a friend when I falter, to have my hand held as I go through a moment of grief or joy or beauty, to be held responsible by those I admire for the good and bad I do in the world, to be held in the arms of someone who wants the best for me, and then also, in the words of a friend who prays for me often, to be held in the light.
I have seen students thrive when they find themselves held by someone in a way that lets them know that they matter and that they are seen and known and loved. I have sat and listened as young adults tell me about people in their lives—a friend found in a small faith community, a parent who finally sees the adult instead of just the child, an unexpected mentor, a classmate who challenges them to “the more” on a service trip, a girlfriend or boyfriend who makes them feel smarter and funnier and more lovable than they thought they were—who have helped them find better parts of themselves that they never imagined they would find. These are wondrous moments to witness. It is where flourishing is found.
Finally, I don’t know about you, but even on a good day at Mass when I’m knee-deep in the prayerful rhythm of a liturgy, I get all tangled up in the newly worded response, “I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” Because of my entanglement there, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it and it seems to me to be about the intimacy we long for with God. Asking Christ to enter under my roof reminds me that intimacy marks the difference between living next to someone and dwelling with them—letting another person truly enter into my life, to move my cares and concerns and to be moved by his. When you dwell with someone else—a friend, a spouse, Jesus—your reality becomes a shared reality and you make the horizon of that person’s meanings and values your own. You also let your meanings and values be carried and shaped by someone else. It seems to me that this is the answer to the question, what am I doing when I am being intimate? To the further question, why is that being intimate? Well, when I ask my students about intimacy in their own lives, they usually default to a popular Facebook adage: “It’s complicated.” Let me tell you, you’ve got that right. ■
This article is reprinted with permission from Kerry Cronin. It originally appeared in the Spring 2014 C21 Resources, a publication of The Church in the 21st Century, Boston College. Cronin is the coeditor of this C21 Resources and has emerged as a “relationships guru,” speaking to student audiences on such topics as “The Imperfect Art of Dating” and “Sex and the Single Student.” (photos not included in reprint; the original article with photos is available online.) Visit: www.bc.edu/c21relationships to watch C21 videos featuring Kerry Cronin: “The Imperfect Art of Dating,” “Rules of the 1st Date,” “Love that Transforms: How the Resurrection Challenges Us,” “The Problems with the Hook-Up Culture.”