A few days ago I met one of my favorite USC seniors for breakfast. Ray is not usually awake before 10 am, so I considered it a compliment that he rolled out of bed for me. I’d have been more flattered if he’d combed his hair as well, but that’s really just bald man jealousy on my part. In any case, soon enough we were up to our ears in the kind of conversation that makes this work both meaningful and a little bit scary.
We started out talking about Ray’s classes, but as is often the case with seniors, the conversation quickly turned to his plans for after graduation, which include a tour of Europe, an internship in Southeast Asia, and a PhD program before long. Ray was already committed to loving relationships and social justice when I met him last year, and it’s been a joy to watch him grow as a humanist ever since. I’m not sure what he’ll do for a living, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll spend his life making things better for other people. In the meantime, though, I’ve been kind of curious about his love life. After all, for better and worse, romantic relationships are often where the action is when it comes to defining values and pursuing goodness in an intentional way.
In this case, I knew Ray had broken up with his steady girlfriend last semester, and he’d made no secret of the fact that lately he’d been having a lot of fun with a smartphone app called Tinder, which is most often used by young adults looking for immediate, no-strings-attached sexual encounters. So then, I asked him to explain how all that stuff actually works real life. I quickly discovered that he’d met up with nearly a dozen strangers in the past month and had sex with roughly half of them. They were all nice people, he said, but none of them – including him – had expressed any interest in getting together again. It was all just for the moment, just for fun.
If you think I’m working up to some kind of aggrieved moral judgment here, well, think again. I won’t deny that that kind of casual, technology-enabled sexual promiscuity freaks me out a little bit, or even that it makes me sad sometimes, but the older I get, the more aware I am that my sensibilities are anything but objective, and that what worked in my day doesn’t necessarily work so well for my young friends. Slowly but surely, I’m learning that my job here is to lovingly ask more and better questions rather than trying to force my one-size-fits-all answers down everybody else’s throats.
Fortunately, I’d just finished reading Sherry Turkle’s now book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, which has a whole chapter on the ways new technologies are reshaping our romantic relationships, and I’d just listened to podcast of Barry Schwartz’s TED talk about the paradox of choice, which explains how having too many options causes people to be less satisfied with whichever one they choose, so I had loads of good questions for Ray and me to wrestle with together. We wondered about the long term effects of an unlimited supply of easily available sexual partners. We speculated about the dangers of commoditizing – and being commoditized in return by – other human beings. Ray openly described his eagerness for a lifetime partnership like his parents’, and I observed how many of the most important qualities of Marty’s and my marriage wouldn’t show up or be valued in today’s dating economy. While I took care not to criticize Ray’s desires, I pushed hard for him to think more carefully about how well his day-to-day behavior lined up with his overall values and goals in life.
“This was a great conversation,” he said as after we finished. “Honestly, you’re the first older person I’ve heard who doesn’t just seem jealous about not having this kind of access to recreational sex back in the day.” He paused for a moment, before adding, “Anyway, thanks for being here, and not just today. You’ve changed a lot of lives, you know. Someday me and the rest of us students are going to start making money, and when that happens you’ll have all the support you need for this chaplaincy.” Then, as we hugged goodbye, he added, “I just hope you can hold on until then.”
That’s what I hope too, of course, which is why I’m still raising money for the chaplaincy on the one hand, and looking for a paying job that keeps me close to campus on the other. There’s no way I’m going to give up this kind of campus ministry. We’re not just building a warm and wonderful humanist community here, after all; we’re raising up a new generation of thoughtful, loving, proactive humanist leaders, who will spread out and do lots of good all over the world.