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Love’s Austere and Lonely Offices

June 5, 2019 (1,002 words)

While there are certainly historical antecedents for both the sexual revolution and women’s liberation, the post-WWII boom of the late 1950s into the 1960s saw these movements really hit their stride and go mainstream.

What inspires these popular rallying cries is a bedrock belief that sexual activity between consenting, un-attached adults is a healthy expression of the human condition, and should not be constrained by social constructs of propriety, or religious-based objections to casual sex outside of marriage.

Doing what feels good, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, sounds like an agreeably egalitarian motto, in line with our society-wide emphasis on personal autonomy and personal growth.

But the second part of that proscription is not as easy to pull off as it sounds. In actual practice the being considerate of others, especially when those others happen to be the aforementioned casual sexual partners, sort of runs directly counter to the pursuit of one’s own sexual gratification.

It turns out the beliefs and conventions we inherited, and have since confidently discarded as being hopelessly passé, grew up and evolved around the human person for a reason – and it wasn’t just to cramp our style and stop us from having fun.

So while the #MeToo movement is shedding much-needed light on the deplorable behavior of a generation of wanton men who have taken advantage of their relative positions of authority to indulge their untethered passion, it fails to properly acknowledge the root cause of all this unwanted attention or downright abuse.

Which is to say the sex drive, particularly where the male of the species is concerned, is inclined to run wild, and when it does social havoc usually ensues. This is one of those ancient truths we enlightened moderns felt could be discarded without suffering any unintended consequence.

But suffer we have. And not just the women who have found themselves imposed upon, or worse. Lascivious behavior is undeniably pleasurable for a man in the short term, but undermines his integrity and sense of self-worth in the long run. It eats away at his soul.

Does that sound preachy? Sorry to bum you out. But sooner or later that’s where this ends up. Not to mention how it also can’t help but irrevocably damage the marital vow made to one’s betrothed spouse.

The playwright David Mamet describes the situation thusly: “every society has to confront the ungovernable genie of sexuality and tries various ways to deal with it and none of them work very well.”

(This is not technically true, of course, since Christian society did pretty much have this figured out, even if many a Christian struggled with the logic. But all that has been erased from the collective memory bank, so it’s understandable even an accomplished wordsmith like David Mamet no longer considers Christian sexual ethics a legitimate point of reference on his compass rose.)

Mr. Mamet’s remarks are prompted by a new play he has written, that take up these very issues, and debuts this week on the London stage. It’s called Bitter Wheat, and features a Harvey Weinstein-like character as the protagonist

It’s being described as a farce, which is raising eyebrows in some circles because, well, there is nothing farcical about rape.

Also of concern to certain observers is how this middle-aged male playwright is giving middle-aged male monsters yet more stage time, when the #MeToo movement should be about amplifying the voices of women victimized by such men.

Personally i am less concerned about who is getting stage time, and who is being allowed to speak, than i am with what is being said.

The allure of an attractive female never fades, even if it does become slightly less intoxicating over time. One eventually comes to realize the opposite sex is – like us – much more than a mere physical representation. They, too, are endowed with an immortal soul and are each put on this earth to pursue a destiny. They are not just eye candy. And they are not our handmaidens.

Despite the popular claim that monogamy is un-natural, and nearly impossible for the average, red-blooded male to achieve, monogamy represents our higher calling.

But as with many truths first encountered in youth, when one is prone to dis-belief, so much hinges on the gift of faith. It’s important to live according to the law, so that one might grow to finally understand the underlying truth contained in that law.

Which brings this conversation to a consideration of a line of poetry: “what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” It’s from a short Robert Hayden poem that describes the late-in-life appreciation of a certain kind of harsh parental love, as offered up by a certain kind of inexpressive blue-collar father, and experienced by a young boy who would “rise and dress, fearing the chronic angers of that house.”

But to talk of love’s austere and lonely offices is to contemplate the most profound sort of love, isn’t it? Take marriage, for instance. It’s not a simple, happy-go-lucky arrangement, centered on the pursuit of mutually agreed upon pleasure, even if that’s how it usually starts out.

With time the unitive and procreative aspects of the coital act work their magic, and a bond is forged between two diverse and independent individuals. Commitment and responsibility become the hallmarks of this bond.

This observation is not meant to argue against pleasure, or diminish its enjoyment. Only to say that in the end, the things we do for one another are done because they are there, and need to be done, and constitute the right thing to do. Without regard for what we might gain back in return.

This is so even when we are having a rough time of it, because things are not going our way. Even when we are left to our own devices and think no one who knows us is watching.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
June 5, 2019

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