Move Over, Sex and Drugs. Ease Is the New Vice.
According to recent research, teens are starting their sex lives a lot later. Despite shifting cultural norms and new sexual freedoms, our youngest and most virile are apparently having less sex—at least for now. Sociologists and social commentators debate whether the trend is temporary and whether it marks a healthy or unhealthy societal shift. But it’s possible that the so-called sex recession offers evidence of a wide, disturbing trend that has nothing to do with sex—one that is particularly endemic to our cultural moment. The trend bears witness to the ways that we’re increasingly finding embodied life “tiresome.” (In Japan, that’s the word many younger Japanese people to describe intercourse: mendokusai.)
Our apparent fatigue with bodily living extends to other areas, as well. Two years ago, in response to declining cereal sales, market researchers went looking for answers to why younger people were opting out of the convenience food that had fed their parents and grandparents. According to The New York Times, researchers found the reason: Breakfast cereal—with the whole bother of bowl and spoon—involved far too much work. “Almost 40 percent of the millennials surveyed by Mintel for its 2015 report said cereal was an inconvenient breakfast choice because they had to clean up after eating it.”
The decline in sexual activity and cereal sales hardly seem correlated, but both seem to point to one of the most seductive promises of a technological age: that ours should be an unbothered life. As our lives (at least in the developed world) get easier, we are increasingly formed by the desire for ease. Of all the cautions we raise about technology—its distractions and temptations, its loneliness and superficiality—this promise of unencumbered living is perhaps the most insidious danger and also the one we talk the least about.
As Christians, we are rightfully attuned to the hedonic temptations of material life: the sex, the drugs, the proverbial rock-and-roll. But reckless abandonment to the sensual pleasures of the body is not our only vice. So, too, is evasion of bodily life—which is, in one aspect, any attempt to squirm out of the tedium of being enfleshed, emplaced beings with obligations to love. It makes for a nagging question:
Who do we become when we’re no longer willing to bother?
The longing for ease is certainly not new, and we can trace the American home through the stages of swift industrialization. Between 1890 and 1920, the lives of American women (and men) changed dramatically with the introduction of electricity and running water. The promise of the new appliances they added to their homes, however, was not time-efficiency, as we might think. Instead, these appliances were called “labor-saving” devices, and they promised to spare the body of “bother.”
Fast forward one hundred years to our current era of home automation: We have even greater capacities to spare ourselves bother, and efficiency and convenience are delivered with less and less effort. Alexa re-orders our toilet paper and turns on the music. From the comfort of my office cubicle, I control my sous vide, ensuring a precisely cooked roast upon my return home. If I’ve forgotten to turn down my home’s heat during my vacation, I connect to an app on my smartphone, ease delivered with a swipe of my thumb or the command of my voice. Let there be light. With the push of every button, my illusion grows—that exertion is the enemy of modern life.
The modernizing of the American home seems innocuous enough and especially salutary when we consider the introduction of flushing toilets and refrigeration. But the late media theorist Marshall McLuhan, himself a Christian, would caution us against the uncritical embrace of technology, which acts like a prosthetic, removing the body from the labor equation. (According to The Atlantic, that seems to be exactly what we’ve done with sex, since many people now increasingly favor self-stimulation to intercourse.)
Here, then, is the quandary we’re left with: As we continue to reduce the physical burden it takes to move through the world, and the efforts of our lives are often only as effortful as staring our smartphones in the face (why bother with a home button?), how will we galvanize the real will for love of God and neighbor?
I am increasingly conscious of the bother of physicality—increasingly conscious that there is no way to love others without it. My children have an unrelenting need for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and I am, many days, irritated that I should have to feed them something other than Ramen, despite their happy clamor for it. At the end of a long day, my husband interrupts my well-laid plans for reading in bed with his puppy eyes of desire. Truth be told, marriage can find me tired and wishing to be left alone. My aging mother is growing forgetful, repeating tired stories over the phone when I’m under a deadline. She will expect we come again at Christmas. More recently, a member of the extended family has chosen to die, and attending the funeral—all seven of us—will cost us significantly in time and money. Secretly, I wish for a substitute to serve as our presence among the grieving.
In theory, I want to love. In reality, I want it to tax me less.
However, the arc of the Christian story tells me that these collective affronts are a betrayal, not just of neighbor but of God himself. God entered the bother of embodied life. As a boy, he was subject to the slow agony of growing up. As a man, he was harangued by crowds, touched by lepers, and kept awake on sleepless, hungry nights in prayer. On the night of his arrest, Jesus took up the bother of the basin and towel, washing the feet of his disciples, even those of his betrayer. He carried that bother all the way to his execution for the sake of love.
As the Incarnation attests, the love of God, borne on his back as a weighty, wooden cross, was the corporal love of deed and truth (cf. 1 John 3:18, ESV). As Julie Canlis writes, “The Incarnation is the rule, not the exception. God enters into the world and engages with us on creation’s terms. He uses ordinary, created things to bless us, save us, minister to us. Our ordinary humanity is the place he has chosen to meet with us.”
Following Christ, then, I am radically called to the bother of the material world with its attendant burdens and griefs. Love, in both its everyday gestures and grand flourishes, is the radical embrace of burden, not the rejection of it.
I don’t know that I can fully recover from my entitlement to ease. I am not, after all, giving up my iPhone. But perhaps I can remember that love, patterned after God’s own self-giving, is bent on inconvenience and cost. Perhaps I can temper my expectations for the effortless life I think am owed. Perhaps I can remember, when feeling especially put out by needing to show up in the world (and not by proxy), that I am supposed to love with my body.
As God did with his.
Jen Pollock Michel is the award-winning author of Teach Us to Want and Keeping Place. Her next book, Surprised By Paradox, is forthcoming this May. She lives with her husband and five children in Toronto.