For a long time I have perceived myself as someone who loved to think, even if my thoughts tended to pop up at odd times. As a consequence of my thoughts’ unconventional timing, sometimes what I write is caused either by thinking about something new, or something old in a new way. This time, it was something familiar about which I wondered, specifically, an old pop song, “Breakout,” by Miley Cyrus. When I first heard it around 7 years ago, I did like the melody. However, I was never entirely comfortable with this section of the first verse, “Stuck in school’s so lame. / My parents say that I’m lazy. / Getting up at 8 A.M.’s crazy. / Tired of bein’ told what to do. / So unfair, so uncool.”
Just an Ordinary Teenage Portrayal, or a Reflection on Society?
As this section illustrates, it seems as though the narrator had something of a problem with ennui. But, lots of teenagers, my former teenage self included, tend to get bored in a scholastic environment, even bored with life. No, it is not simply the narrator’s getting bored that got me to think. Rather, it is the apparent degradation of the parents and “bein’ told what to do” that I questioned. Yes, to a youth standing on the cusp of adulthood and personal independence, restrictions can be a great annoyance. However, at the same time, because most songs are written with the hope of selling well, not just expressing feelings, “Breakout” most likely does not only speak to Miley’s experience. Rather, it shows that modern society as a whole clearly encourages focus on oneself above others.
Even understanding that, I wondered why the songwriters would talk down such an important relationship as that between parent and child. Thinking logically, I thought that, since music often reflects the mindset of those who listen to it, this probably was not just an issue for the three songwriters who wrote “Breakout.” Rather, the modern society which would popularize such a song has been slowly taking down and destroying the relationship between child and parent, along with other ones.
Which Relationships are in Decline? Most of Them
If I seem to be exaggerating, here are some other examples. Take the relationship between a man and his wife. As soon as one thinks the other is not good enough, regardless of reason, the conflict can now be solved with the innovative phenomenon of divorce on demand. That is certainly quite a change from the old thinking of “till death do we part.” Or reverse the relationship from the song to that between parent and child. That one society approves—but only if the child is already wanted, and preferably long premeditated. Otherwise Mom, normally with Dad’s full consent, has every encouragement to murder the child in her womb, to the point that some women who actually want their child could be falsely convinced into thinking that abortion is their only option. Even some secular parents who do not abort do not have the same spirit of self-giving that the faith-filled ones do.
A few years back I read one mother’s blog entitled “My Daughter’s Life is Taking Over Mine.” My first reaction was something like, “Uh, don’t all parents put their kids first? Why complain about it?” Not to say that parents should not take care of themselves as well as their kids, or that the mother in question was necessarily being selfish in wanting more time for herself; I merely think her overall attitude was a product of our “Me first!” culture.
Additionally, other relationships can be negatively affected by placing primacy on oneself, including friendships. Almost everyone has at least one or two good friends, but, if I had to guess, I would say modern culture does not put much emphasis on valuing one’s friends for who they are rather than for what they contribute to the relationship. That is probably why those celebrities who hit rock bottom and end up in prison or rehab are shown in gossip magazines getting out of rehab alone, rather than surrounded with support. Or, to look at it from a different angle, how much time do people spend really cultivating their friendships through spending face-to-face time with each other, or at least hearing the other’s voice through the phone? The purpose of screens and smartphones has become so distorted that most seem to prefer checking their Facebook posts for the twentieth time that day to having a real conversation with the person right in front of them. Surely using a screen to that extent is not particularly helpful to any relationship.
Losing Friends Sounds Hard… But That’s Not the Worst
However, important as all those relationships are, the last two sacrificed on the altar of our self-centered culture are the most vital. First, there is man’s relationship with God, since so many are now atheist, or if not, nominally religious while treating God as scarcely more than Santa Claus. Now, Christians believe that God’s nature includes two relevant things: He is the greatest Being in the universe, and Love Itself. That being said, without God in his life, a man chooses to miss out on the greatest of all relationships. Chesterton put it well when he said, “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”
Still, though I find the understanding that God is love a compelling argument for the faith, many non-Christians who learn about the stipulations of the faith for the first time probably wonder how anyone could live by them for even a week, potential love of God notwithstanding. My briefest answer to such people is that the love of God really can sweeten any hardship, if consolation is His will. If not, then the Christian may at least be comforted in at least knowing that his suffering is part of a greater plan. (Not to belittle the hardships of life, nor provide a complete apologia for the faith, but I digress.)
So God Does Not Exist? Then Why Are We Here?
Yes, it is certainly true that knowing Love Himself is beautiful, and without this knowledge earthly life can be lacking. Yet, arguably more tragic than that is the other consequence of ignoring God—man’s life has no true sense of direction. He has no real purpose other than in self-gratification. While always putting oneself first sounds great in theory, many have found it unsatisfying in the end. (Also, one has little reason to live at all, if he arbitrarily decides death would be easier, but, in fairness, I have never heard of an atheist killing himself just because he had no real reason to live.)
I do not mean to say that there are not a sizable number of people who have felt themselves fulfilled and gratified through living as atheists, pleasing themselves first, and, if they sincerely believe there is no way a deity could possibly exist, more power to them for living an honest life, rather than a deceitful one. My point is merely that not everyone who once lived as a satisfied atheist also died thinking that way.
Actually, What Are We Anyway?
Last of all, without God, man does not know who he himself is. Since man was made in God’s image, then naturally without at least roughly understanding who God is, man cannot truly understand his own human nature. More importantly, the reason God made us to be like Himself is because He destined us to do the greatest good and have the greatest happiness of all beings on earth. We humans were intended to give of ourselves, both simply because that is what God does, and because the more we do good, the better persons we become. If my understanding is correct, we too were meant to be filled with goodness as He is, made in His image while at the same time not being gods ourselves.
Yet, if we willfully ignore His dictates, or even His existence, then what do we become? I was going to say “animals,” in that we serve nothing but our own appetites, but actually in a sense a willfully defiant man is worse than a dog, because the dog, being irrational, has no free choice; instead, it operates according to its nature, always living the life God intended for it, whereas the rebellion lowers the man from what he ought to be. Irish artist Hozier mentioned in relation to one of his songs that “Sexuality, and sexual orientation–regardless of orientation–is [sic] just natural. An act of sex is one of the most human things.”
I would say that is incorrect on multiple levels. Of course, the procreative act is natural and good, but all of creation shares in reproduction in some way, so in a classification sense sex does not specifically “belong” to humans any more than to horses, as one example. (Whether “orientation” is also natural is not something I feel qualified to discuss.) No, the sorts of acts that are most human are both rational, because humans are the only rational creatures on earth, and acts of love, because we are the only ones who can love in a true sense, as God does. In context, Hozier’s remark seems as though he might see people as something like ordinary animals with some special abilities (though, in fairness, sex could be one such “human act” as I have outlined it). Oh, I neglected to mention that Hozier, while he would not call himself an atheist per se, in his own words he “has no faith.”
Is Man an Evolved Animal, or a Slave?
It can be easy to want to lower man’s destiny, simply because treating mankind like a group of slightly more developed animals makes it easier to accept the idea that there is no God, thus there is also no sin. Furthermore, if there is nothing greater than people to serve, again, everyone can preoccupy themselves only with what they want. Yet, if men are just the greatest of animals, they are also the only ones who decide what they ought to do. There is no good and no bad apart from serving themselves. In some sense, people could become slaves to their own selves, if there were a real good that conflicted with the apparent good they wanted. (See Life Well Ended, the piece I wrote last month, for an example of this.)
Again, while this ending could appear happy on the outside, it isn’t as enjoyable if one realizes what his choices are doing to himself. The real motto of this generation is the trite yet true Shakespeare quote, “Fair is foul and foul is fair.” In a sense, the self-serving man truly makes himself into the worst of animals, because through only seeking to satisfy his appetites he makes himself become “stupid” about the good versus the harmful.
One Question Left: Why?
In modern society, pretty much all human relationships have been devalued in some way: parent, child, friend, and spouse. Most significantly, man either forgets or disregards God. Finally, because he loses touch with God, in Whose image he was made, mankind no longer has the same understanding of what human nature is or its purpose. Now, there is one more unanswered question here: why do the people of modern society reject the great good of relationships, for which God made them? As best I understand it, the reason is because relationships require something more out of those participating in them. One has first to be a good friend to have a good friend, and be a good spouse to have a good spouse. Really talking to someone and making the effort to look them in the eyes leaves a person more vulnerable than hiding behind an electronic screen. First-world culture has become so selfish that some even refuse the true good of getting close to someone, simply because it would distract them from serving themselves. Returning to the question I pondered in the beginning of this piece: why was Miley shown as resenting her parents? In a nutshell, because respecting them more was too difficult and required a greater sacrifice of self.
Where Do Christians Go From Here?
Now, in all this, what is the role of Christians, believing that God does exist and relationships do matter? Should we just sit by and watch the Western world go down the tubes? Definitely not. First, we should certainly not lose hope. More importantly, to give a more specific idea, I would take a lesson from the unlikely example of Michael Jackson and “start with the man in the mirror.” As God said to Catherine of Siena, “Be who you were meant to be and you will set the world on fire.” Yes, the relationship revolution needs to begin with us believers, who best understand the need for it. Only then can we begin to help those who are most in danger of losing their humanity in the name of “what I want.”
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