The Unfettered Self

In reading writings on the state of the American marriage and family it is difficult not to feel discouraged if you believe in the sanctity of marriage, or the sanctity of life, for that matter. Sanctity has to do with something done before and with God. Marriage then becomes something more than a legal act, it becomes a holy union made in the presence of, and under the authority of God. It is not just “you and me” getting together, we are joining together as a witness to God's nature. The love between a woman and a man in marriage is representative of God's love. The love I have and express for my wife, and her love for me, is to be something like the love of God.

Current writings on the state of marriage seem to agree that a focus on individualism or an individual's right to express their unique selves is a major factor in the increasing divorce rate. In other words, our culture is placing a premium on my right for what I need, what I desire, what I want to become; paraphrasing Me and Bobby McGee: “individualism is just another word for what I want to do.” The other person then becomes nothing but a means for meeting my needs and when that no longer happens, I move on. Barbara Whitehead in her book The Divorce Culture refers to this as the “unfettered self”.

This same line of thought and behavior affects the sanctity of life. If life in a womb is not something I desire or is an inconvenience for my current plans, I stop it from becoming a life, I abort it. The right of a woman to determine what she does with her body is an expression of the same cultural impulse of the unfettered self. The individual decides and acts in his or her best interests, the rights and needs of the other takes second place.

I often listen to political conversations from media pundits and their guests. I happened to catch a segment of a conversation on the radio, I think with David Gregory on Meet the Press. He had Mayor Bloomberg of New York City, the past Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, and the current Governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell. They were discussing problems with our economy and the associated political environment and potential solutions. One of the conclusions they reached was that the divisive rancor between political parties contributes to an inability to make decisions for the common good. David Gregory asked what can be done and none of these distinguished and brilliant men had an answer; they all agreed they have never seen anything like this in their lifetime. No one will give an inch to work together for the good of all; it is about maintaining, representing and winning a point of view. It is the same cultural impulse of doing what is best for me, for my party, or my position, not what is best for our country.

It is of course nothing new in history that the individual acts in his or her own self interests. What is different is how embedded it is in the laws of the land. We have legislated no fault divorce to make it easy to dissolve unwanted unions and it is legal to abort unwanted pregnancies. We even bail out institutionalized greed, holding no one accountable; doing what is in the best interest of me is both legal and profitable.

So what is an the answer to David Gregory's question? Restoring our culture to an ethic of love is one answer. The ethic of serving or deferring to the other over me is the basic position of love; love is always other directed, not self directed. Our society is losing this ethic, the impulse to serve the other, to sacrifice and dutifully meet the obligations we have in marriage, family, and country. We have lost the primacy of the obligated self developed from the presence of love; and I believe it is destroying our country.