More and more, I think about romance. Mostly, I notice its absence. By romance, I mean not that mysterious process by which men and women are drawn together, but the larger dynamic of which the springing forth of love affairs is but a part.
By “romance”, I mean all the experiences and attitudes that make life engaging, interesting and beautiful. The birth of love, the pursuit of sexual union, the intricate dance between the sexes amount to only one expression, one sort, of romantic experience. This larger set of romantic experiences and attitudes are hard to come by now, suppressed as they are by the very structure of modern life.
We are not accustomed to thinking of romance in these terms. To do so is to risk being honest about the fact that modern life does not satisfy, and too much honesty about that might upset some people, including ourselves.
So, we are conditioned to associate the idea of romance exclusively with personal relationships. We are taught to believe that our hunger for an elevated life, a life of meaning and purpose, will be satisfied through sexual love. Of course, this never works. Relationships bust apart or settle down to mundane realities.
This tells us something more is meant by the word, and that our hunger for romance can never be satisfied by another person alone. When, for example, a woman says she wants a man who is romantic, she doesn’t mean she wants a man who obsesses over her. She means she wants a man capable of making life interesting and exciting and meaningful.
Romance, in this larger sense, is an enemy of modern life. Above all, modern life is characterized by its banality. The texture of daily life these days is smooth and and safe, empty and lacking. In our coordinated efforts to create a life defined by ease, consumerism and conformity to the modern vision, we have eliminated most of the necessary ingredients of romance: beauty, risk and transcendence.
We were made for more. Living in a romance-less world is one reason why so many of us are unhappy. We long for a life that fulfills to a greater degree. We long for a life with more freedom, unpredictability, and meaning than modern living affords.
Imagine living in a previous age. Certainly, its hardships could be great. There would be drudgery for sure. But, all that drudgery occurred in a context that tended to imbue it with meaning and, above all, romance is about meaning. In an earlier age, your toil, however arduous, took place in a context of close contact with nature, neighbors and faith; all elements that lend daily life meaning and, indeed, a sort of romance.
Today, those elements have largely been replaced by predictable urban existence, isolation and secular consumerism. All these are the enemies of romance. There is a reason no one ever sets his romantic fantasies under the buzzing fluorescent lights of the cubicle farm next to the mall. Romantic fantasies take place on the shore of a misty sea, upon the windy moors, deep in the mystical forest, all places where the grip of modernity is loosest.
The result of the loss of those circumstances that naturally add romance to our lives is widespread desperation. People try to escape it, naturally, through the empty distractions modernity provides. We are trained to consume and for most this training is quite effective. Yet, our consumption only intensifies our hunger.
The first step is to unplug. This means leaving the television off most of the time. Maybe it means divesting yourself from your sports fandom. Maybe it means fewer lunchtime trips to Starbucks. Whatever it means, it means doing and having less in order to be more. Romance requires margin, space for the serendipitous to be born.
The next step is to seek connection, in whatever way possible, with those things that are inherently romantic. This means strengthening your connection to nature. Just stand in your backyard. Go to the park and pay a little attention. Look closely at what is before you. Notice what you normally don’t.
Above all, it means being intentional about life. It means rejecting our cultural defaults. Living a life with space for romance in a programmed, mechanized culture means living a counter-cultural life.
Only by being intentional, rebelling to some degree against the culture, can we get into contact with those attitudes and practices that really elevate our souls. The sources of romance no longer flow toward us unbidden. Now they must be sought.
Our hearts are a force like horses pulling in the direction of what satisfies. Only by pulling against them with all our might do we keep moving down the road our desolate culture prescribes. If we lighten up on the reigns, our inner horses will pull us in the direction they know we ought to move. It’s time to let go a little, time to trust the brute animals of our inward lives, to let them lead us out of the dreary, predictable city and into the open country where anything may happen.
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