There is only so much to spread around. Take attention, for example. In spite of what is commonly thought, attention does not expand infinitely. It does not grow in accordance with the number of things to which we desire to attend. Instead of expanding, our attention fragments. The end result is not that we attend to many things, but that we attend to almost nothing.
The same is true with other aspects of our being, especially our capacity for commitment. The greater our number of options, the harder it is to commit to any particular one. Choosing a single cereal from the overflowing grocery aisle has become difficult. Choosing a person with whom to build a family has, apparently, become nearly impossible.
We now meet more people in an hour than our ancestors met in their lives. An hour spent on Facebook or a dating app brings a rush of people many of whom are prospective sexual, if not marital, partners. As with breakfast cereals, the number of alternatives is so great, people can’t commit.
Our commitment aversion has, apparently, grown so great that among some young people it is now considered an intrusion to ask an acquaintance for a last name. The Wall Street Journal reported on this last week. That story is behind a paywall, so here’s a summary.
People now meet online and know one another only by first names. Asking for a last name, even after having gotten together in real life, has become a signal that things are getting more serious. Presumably, whoever asks firsts marks himself as being the more invested one. Also, in this social media age, revealing one’s last name means making oneself searchable on Google, Facebook, Tinder. The moment acquaintances now reveal their surnames has become as fraught with anxiety, perhaps more so, as the moment when lovers first reveal to one another their bodies.
Observing that these young people are simply afraid of commitment would be too simple. What matters is why. No doubt there are many reasons, including the availability of massive numbers of options. But, more than just the numbers, it has become clear that young people do not know the meaning of anything, least of all commitment. Moreover, they live in a culture that cannot tell them. The world is awash in ignorance regarding meaning of sex, relationships, family and even of the very body which grounds these precious things.
As modern liberalism has burned away from the individual all unchosen obligations and from society all fixed meaning and institutions, people have lost sight of the purpose of even the most intimate human activities. That young people now are hesitant to share their surnames proves this.
Once, not revealing a surname would have been unimaginable. That it has become so is a sign of our total atomization. We are no longer connected to a web of social relationships. Dating and sex are now abstracted from the community and situated solely in the domain of the individual will. Think about what a surname is. It is your father’s name, your family’s name. A world of first-names-only is a world that denies, in the most obvious way possible, that we belong in any way to others. In the world of first-names-only, we have come from nowhere and no one and our future is equally empty.
People want to fill the void. They crave meaning and wonder. And, in this age of creeping nihilism, men and women increasingly turn to first-name-only sex to experience some vestige of the old enchanted world. All that swiping on Tinder is, in the end, a futile hunt for God.
Alas, He is not easily found there. Instead, we stumble into a loveless wasteland of hookups and the inevitable charges of sexual misconduct they engender. Modern society has stripped from the young any hope that those things that satisfy in the long-run: self-discipline, commitment, family and faith are possible. We have raised a generation at best indifferent to these things, and must watch them suffer and struggle. Few of their elders have any wisdom to offer.
Here is what those elders, had they wisdom and courage enough, should say. They should say the desires of the body fade, but the desires of the heart are perennial. They should say that long after these devotees of the first name have lost their youth, when energy and beauty have vanished, the longings of the heart will remain. And that they will, for these young people remain unsatisfied. They should say that what never fades is the desire to be loved and to love, the desire to know and be known. And above all, they should say that desire will remain forever frustrated for members of a generation too lost to even say their names.