Saturday, September 12, 2015

Sophomores, Sophists and Solipsism

Solipsism is the theory that self is all that exists.

It’s kind of an oddball worldview first enunciated by the Greek sophist Gorgias of Leontini around 400 B.C. Gorgias argued that (i) nothing exists; (ii) even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; and (iii) even if something could be known about it, knowledge about it can’t be communicated to others.

Now of course when we refer to someone as “solipsistic” today, we do not generally mean that they are a philosopher of the Gorgian school or that they really believe that everything they experience (including the external world and other people) occurs only in their heads and lacks independent existence. Most solipsists are not philosophers at all; in fact, they may never have even heard the word “solipsism”. They have no specific theories of existence and may never have contemplated reality in the abstract.

They just live and think as if self is all that exists.

Solipsism is not a synonym for narcissism. The solipsist is not necessarily caught up with physical appearance, obsessed with being admired or possessed of a distorted view of his talents and qualities. He has simply never learned to walk in another’s shoes. Nor is solipsism identical with selfishness. The selfish person ranks the needs and desires of others behind his own. The solipsist is not even conscious of them.

Kelsey Kupecky is a married Christian twenty-something with a post up at Patheos about dating. But for all intents and purposes, at least where relationships are concerned, she may as well be a Gorgian solipsist.

Why don’t you be the judge?
“When I was a sophomore in college, I had a boyfriend. He was a great guy. He loved the Lord. I liked him. My family liked him. But something was off. Whenever I tried to picture myself marrying him, I couldn’t. We dated for six months but I couldn’t really see myself with him long-term. Six months quickly turned into a year, and still, I didn’t see a future with this guy. A year turned into two and, as badly as I wanted to, I couldn’t picture myself walking down the aisle and him standing at the end.

It just wasn’t there.”
It is probably worth mentioning that Christian authors have pointed out dating is not a particularly Christian institution. “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” is closing in on a million copies sold, and it’s not because the book expresses approval of the standard dating patterns of North American teens.

But leaving that aside, we find Kelsey had her reasons for putting off the big breakup:
“You see, I have a heart for love and I always have. I’m a hopeless romantic! Maybe some of you can relate to this. I liked having a boyfriend. Someone I could talk to every day. Text whenever I wanted. Just someone who was there for me, and I was there for him. But from a young age, I had been waiting for my prince charming and something deep down told me that this boyfriend was not my prince charming.

When I was 13 years old, my parents took me out to dinner and talked to me about love, marriage and my future husband. They encouraged me to pray about him and for him and, most importantly, they encouraged me to seek God first when it came to dating and relationships.

This night had a huge impact on me. It’s a conversation I went back to again and again when it came to my standards and dreams for a godly man to marry.

After two years in what was, in reality, a dead-end relationship, I began to remember this night, this dream of a man who I believed was out there for me. So I prayed and God showed me what I had to do. He gave me the courage to do something crazy.

I broke up with my boyfriend.”
Forgive me for suggesting that parting ways with Kelsey may have been the best thing ever to happen to this “great guy” who “loved the Lord”. Am I the only person who has noticed that Kelsey does not appear to have given one moment’s thought to the way her choices impacted his life?

Now I certainly don’t mean to suggest she should have married him. In our culture, it is permissible to kiss off a marriage right up to (and sometimes at) the ceremony. As horrible as that may be, it’s still better than divorcing later. I know Christians who have gotten within days of the wedding and pulled the rip cord. As ugly and unpleasant as it was, in hindsight it was probably for the best.

So it’s not that she broke up with the guy that bugs me. What bothers me is ... well, three things actually:

The first is that from the six month mark on, Kelsey is clear that she could not really see herself with this man long-term. But having “someone I could talk to every day ... text whenever I wanted ... just someone who was there for me” was more important to her than being honest with her boyfriend. How he may have felt about being strung along until she decided to cut him loose doesn’t seem to have even crossed her mind.

The second is that this is not merely immaturity and lack of life experience showing. That would be reason to cut Kelsey some slack. I would not be inclined to pounce on a teenager. But Kelsey is now writing from the perspective of a married Christian woman serving God several years down the road from these events, yet she shows no more self-awareness than one might expect of a teenager. It does not appear that the years in between taught her anything.

The third is that she’s actually writing this, and it’s not just the one column she’s writing: the column promotes the book about her relationship with the Christian pop singer she miraculously chanced upon backstage at one of his performances. If you order ten copies, she’ll autograph them for you and include a free copy of husband Kyle’s new album. And if you can’t make it to the release party, you can get a copy at Barnes & Noble.

You think I’m kidding, don’t you.

So this sad, self-centered, wildly unchristian display is being held up as a model for young Christian girls.

If I were the boyfriend, I might not be emotionally destroyed by the break-up. But I would be absolutely furious if I knew Kelsey had wasted a year and a half of my life stroking her own ego and filling her days with company she considered second-rate until something better came along. To top it off, I’d be more than a little disappointed to find that she’s now promoting her Christian bookstore career with the story of how God miraculously told her to dump me. She’s found a way to monetize heartache, and it isn’t even her own.

But that, folks, is solipsism in action. If it were uncommon, I wouldn’t be writing this post. Thankfully, Kelsey has learned something from her experience that she’d like to share with other poor, suffering Christian girls in the same boat:
“Some of you might be forcing a relationship right now.

It’s easier to be with someone than to be alone, right? I get it. But can I tell you it’s not worth it. Dating just to have a boyfriend or forcing your own happily ever after will lead to heartbreak.

From the girl who knows exactly where you’re coming from and has been-there-done-that, I encourage you to stop and think about what you’re getting into. Ask yourself, “Is this the guy I’ve been waiting for?” … Or could it be you need to wait just a little bit longer.”
Or perhaps you could do my sons and other young men out there a huge favour and wait forever. Because being married to someone who thinks like this would be the definition of purgatory:
“You are too valuable to waste your days away with a guy you never plan on marrying. Don’t force your happily ever after. It will come to you when the time is right because God’s timing is always, always right.”
We expect this sort of thinking from young women in the world, but I’ve never seen it quite so baldly expressed by someone who calls herself a Christian. I’m with Kelsey on this one point, folks: Please don’t force your “happily ever after”!

And while you’re at it, a stray thought for the happiness of others might not go amiss.

Now we know the Lord is perfectly capable of taking a painful breakup that comes out of the blue sky and turning it into something good in the life of men or women like Kelsey’s ex. But the fact that God sometimes uses unhappy circumstances to build character is not a license to inflict pain.

What might Kelsey’s boyfriend have been doing in that year and a half she dawdled around before dumping him? Meeting the woman he would ultimately marry? Going to the mission field? Who knows? What we do know is that he very probably made a number of decisions in that year and a half because of his existing relationship that were at best wasted time and energy and at worst dead ends that forced him to backtrack later. Almost surely his feelings for Kelsey deepened in that time. Chances are ending the relationship around the two year mark was considerably more painful for him than ending it six months in.

Kelsey makes it clear her parents invested considerable energy in protecting her and ensuring she didn’t undersell herself with boys. That’s good, because there are plenty of young girls obsessed with feelings of worthlessness and futility that sell themselves very short indeed. Where Kelsey’s parents might have productively laid a little more emphasis is on her obligation as a young Christian to think as much about the value of others as she thinks of her own value.

The guy you “never plan on marrying” because he is not a fit for you may have great value to the Lord and to someone else. But since to a solipsist others don’t really exist, none of that matters.

Well, it should matter to us. Paul says this about our thinking as believers:
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Counting or reckoning others more significant than me is an act of my will. It is a choice. It is deliberately adopting the value system of God with respect to others instead of the dysfunctional value system I was born with. It is not about how I naturally and solipsistically feel but how I choose to think.

In the context of an exclusive relationship that is not marriage, putting the interests of others ahead of our own looks something like this: the moment you have doubts about the person you’re dating, it’s time to stop dating them. Period. Never mind that you enjoy having someone to text, someone to talk to or someone who is there for you. What is much more important than your perceived needs is that you do not defraud the person you are dating by allowing them to believe the two of you are proceeding down the path to marriage when you are not. Not for one minute, let alone for a year and a half.

Paul says in the last days men will be lovers of self. And he’s not talking about people out there in the world. He’s talking about people in the church who are blatantly all about themselves, and they’re not all twenty-something girls. They’re men and women of all ages, and they’re not just sitting over there in a corner while we hope they grow out of their immaturity and self-absorption. They are serving in the church or making careers for themselves within the Christian community without a shred of self-awareness or shame. They are defining the word “Christian” for their unsaved neighbours and friends. Let’s hope one of them is not your pastor.

Is this what a lover of self looks like? If so, what a trivial world the solipsist lives in, what a toothless Christianity he professes, and what a small God he has.

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