The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
The movie has been brought up to me more times than not in discussions of the life and death and murders of Elliot Rodger, who killed six other people and himself in Santa Barbara just over a week ago.
The title of that movie was a “guaranteed laugh line” in our “toxic culture,” as one person put it; it was automatically understood to be conveying “dweeby, out-of-touch loser,” another emphasized.
Is it any wonder that the worst thing in the world for Rodger was that he was not having sex?
“Sex has become a sort of replacement god, an idol of our Internet age,” observes Aaron Kheriaty, MD, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. Rodger’s view of sex, like so many people’s in our modern day, was steeped, ironically, in isolation and alienation, complete with unreasonable expectations, in a fog of disappointment.
In the writings he left behind, Rodger pointed to his parents’ divorce and his first viewing of pornography as perversely formative. “I was shocked beyond words,” he recalled about viewing pornographic images at age eleven. “[T]he sight filled me with strong and overwhelming emotions . . . I was traumatized. My childhood was fading away. Ominous fear swept over me. . . . Indeed, a whole new world had opened up before me, and I had no idea how to prevail in it.” About another incident, he said: “I walked home and cried by myself for a bit. I felt too guilty about what I saw to talk to my parents about it.”
Like most of us, he wanted something more. He wanted something good. A car, games, medicine didn’t help him. In a culture that doesn’t value men as protectors and fathers, all there really was to hope for was sex; this was his only idea of any semblance of pursuing happiness. “This makes perfect sense, because deep in even the most deluded and anesthetized heart, we cannot fail to know that sex is meant to connect us to an Other,” says Ed Mechmann, director of the Safe Environment Office at the Archdiocese of New York. When he couldn’t get what he wanted, there was an “existential anger” about him, “not just against his situation but even against who and what he is,” Mechmann comments. “And so he tried to destroy all that reminded him of the hurt he couldn’t get rid of or make sense of.”
There is a familiarity to this, another “lone shooter” story “which should trouble our consciences and give us pause,” says Hilary Towers, a developmental psychologist. “Our children are growing up in a split-personality culture. We tell them to be ‘good, kind people,’ but they see the adults in their lives — on TV, in movies, on their computers, in their own families — using and discarding people, moving seamlessly in and out of marriages and sexual relationships.”
This is the “throwaway culture” Pope Francis talks about. Why are boys and girls right now sitting in their bedrooms with computers their parents gave them looking at porn or sexting selfies to classmates and strangers? Because they “are searching desperately for intimacy — to learn about real-life relationships through and within their families,” Towers says. “They look to our example to affirm that real, lasting love is possible — that our worth as humans lies not in the quality and variety of our sex lives, but in our status as sons and daughters of a God who loves us unconditionally.”
In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, the acclaimed poet who just died, expressed her awe at her knowledge that God loved her. It was humbling and overwhelming to her. Knowing that the Creator of the world created her too — and believing He loved her — she saw human dignity for the treasure it is. She saw the indissolubility of life. She was inspired to look at others through His eyes. She didn’t have an easy life. But she was thankful for life, and this made her appreciate others’ lives. In imperfect ways, she would be the first to admit, she saw people a little bit through the eyes of God. At the very least she saw a connectedness, a common condition among us.
She saw the dignity of the human person. Perhaps she valued it even more because American history hadn’t always seen it in people like her. In another interview she said that when she “internalized” the love of God, she became courageous. “I dared to do anything that was a good thing,” she said.
When children are wounded by a rupture or absence of love in their families, and turn to outlets that use and abuse human beings, how could they ever see what Angelou did, having first learned about God from her grandmother, whose family embraced her — and her unborn child – when she found herself pregnant at 16? When their escape is killing people in video games or using people for pornographic pleasure — this is not the stuff of ties that bind and love that heals.
What will we do and say in response to the violence and alienation that pervades all sectors of Western culture? Create a hashtag to decry a common victimhood? Or reach out in love to a young man who can’t keep his eyes off a computer screen? Or encourage young women to expect more than drinking enough to numb themselves to hooking up? Men will benefit from that too. Goods and games and drugs won’t do it. What will is being fully present to others — in parenting, teaching, ministering, in mentoring and modeling wisdom.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.