I‘m afraid that if I have to work retail for a career, my life is done.
This was one of the most important realizations of my adult life, because it forced me to recognize that I had a stupidly narrow conception of what a “Good Life” looked like. I had wrongly come to believe that the only way my life could be meaningful and significant was if I had a job as a college professor. And the fear of not achieving that status filled me with existential dread. A failure of imagination had led me to believe that my worth as a human was tied up in this single vision of the Good Life which I just had to attain. Could a similarly myopic vision of what it meant to be existentially justified have contributed to Elliot Rodger’s horrific mass killings?
Elliot wanted the Good Life that has been officially sanctioned, marketed, and promoted by our culture.Everyone has a vision of the Good Life, and that vision will have profound effects on what we strive to achieve in life, how we judge ourselves and others, what we value, and what we will sacrifice. This can’t be stressed enough: your vision of the Good Life will form you existentially. The way you experience and feel and interpret your life will be defined by how you imagine your ideal future.
Where do these visions come from? James K.A. Smith argues in Desiring the Kingdom that they come from the stories we tell and our cultural practices. Take “love,” for example. In the last century, and particularly the last two decades, certain stories about the nature and importance of love have begun to dominate. Of course, the idea of finding the Perfect Mate has long been an essential part of our cultural conception of the Good Life, but added to that is a specific understanding of the role of sex, which has been narrativised and promoted in our films, TV shows, and songs, i.e., to be a desirable and significant sexual partner is to have your life validated.
Various cultural practices reinforce the idea that sexual achievements define us as people (e.g., dating websites, prom rituals, college parties, gym culture, fashion, shopping, selfies). Take, for example, gym and fitness culture which often stresses that the Ideal You is one who is sexually attractive and physically virile. None of these things are necessarily “harmful,” but they each can and often do contribute to a vision of the Good Life which places sexual achievement as paramount. This is particularly true during the adolescent and young adult years.
When I watched the horrific final video of Elliot Rodger, the mass killer at UCSB who killed six people in a vile act of misogyny, self-pity, narcissism, mental illness, and sin, I wondered about our culture’s complicity in this act. The trending “#YesAllWomen” hashtag has done a lot to expose the ubiquity of misogyny in light of this heinous crime; I won’t try to contribute to that important conversation. Instead, I’d like to consider our culture’s valorization of sexual achievement as the path to existential validation.
In his final video, Elliot rants about how the crime he’s about to commit is right and good because he was denied the Good Life that other people got to experience. His definition of the Good Life revolves almost entirely around sex. He talks of loneliness and his desire for affection, but what haunts him most is his virginity. He’s driven mad by his desire to be with attractive girls.
Elliot wanted the Good Life that has been officially sanctioned, marketed, and promoted by our culture. Think for a moment of all the TV shows which are centered around finding that perfect someone who will make the character/person feel good. All the songs which present being a desirable sexual partner as the most satisfying thing in life. All the films romanticizing or glorifying the thrill of the pursuit and attainment of love. All the institutions built around achieving this ideal. What happens when an entire culture tells you from birth that your worth as a human is largely dependent on your ability to attract and have sex with highly desirable people?
Part of the tragedy of this vision is that as a result, other people become mere obstacles or tools in our quest for validation. For a young man who has bought into this belief that sexual experience will validate him, beautiful women are reminders of his failure, ugly women are irrelevant distractions, and attractive men are challenges to his existence.
Think about any number of teen dramas you’ve seen that feature stuck-up, gorgeous cheerleaders and the attractive athletes who date them. We are made to feel as though there is an injustice done, that it is somehow immoral that the beautiful and popular people should lead such significant lives while our plain-looking protagonist (portrayed as truly virtuous) remains unknown. Often we are encouraged to loathe the attractive and popular people precisely because they appear to have achieved the kind of existential validation that the protagonist (or us?) long for. A beautiful woman who is unattainable is a threat, an offense, a challenge to a man’s existential significance. I’ve written about this issue before in Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: What I Learned about Lust and Beauty from a Flickr Voyeur.
Whenever we justify our being in the world based on our sexual experiences, other people will inevitably become tools to be used for our own ends. The tragic irony is that, as Ernest Becker has argued, no lover can bear the weight of divinity for us, which means that no matter how many beautiful people we have sex with, no matter how greatly we are desired and admired by popular and desirable people, we will always wake up alone, hungry and desperate for another seemingly meaningful experience.
My point here is not to “explain” why this tragedy happened. That would be ignorant and arrogant. But the stories we tell ourselves and our cultural practices deeply affect the way we see ourselves and others. Due to a variety of cultural forces (declining religiosity, increasing power of marketing, liberal sexual norms, companies capitalizing on sexual desires unrestrained by morals, etc), our vision of the Good Life has become increasingly impoverished. We suffer from a profound failure of the imagination. It is hard for us to see lives of meaning and significance outside those ordained by culture. And for a great many young people, idealized sexual experience is the foremost vision of the Good Life.
The Church has a role to play here, both offensive and liberating. It offends by countering society’s sexual virtues and asserting that sexual achievements are not ultimately existence-affirming. But it liberates by expanding our vision of the Good Life almost infinitely.
Here is part of the Gospel’s great magic: Because our righteousness is hidden in Christ’s finished work on the Cross, our existential justification does not come from our efforts or the great things we accomplish or experience. This does not mean that our efforts are meaningless — that would be a gnostic position. Quite the contrary, our lives become a living sacrifice to the Lord, meaningful and significant regardless of our station or experience. Through the Gospel we have the freedom to pursue various manifestations of the Good Life as defined by joyful flourishing and obedient delight in the goodness of God’s world. Part of the Church’s role in our contemporary world is to present these alternative visions of the Good Life, ones which do not dehumanize our neighbors and legitimize hate, misogyny, and violence. Although it is necessary and important to challenge the misogyny and mental illness that contributed to Elliot Rodger’s violence, it is not enough. The Church must also challenge the world’s narratives and practices and distorted visions of the Good Life as sexual achievements.