Suburbia and Sexuality

Henri Nouwen’s insight on the link between environment and behavior.

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In college, I had the privilege to study John Paul II’s Theology of the Body under Prof. Michael Waldstein, the Austrian theologian responsible for the most recent translation of the late Pope’s catechesis on human sexuality. As a consequence, the idea of man as a unity of body and soul is about as familiar to me as the back of my hand. You say “two plus two,” I say “four.” You say “body,” I say “the physical expression of the person in time and space.” I’ve got the lingo down, people.

Given that background, I was struck this morning by an almost passing reference in Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved to the connection between the disintegration of man’s physical surroundings and the degradation of sexual mores. In a Humane Pursuits context, the point has fascinating implications.

Nouwen starts from the idea—omnipresent also in John Paul II’s thought—that human sexuality is the physical expression of man’s desire for communion. To wit:

It is obvious that our brokenness is often most painfully experienced with respect to our sexuality… Our sexuality reveals to us our enormous yearning for communion. The desires of our body—to be touched, embraced, and safely held—belong to the deepest longings of the heart and are very concrete signs of our search for oneness.

So far, so good, and nothing I hadn’t heard before. But then Nouwen takes an interesting turn:

It is precisely around this yearning for communion that we experience so much anguish. Our society is so fragmented, our family lives so sundered by physical and emotional distance, our friendships so sporadic, our intimacies so “in-between” things and often so utilitarian, that there are few places where we can feel truly safe.

The emphasis there is mine—places. Nouwen speaks, not of the need for an “emotional safe space” or an “atmosphere of trust,” but for a place where we feel safe. And he goes on:

I notice in myself how often my body is tense, how I usually keep my guard up, and how seldom I have a complete feeling of being at home. If I then turn to the Toronto suburbs where I live and see the pretentious mega-houses, the ugly shopping malls strewn about to make consumption more efficient, and the alluring billboards promising comfort and relaxation in very seductive ways—all of that while forests are demolished, streams dried up, deer and rabbits and birds driven out of my environment—I am not surprised that my body screams for a healing touch and a reassuring embrace.

To my knowledge, Nouwen never wrote specifically or at great length on questions of civic association, urban planning, or (post-)modernity (and please correct me if I’m wrong—I’d love to know). But I wonder whether his rumination on human interiority hasn’t brought him to a valuable insight for those who think more about the polis than the psyche. If we accept the premise of body-soul unity, the idea that our physical surroundings affect our emotional and spiritual well-being isn’t particularly radical. From there, it’s also easy to see how the interior disarray brought about by exterior disorder—what Nouwen terms “the fragmentation and commercialization of our milieu”—could be a source of confusion in the realm of moral action.

Put another way: if the world around us conveys messages of materialism, atomization, and alienation (at both the conscious rational level and the emotional level), how likely does it seem that our desires for true interpersonal communion—for real physical intimacy, and for a life lived out in common pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty—are really attainable? And if we have to surrender ex ante the possibility that our deepest longings can be satisfied in any real way, isn’t it likely that we’ll settle for some bastardized version of that satisfaction? This is not a radical point: think of the countless young women who simply accept their sexual objectification because they think it’s the closest they can come to the real love they’re actually yearning for.

I’m not making a strictly causal argument here; the relationship between an alienating physical environment and disordered sexual behavior is obviously not one-to-one. But it seems reasonable that the cycle of moral degradation and cultural disintegration (because it is, ultimately, the destruction of human happiness on both the personal and societal scales) ought to be interrupted wherever possible. And perhaps working to reclaim our physical environment—to foster more humane communities, to defragment and decommercialize our milieu—is a place where some of us could start.

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