That the language of love has become utterly sentimentalized in our society is a commonplace. Once it was a hardheaded, self-sacrificial, outward looking concept which looked to the well-being and needs of others. Now it often means little more than that which makes me feel good or brings personal satisfaction. But love is not the only word that has been sentimentalized to the point of meaninglessness.
Last week I was watching a television interview of a man who had left his young wife and three year old daughter in New Jersey to ‘shack up’ (to use the English idiom) with a woman in Washington state. While he is still in the U.S.A., that places him almost as far from his wife and child as I am from a decent pint of Old Bob at The Lamb, the pub I frequent on return visits to my home village back in Blighty. The interviewer asked him if he felt guilty about abandoning his family. His answer was a fascinating example of linguistic self-deception and, indeed, of the way such self-deception has been made so plausible in our sentimentalized, self-oriented culture: ‘No,’ he said, ‘After all, I am still always there for my daughter.’
Still ‘always there’? In what sense? This man has decided that his own sexual and emotional needs mean that, whatever obligations he may have to his wife and daughter are to be subordinated to his own sexual and emotional fulfillment. He might continue to use the language of presence, but what does he mean by it? He certainly does not mean that he will be there to drive the child to ballet classes, or to Little League, or to the Emergency Room when needed. He will not be there to attend parent-teacher conferences, to tuck her into bed at night, to discuss with his wife in the context of a committed marriage what educational decisions should be made for the child. He will not be there to speak face to face with her when she is hurt or feeling lonely or seeking advice or reassurance. He will not be there to smile when she hands him her first piece of art work from her first day at school. In short, he should really have said that he was actually now absent for the child in almost every way which really counts.
But he used language that claimed continuing presence; and the interviewer nodded sagely and moved on to the next question. His statement—utterly meaningless, if not a complete contradiction of reality—was yet deemed plausible, rational and coherent. Indeed, it would seem that presence has apparently become physically little more than occasional availability at the end of a telephone and emotionally nothing more than a sentimental feeling. Linguistic conventions tell us a lot about social realities, and about the human capacity for self-deception, do they not?
There is a joke doing the rounds on the internet at the moment, an icon of Saint Nicholas bearing the legend “I came to give presents to kids and to punch heretics. And I just ran out of presents.” Perhaps a motto for iconic modern attitudes to love and marriage might be: “I came to marriage to be first of all a presence for others and then for my own personal satisfaction. And I just ran out of presence.”