Sunday, April 26, 2009

Putting the sexual genie back into the bottle

As a human male, I've been biologically programmed both to reproduce -- not just to procreate, but to get them launched; in other words, to maximize the probability that my genes survive me another generation or two. My wife and I are now closer to having an empty nest than we ever have been -- less than six months of runway remain for your younger daughter to head off to college, having become an "adult" in some sense (she's over 18).

And now I find biology asserting itself as strongly as it ever has. On a recent airplane trip, TV-like commercials appeared on the little seatback screens. In one, an ethnically ambiguous young woman was hawking a skin-care product, and I found myself drawn toward the back of seat 15C; I mean I was leaning forward so I could see the details on a digital image of this woman's face.
You've heard the phrase "reptilian brain"? I once held a gopher snake near a mirror, and she reacted to the mirror the way I reacted to the back of seat 15C: she extended her body toward that image. About half her body was cantilevered out toward the mirror! I didn't make quite as much of a spectacle of myself; I knew it was just a digital image, and my seat belt was securely fastened, low and tight across my lap.)
Then I realized what was happening. Here's how it appears to me: as my offspring need much less frequent involvement from me, there's some biological programming that wants to do the whole procreation thing again.

Some years ago, I heard and read about "The Jewish Sexual Revolution," which happened over three thousand years ago. This went along with the phrase "putting the sexual genie back into the bottle," which I understood to mean this: if men's biological (sexual) impulses are channeled/controlled (i.e., sublimated), all kinds of good things happen. Men provide for their children, rather than spreading STDs. They reason abstractly, they learn and think about the world, they write books, they teach moral precepts. (They also invent ways to abuse credit default swaps -- well, you can't have everything.)

So I'd heard the phrase, but I hadn't experienced it -- or hadn't realized it -- until now. Here's what I sense going through my head -- to the extent that I can know myself, that is. There's a resurgent desire to reproduce myself. That won't happen biologically, but I want my activities to have some meaning beyond myself.

I want so much for my life to count for something; I want to hear my Lord and Master say, "Well done, good and faithful servant."

Is it that the sex drive gets sublimated, and we engage in spiritual reproduction, philosophy, mentoring, and financial engineering out of a frustrated sexuality? Or is it more useful to think of the desire for impact and meaning as primal, with sexuality as an expression thereof?

Both may be true, but I believe the latter approach more useful, as it leads us to God for guidance.

Now I hate to disagree with Merton, but I think humans in society must follow God consciously in order to carry out his will (Ephesians 5:10, 5:17); I don't really think that "A man can live like a tree or an animal, doing the divine will all his life and never knowing anything about it" -- not for anyone reading this anyway.

Where am I going with this? I'm not sure, but something happened in my stomach lately and I wanted to tell you about it.

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