Finding Hope from “Modern Love”
by Emily Macke
Every three years or so, The New York Times launches an essay contest for college students to extrapolate their thoughts on “modern love.” The 2015 contest’s winning entry and four runners-up were published in April and May. Each essay analyzes a young adult’s experience, looking within the story to find the pulse of love in today’s world.
The published essays featured a range of tales and experiences, but a theme that resurfaces in so many is encapsulated in the headline of the winning author – “No Labels, No Drama, Right?” Fear of commitment, linked with fear of missing out, converge to form relationships that have no title, meaning they have no real claim on a person’s life.
Technology’s role looms large in some essays, while in others it comes as a passing detail. In some form, it plays a part in each account of love.
Most of the articles mention texting a significant other or checking up on someone via Facebook, often stirring up jealousy over other possible love interests. Arla Knudsen recounts her attempts to reconnect with the first man with whom she had a sexual encounter. After the event, their communication faltered, then halted. Wanting to know “what was going on between us,” Knudsen planned a visit home. She writes that, “While I was home, I posted on every social media platform announcing I was back in town, hoping he would see it and contact me. When that didn’t work, I texted him. He texted back but evaded any suggestion to meet up. By the end of my trip, I knew he simply didn’t care.”
Two of the articles, “Swiping Right on Tinder, but Staying Put” and “Swearing Off the Modern Man” focus on the ways in which technology, particularly social media, have transformed romantic relationships.
“Electronic, instant and pixelated are the descriptors of love in the 21st century.” writes Adam Lundquist in his essay, “Learning to Embrace Sexuality’s Gray Areas.”
Davis Webster shares a Christmas break encounter with a Tinder match. Tinder is a location-based dating phone “app” that involves swiping through pictures of possible matches . The two chat for days by text, playfully imagining they are in each other’s company. Davis’ car is broken and snow storms pile up between them. “In the end, we had exchanged hundreds of messages for dozens of hours over nearly five straight days. But now that the roads were clear and I was mobile, enabling us to get together in real life, we could be held accountable for our words and affection. That proved to be a burden neither of us could bear.”
Jochebed Smith’s story has a different ending. She writes of the technological crutch many young people grip tightly – using the cyber world to meet, find a place to go, communicate, share their relationship with friends, and eventually to stalk those they are no longer dating. Eventually, she meets an “old-school” man who does not use Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.
Smith contrasts their relationship to the blaring “life events” on Facebook and the hashtags attempting to encapsulate a person on Instagram. She writes, “Byron was not a life event; he was just sweetly in my life. For a while, as long as we lasted, I wanted, and got, something quieter. I wanted, and got, something more intimate. I wanted, and got, something too big to contain in 140 characters and that couldn’t be improved upon by filters.”
As sad as the seemingly shallow encounters portrayed by the finalists are, Smith’s essay gives one hope. After her relationship with Byron – the “old-school” young man – ends, she impulsively downloads Tinder and accepts a date with another young man. She recounts, “My date spent most of the time on his phone checking out the restaurant he picked (‘I saw some great reviews on Yelp!’), tweeting that it looked as if it might rain, and posting pictures of his entree on Instagram.”
When asked by her date if she uses a particular form of social media, Smith surprises herself by replying, “No, I’m old-school.”
Smith’s reflection gives hope that she – along with other twenty-somethings – realize that there might be more to life than social media connections and fleeting encounters. It’s a recognition that every young person can make decisions regarding how they relate to others, regardless of societal trends or pressures.
Jordana Narin, the winning essayist, similarly reflects on the illusion of freedom or empowerment she has lived for the last few years. Rather than label her relationship with “Jeremy,” she allows herself to be strung along, never knowing whether Jeremy is really interested in her or not. Contemplating the role of Jeremy in her life, Narin writes, “In years past, maybe back when people went steady, he may have been the one who got away. For my generation, though, he’s often the one we never had in the first place. Yet he’s still the one for whom we would happily trade all the booty calls, hookups and swiping right. He’s still the one we hope, against all odds, might be The One.”
Narin then alludes to the bravery necessary to receive an answer as to whether or not someone truly loves, or is simply using another out of fear, boredom or confusion.
It’s this bravery, this submission to love (and to Love) that each essayist implicitly longs for in their essays. If The New York Times found these five submissions worthy to represent college love, then there is something in which to take comfort. Each essayist notes something unsatisfying about “modern love” and is hoping that something more will be revealed to them.
About the author
Emily Macke serves as Theology of the Body Education Coordinator at Ruah Woods in Cincinnati, Ohio. She received her Master’s in Theological Studies at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC, and her undergraduate degree in Theology and Journalism at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Emily shares the good news of the Catholic faith through writing, media appearances and speaking opportunities, which she has done on three continents. She and her husband Brad live in southeast Indiana.