In the ritzy office building, a group of twenty- and thirty-somethings gathered around the table, listening to a panel of “dating experts,” hoping to find the secret technological insights that would help them meet the person of their dreams. I sat at the opposite end of the table from the presenters. I was eager to find out what they had to say on the topic of dating and social media.
In my swivel leather armchair, I had only one question I was trying to get an answer to: Have the rules of love changed as our society has become more technologically dependent?
Have the rules of love changed as our society has become more technologically dependent?With more tools at our disposal, the way we interact has certainly been revolutionized. Yet, whether this is a good thing or not is a harder question to answer.
The privileged woman of yesteryear wondered whether or not her suitor would call her. My generation wonders if he will call or text or e-mail or post a message on Facebook. And yet, like the women who preceded us, we still wonder what his actions mean.
Technology has also given us more choice. Dating online has certainly granted us more options of people to meet. Skype has made it easier and cheaper to communicate and actually form long-distance relationships. And yet, it seems that having more choice makes us less likely to choose.
Perhaps the reason that technological advances haven’t improved most relationships is that technology isn’t the answer to our problems. The dilemma is how we are approaching dating, not the tools with which we are trying to find our dates. Technology has advanced; have society’s ideas about dating advanced as well?
Take, for example, face-recognition technology. Through this feature, I learned, the computer can get a sense of the facial characteristics of the people who you are looking at and perhaps talking to on a dating site. With this information, the program can then suggest people for you to check out who have similar features as others you are interested in, and thus are more likely to be your type.
On the one hand, I loved this idea, because it narrows down our search in terms of aesthetic properties. But then again, I wondered if this type of technology would rule out the people you may not find so attractive at first, but who may become more beautiful as you get to know them. Is the fact that we are even inventing this technology telling people that the most important thing in a relationship is physical attraction? Furthermore, isn’t Internet dating two-dimensional enough?
Yet I contemplated: technology is not the sole contributor to the hype around the beauty myth. We are.
The intimacy expert on the panel, a petite girl in her late twenties or early thirties with long blonde hair and glasses, wondered aloud:
“You ask some men what they’re looking for, and they say a 5′8″ blonde model type who’s a perfect 10. Those same men end up marrying the short, average brunette who sits next to them at work.”
The notion that physical perfection is the most important thing in a relationship is as old as Greek cultureTo my surprise, no one answered her question, and yet all the women shook their heads in silent agreement. The men sat silently, perhaps thinking those men had “settled” and that they would merit the model.
Here, I believe, is the true dilemma of modern dating life. It’s not a new problem, but one that we, Western society, have been battling for hundreds of years. The notion that physical perfection is the most important thing in a relationship is as old as Greek culture. In fact, the battle against this type of thinking is what Chanukah is all about.
A famous Jewish philosophy book called The Kuzari addresses this problem. The author compares Greek wisdom to a flower, and Jewish wisdom to a fruit.
A flower is beautiful and smells good. We can receive lots of joy and happiness from looking at a flower. Yet the problem with being a flower is that, once it is picked, it dies. It can’t be enjoyed for long.
By contrast, we can eat a fruit, and it will nourish our bodies. Fruit, therefore, is lifegiving. A fruit also has seeds that, when planted, produce more fruit.
Furthermore, Jewish mysticism points out that all fruit has a shell, and in order to eat and really enjoy the fruit, we have to get past that shell. Physical beauty can be extraordinary; but in order for love to last and be real and true, we have to get past the outer shell of a person and get to know them at their core. We have to bond with them externally and internally. Yes, our initial attraction may be physical, but if a relationship doesn’t go beyond that, it won’t mature to its true potential. It won’t bear fruit.
If we look at love on a superficial level, we’ll soon get bored with the person we are dating, and look for a prettier and newer flower. However, if we look deeper and try to build a relationship that nourishes both us and our partner, then we’ll be able to grow together and produce more good in the world.
It’s not that beauty is not important. It is part of the package. But it is not the entire package.
Greek culture saw beauty as an end unto itself. Our culture, sadly, still preaches this to us. Yet Jewish thought says that the beauty of the physical world is a means to the higher purpose of uplifting the physical to the spiritual.
There’s no shortcut to loveThe Greek philosophy of life was called Hellenism. The Hellenists loved physical beauty. They were mesmerized by the symmetry and perfection of the human body. Greek sculptures of the human body are quite impressive and detail-oriented. The Greeks were also great athletes. They established the first Olympics. They mixed their love of sports with their awe of the body by performing in the nude. In the Hellenistic culture, it was important to be beautiful on the outside. Glitz, glamour and flash were their hallmarks.
What is wrong with the Greek ideal of beauty? Why were the Jews against it?
The Jewish conception of beauty does not completely disagree with the Greek definition. Jews also believe that outer beauty is important. The debate was not whether outer beauty was bad or good. It was an argument over what kind of beauty to emphasize. For the Jews, inner and spiritual beauty was much more valuable than the shallow physical beauty that the Hellenists prized. It was not beauty in and of itself that was good.
Also, the Hellenists said that only a certain type of beauty was “perfect,” whereas Jews believe that everyone is created in the image of G‑d, and therefore that in everyone we can find something beautiful.
The reason why the men who think they are seeking what they call “perfection” end up marrying someone completely different than who they imagined themselves with, is that the Greek conception of beauty as an end unto itself is totally untrue.
Not that the short brunette was not also beautiful. In fact, she could be more beautiful than the blonde model. It’s just that, had she not worked in the office with her future husband, he may never have approached her. He might have never even considered dating her, because she wasn’t his idea of what he was looking for. But through propinquity and getting to know each other as people before a dating relationship developed, they bonded and “fell in love.”
There’s no shortcut to love. Yes, Internet dating has been successful in helping many people meet each other. But, at the end of the day, what we are really looking for is beyond technology. It involves getting to know someone. It takes investment of time and energy. It’s recognizing someone’s essence and seeing their goodness. It’s getting to know them so deeply that we know them beyond the shell of their body and the guards they put up to the world. It is seeing the pure light within them: their soul.
What we really want in a partner, then, is not beauty alone. We want the full package. Of course, we must be attracted to the person, but attraction is not enough. We want someone who brings out the best in us, and whose inner qualities we admire as well. To discover these qualities, however, we would do better to turn away from the distractions of technology and focus on the person. When we find these virtues in our partner, we see beauty, we have passion, and we’re in love. And that lesson is timeless.