Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 21, 1998
The poverty of sexual unattractiveness
By FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
In a recent novel, Love, Again, Doris Lessing, with her usual genius, paints a picture of the soul of a late middle-aged woman, Sarah Durham, as she, Sarah, spends a summer painfully infatuated with a man young enough to be her grandson.
The love is hopeless, of course, and it brings Sarah nothing but heartache and restlessness. And it is surprising too for she is the epitome of maturity and common sense and has, for more than 20 years since the death of her husband, felt herself beyond the tears that come with these kinds of falling in love.
The story builds this way: Sarah, a widow and grandmother, is a successful theatre writer and producer. Her productions appear, among other places, in London's prestigious West End. Working in theatre, she naturally spends a lot of time with young and very attractive actors, of both sexes.
The atmosphere exudes sex, but, for a good number of years after her husband's death, Sarah appears immune. She seems quietly content with a celibacy which is, in fact, partly an extended fidelity to her late husband. This celibacy, while leaving her sexless by some definitions of that word, spares her the heartache that is so often the flip-side of the ecstasy of falling in love.
All this changes one summer when, already in late middle-age and quite confident that she is beyond teenage-type crushes, she helps produce a play about a tragic young French woman named, Julie Vairon, like her namesake, Juliet, of Romeo and Juliet, lives life in the pain of unrequited love and dies for love.
The combination of Julie, the atmosphere of love she rouses, and a young American actor of startling good looks, overcomes Sarah. She falls in love with a man young enough to be her grandson. It is all very hopeless and all very painful and it sets loose in Sarah pains she has not experienced since she was a very young girl . . . and it sets loose in Lessing a series of reflections about the phenomenology of love and sex that the great analysts of the world can only envy.
At one point, Lessing paints for us a picture of what it feels like to be too old for a love one desperately wants. Her reflection is a rich vein for meditation:
"From this central thought or area led several paths, and one of them was to the fact that the fate of us all, to get old, or even to grow older, is one so cruel that while we spend every energy in trying to avert or postpone it, we in fact seldom allow the realization to strike home sharp and cold: from being this - and she looked around at the young people - one becomes this, a husk without color, above all without the lustre, the shine.
"And I, Sarah Durham, sitting here tonight surrounded mostly by the young (or people who seem young to me), am in exactly the same situation as the innumerable people of the world who are ugly, deformed or crippled or who have horrible skin disorder. Or who lack that mysterious thing - sex appeal.
"Millions spend their lives behind ugly masks, longing for the simplicities of love known to attractive people. There is now no difference between me and those people barred from love, but this is the first time it has been brought home to me that all my youth I was in a privileged class sexually but never thought about it or what it must mean not to be.
"Yet no matter how unfeeling or callous one is when young, everyone, but everyone, will learn what it is to be in a desert of deprivation, and it is just as well, travelling so fast towards old age, that we don't know it" (Love, Again, pp. 140-141).
What Lessing describes here is one of the worst types of poverty known, the poverty of being sexually unattractive, of being unable to enjoy all the aspects of love that are known to other people. And this poverty brings with it a special kind of shame.
Many is the woman or man who takes a certain pride in an honest type of economic poverty. Nobody takes pride in being unattractive, particularly in a society that deifies the physical and identifies being sexual with having sex. Today sexual unattractiveness is perhaps the most painful and shameful of all poverties. Those in the sexual underclass are the new and unprotected outcasts: "geeks," "nerds" - these are the slurs against the poor that nobody censures.
Today, just as the generations before us, we tend to interpret pretty selectively Christ's challenge to make a preferential option for the poor. Invariably as we open our eyes to the formerly unseen pain of one group we close our eyes to the poverty of another.
But . . . the poor will inherit the kingdom and, today in our culture, the poorest of the poor are those who have been ostracized sexually. It is time we said as much.