Have you ever wondered why happily-married people cheat?
Have you ever wondered if there is more to affairs than just sex?
Would you believe that illicit affairs, extreme sports, ancient mythologies, and the lives of the Christian Apostles are all fundamentally identical human experiences?
Esther Perel, a relationship researcher, author, and practicing psychotherapist, claims that affairs are not about sex or even eroticism; they are about feeling desired and alive. At a recent TED Talk titled Rethinking infidelity…a talk for anyone who has ever loved, Perel observed, “When someone cheats, the assumption is that there’s something wrong in the relationship, or there’s something wrong with you…but millions of people can’t all be pathological!” She claims that people all around the world use one common phrase to explain the affairs they have: “They feel ‘alive’.” In fact, according to Perel, “affairs often live in the shadow of death, because death raises the question, ‘Is this it’?”
This question is tied directly into the purpose of every functioning mythology: Providing meaning to life. Joseph Campbell, the noted author and comparative mythology researcher, says myth provides a way to help people “feel alive”. But in our current age where we operate without a functioning mythology, we have lost our sense of what it means to be alive. We don’t have stories that tell us what being alive looks or feels like, and when we ask “Is this it?” we have no mythological system to fall back on.
Instead, contemporary culture seems to believe that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs represents the true meaning and purpose of life. Achieve the five Needs below, says Corporate America and Hollywood, and you “win” at life:
- Physiological – The physical requirements for human survival
- Safety – Personal security, financial security, health and well-being, and a safety net against accidents/illness and their adverse impacts
- Love/Belonging – Interpersonal feelings of belongingness
- Esteem – The typical human desire to be accepted and valued by others
- Self-Actualization – The desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be
But according to Joseph Campbell, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are, “What people live for when they have nothing else to live for.” He asserts that what stands above Maslow’s Needs are “Myth, Madness & Meaning”. It is this “Meaning” that people live and die for. It cannot be coincidence that this list of Needs was not created until after the Enlightenment and the concurrent death of functioning mythology in the West.
Two thousand years ago the disciples of a certain Jewish teacher sacrificed their lives in pursuit of the myth of the Christ. They attained an alive-ness far greater than they could have achieved through human egoic pursuits. As the Apostle Paul said in Philippians 3:8, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” The Christ, “the way, the Truth, and the LIFE” (John 14:6, ESV) became the sense of alive-ness , the “Myth, Madness, and Meaning”, for Paul. The Christ became that for which Paul willingly sacrificed everything and suffered so tremendously.
Back to my first question: Why do happily-married people cheat? Why risk losing it all? Having an affair stands in direct contradiction to Maslow’s Needs; you risk losing all five with an affair. Affairs cause tremendous suffering for all parties involved and they almost always lead to spiritual and relational death. Yet millions of people engage in affairs!
Perhaps having an affair gives people the same sense alive-ness that a functioning mythology should. Unfortunately, functioning mythologies suffered slow, painful deaths at the hands of the Enlightenment. The death of mythology and its attendant sense of purpose has opened the door to other methods of experiencing alive-ness…including affairs. Affairs are so common today that they have become quasi-acceptable methods of attaining meaning and the sense of alive-ness that myth used to provide. What other options do people have? Continue to participate in a defunct belonging system? Use drugs? Regularly participate in extreme sports? Sure, if you’re rich, but what methods can common men and women use to experience alive-ness?
For you can be certain: Human animals have not changed over the last few thousand years. We do not now, nor have we ever, needed Maslow’s Hierarchy. We need ways to feel alive, and affairs produce the needed sense of alive-ness that our human nature craves. Affairs may not be a moral question but a spiritual question. Adultery may not make you a “bad person” but rather a person who is hungry or even starving for the experience of alive-ness.
We are left with many questions.
How do we feel alive-ness, if not through adultery? How do we help others to feel alive? Is this the new Christian moral imperative: To help others feel alive and give them a sense of alive-ness? How do we do that without harming ourselves and others? Is that even possible? What can we believe in now that our myths have died? What behaviors help us experience alive-ness? How does society and group norming affect this pursuit? Do we need to ignore society in the pursuit of alive-ness? How do we feel alive within our careers, our marriages and our lives?
How do we find our “Myth, Madness & Meaning?”