In 388 AD, Saint Augustine wrote: “We all certainly desire to live happily; and there is no human being but assents to this statement almost before it is made.” True. But what does it mean to be happy? Season one, episode one of a little show called Sex and the City considers this question as it applies to human relationships.
The episode begins with the four main characters discussing why so many eligible women in New York City remain alone and unhappy. Three of the women seem undecided, but one of them—Samantha—offers this solution:
Look, you’re a successful saleswoman in this city. You have two choices: you can bang your head against the wall and try and find a relationship or you can say SCREW ’EM, and just go out and have sex like a man [. . .] I mean without feeling!
Samantha proudly recounts how she slept with a man and “afterwards, I didn’t feel a thing. It was like ‘Hey babe, gotta go, catch ya later’ and I completely forgot about him.” Samantha is a liberated woman. She tells Carrie, “sweetheart, this is the first time in the history of Manhattan that women have had as much money and power as men plus the equal luxury of treating men like sex objects.” Samantha has freed herself from stuffy social conventions, she does what she wants, and she’s happy.
Freedom is fundamental to human happiness. The founders knew this—they acknowledged “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—William Wilberforce knew this; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew this; Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew this. And so the question “what does it mean to be happy?” points to the more primary question of “what does it mean to be free?” Does freedom mean radical freedom—freedom to do whatever we want, free from all restraint? Will that make us happy?
Carrie, a relationship columnist and the show’s narrator, reflects on Samantha’s proposition:
Was it true? Were women in New York really giving up on love and throttling up on power? (To camera:) What a tempting thought.
Carrie wonders whether engaging in sex that is free from typical societal constraints might bring her happiness. After all, she’d be free to satisfy physical desire without all the messy complications that come with caring about the other person—no commitment, no vulnerability, no potential for heartbreak. She’d be empowered. So she decides to give radical freedom a go.
But in the scene immediately following her decision to act on this new-found freedom, Carrie arranges a liaison with an ex-boyfriend whom she describes as “scum” and “a self-centered withholding creep.” Addressing the audience in no uncertain terms, Carrie identifies her history with this man as a destructive cycle: she tells us he was a mistake she made when she was twenty-six, twenty-nine, and thirty-one, and that she would be a “masochist” to interact with him again. Yet when they meet, Carrie first lies to a friend who wants her to avoid the guy and then appears utterly unable to help herself from engaging with him. This is freedom? Far from empowering her, Carrie’s radical freedom instead draws her back into a destructive cycle.
The whole affair ends badly for Carrie, and the episode ends with another (much more attractive, eligible, and honorable) man telling Carrie (who’s still pretending that her radical freedom approach to sex will make her happy) “I get it, you’ve never been in love.” He drives off, leaving Carrie alone in the dark saying “suddenly I felt the wind knocked out of me. I wanted to crawl under the covers and go right to sleep.”
A solipsistic tendency lurks at the root of radical freedom. Defining freedom as the power to do whatever one wants to satisfy one’s own desires leads a person to subordinate other individuals to those desires. Carrie’s misguided conception of freedom causes her to treat her ex-boyfriend as a means of satisfying her desires and not as an end in himself. She describes him as an object of an experiment — something to be manipulated — and not as another fully human being. In doing this, Carrie also cuts herself off from any possibility of true communion. She’s running the experiment, she’s the puppet master, and so she’s alone. Radical freedom degrades the relationship between human beings: it encourages us to see our neighbors only in terms of their material use and not encounter them as fellow souls whose worth surpasses any ability to quantify. Radical freedom also degrades our own view of ourselves and our purpose in life. Not for this were we fearfully and wonderfully made.
True freedom and happiness flow out of the significant bonds between human beings. These bonds are the opposite of those that radical freedom establishes. The slave to radical freedom tends to see people only insofar as they might serve his selfish ends — an extremely narrow vision. But the person who tries to see his neighbor as an end in himself opens himself to the fullness of the other person’s being, and so opens himself to receive the other person as a gift. This creates the bonds that radical freedom would seek to destroy: mutual respect, concern for the well-being of others, a willingness to sacrifice self-interests, and a genuine desire for surrender and self-giving.
In future posts, I plan to look more at works whose characters reject radical freedom and instead honor the significant bonds they share with family and neighbors. This often causes the characters to suffer. Yet they also experience a degree of happiness which I think, sadly, the Sex and the City women never get to know.