Games of attraction

In the film ‘A Beautiful Mind’ Russell Crowe’s character applies game theory to asking girls out. He explains why it is the best bet to ask out the second best looking girls. Because the best girls will be swamped with offers: guys will be fighting between themselves for a precious commodity and this will leave the way clear for him to go for the next best option.

This all makes sense in a world where beauty and attraction are objective facts, and rational choice prevails. But that is rarely the world we live in. Instead we live in the midst of confusion and uncertainty, of stunning beauty and waning attraction. We are designed to love beauty, and it comes naturally to seek it out.

So just how much weight should be given to our physical attraction to someone?

It has been said that true beauty exists on the edge of chaos, where something magnificent emerges from something that so nearly doesn’t work. The solar system finely tuned to sustain life, works of art that bring together styles, materials and forms.

It was Gustav Klimt that got me thinking about this. As I looked at ‘The Kiss’ I tried to wonder why this was such a magnificent piece. It is one of his most famous, and from the case in which it was housed most expensive paintings. But it shouldn’t be any good, it does not provide a likeness, the colours are all wrong; I don’t even think it holds any deep symbolic value: yet somehow this chaotic collage of gold leaf, silver and oil creates something quite incredible.

Some time ago Portsmouth University advertised its courses with the slogan, ‘What Comes After The Internet?’ Unfortunately the answer does not lie in any of their courses; innovation cannot be taught, only inspired. Likewise beauty is not located on a map, there is no guidebook, no ‘x’ marks the spot. Beauty may be captured, but it cannot be controlled. Something that is truly brilliant and beautiful, that exists on the very brink of chaos, has an equilibrium, it is so finely tuned that the faintest shift can lead to disruption and failure.

So when I find a girl attractive, what cue should I take from it? Is it the indication of a deep soul connection, or a momentary infatuation?

That’s why attraction alone is never enough. Because beauty does not always win the day. The search for physical perfection leaves us hollow, it suggests that we can attain something which will not last. I have no idea who first said it but, ‘Real girls aren’t perfect and perfect girls aren’t real’.

It also lets lust win us over. If we are guided by what we find attractive we will find ourselves liking something new. Novelty too often attracts us. We grow bored by what we have and want something new. I remember hearing Pete Greig talk about materialism, and how in fact materialism as we understand it deeply rejects material goods, because it always wants to move onto the next thing. To really value something is to commit to it, to stay with it, and not be sidetracked when the big new thing comes along.

It is preposterous to think that if we are married we will never be attracted to another person. That doesn’t mean that the person is not beautiful, but this thought should change the way we respond to attraction.

So we should also be wary of our attraction if we are single. The options are more open, but if we are only ever guided by what we find beautiful we will be drawn in countless directions.

But physical attraction does play a role. I might like to think that I am only attracted to someone because of their godly character, virtuous actions or biblical wisdom. It might be more convenient to sideline my thoughts of who is good looking and who is not, and instead choose a girl based on more holy criteria.

Except, God created all of me. He created my emotions and my mind, he created my brain and my heart, he created my spirit and my body. The task is not to be ruled by our body, and this is not done by ignoring it. If we shut off our desires we are letting them win.

There’s one other interesting thing in play here: avoiding complementing someone on their looks because you don’t want to appear superficial, or just interested in them because of their physical attributes. But then what are we trying to achieve by side-lining these feelings? Are we trying to deny something that is intrinsic to who we are, or are we appropriately managing a desire within us that needs to be checked?

So guys like girls…

I’ve discovered something remarkable in the course of writing about relationships. It has sparked a lot of interest and a lot of conversations, I’ve found myself in the absurd position of offering counsel and hearing stories that range from the comic to the heart warming. I’ve heard from guys who have no idea what they should do and girls who know exactly what the guys should do.

But I’ve learnt one immutable fact, guys like girls and girls like guys.

Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it, that this is what I’ve learnt? Sounds like I’ve been on another planet for the past 27 years. Except we often think that we are the exception. That we are experiencing something that no one else is. So when we hear from others that they face the same challenges and feel the same, it wakes us up that something is going on.

And I have come to two conclusions. The first I’ve already mentioned, and that is that this is a big issue, it gets people thinking and talking, and considering, it evokes lively emotions and painful decisions.

The second is that we have to get talking about it. I speak only for my situation, in a church of 500-600 people, most of whom are young and single. And in that situation I’ve taken a bit of a straw poll. I’ve inquired as to people’s dating experience, who they’ve asked out, who has asked them out. And I’ve tested a little hypothesis, and I didn’t expect to get as much agreement as I did.

The hypothesis is this, speaking of the single people in my church, most of them at most times are interested in someone of the opposite sex. And usually the person they are interested in is likely to be someone who they spend time around. So take any group of people from the church and it is to be expected that there are a lot of emotions lingering in the ether. Some of these feelings will be tentative, others will be unrequited, occasionally they will be obviously reciprocated. But all the time they will affect the group.

Except that’s not how we act. We act as though we are all just friends, and we push the romantic attraction below the surface, sometimes to preserve our own frail facade, sometimes to steer clear of awkwardness, but I think most of the time because we are happy living in the now. We are happy with what we have got, and we want to make the most of it. In a crowd of singles we share a common bond, an unspoken rebellion against the cultural norm.

It’s never that intentional, most would say they are looking for a partner, it’s just they don’t say much about it. It exists as a backdrop to our community and it affects it in two parallel ways, it inhibits the formation of strong non-romantic friendships and it stifles the open pursuit of romance. So back to my little straw poll, how much dating goes on, not much. It does take place and it usually happens quietly and discreetly in a most respectful way.

But go back to my premise, if most people like someone most of the time, and the people I surveyed had asked or been asked out between zero and three times. That leaves a lot of affection that goes unspoken.

I’ve also been asked for some solutions as I’ve written, the truth is I’m all out of those.

So let me offer one other consequence if we repress our feelings too much, we are living double lives.

Harsh? Yes.

But if we like someone and continue to act around them as though we are just friends we are deceiving them and deluding ourselves.