Singleness: Really That Awful?
I haven’t read much by Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail, but when I do, I find her a great commentator. I’m not saying I agree with her. From what I’ve seen she tends to go to an extreme counterpoint of whatever she’s opposing instead of seeking a healthy middle ground. But I do respect her because of how she says what she thinks and does so eloquently in a way that I don’t feel offended even if her target is something to do with me.
In any case, this time she was talking about the awful truth of being single. The gist is simple: our cultural expectation of marrying (or otherwise committing) later in life is creating a generation of lonely and depressed people. As I said above, it’s an extreme position and I think the healthy middle ground is somewhere between what she is criticizing and what she is suggesting instead. Let’s break it down into a couple different themes.
Made for Relationship
Wente points out that most people do desire a stable relationship. They may have been taught not to desire it. They may have concluded that it is more trouble than it is worth because it takes so much effort in the real world unlike on TV where this magical thing called “falling in love” just does all the work for you. But we are made for relationship. I’m with her on all of that. At the heart of the Christian message is relationship, after all, and we even have this confusing doctrine whereby God is inherently relational by somehow being 3 persons in one being. God is relationship within Godself, God is relational with us, and we are made to be relational with each other.
While we are made for relationship, I don’t think that this is only satisfied in romantic committed relationships. There’s no doubt those are the most powerful. There’s a reason that many biblical authors use the imagery of the church/Israel being married to Jesus to represent the depth of our commitment and intimacy. When marriages are at their best, there is no human experience that matches it for intimacy.
I do think that many people choose singleness for good reasons. Both Paul and Jesus talked about the benefits of being single. In Matthew 19, Jesus explains that maybe it is better to not get married if you can’t handle the commitment. Some can’t; so be it. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul says he wishes everyone were unmarried like him while he also acknowledges that not everyone can do that. The reason comes a bit later:
32 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34 and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.
So singleness is ok because it allows you to focus without divided interests on doing what God calls you to do. Those who talk this approach are an important group to remember. Those that Wente is taking about is a very different group of singles. They’re not choosing singleness so that they can focus on carrying out the works of Jesus which include fundamentally being in deep relationship with others. Wente is critiquing those who go to work, come home alone, sleep, wake up, repeat. Sadly that is a lot of the young adult population but the problem is not singleness in and of itself.
The Problem of Loneliness
Again I’m with Wente on her core point that loneliness is a severe problem in our society and one that we have a lot of trouble talking about. She puts it this way:
The big thing people get wrong about being single is to imagine that singlehood allows you to define and perfect yourself, and that discovering who you really are is the most important task there is. As one 37-year-old man told The Globe’s Zosia Bielski, “You’re trying to get yourself right before you move on to the next stage of your life.” Or, as Carrie Bradshaw put it in her final voice-over, “The most exciting, challenging and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself. And if you find someone to love the you you love, well, that’s just fabulous.”
I completely agree with this sentiment. In our individualistic culture we have decided that we can’t relate to anyone else at any deep level – romantic or otherwise – until we have completely established ourselves as individuals. Then we wonder why the Western world struggles through so much depression. It’s because we’re focused on ourselves! Forget theology for a second. It has been repeatedly shown in psychological students that the best way to combat depression or pretty much any other mental illness is to help others. When we allow ourselves to enter the pain of others and work to lessen that pain, our own pain is lessened as a result.
Again, marriage is not the only solution to this. In fact, I would argue that the best thing about marriage coming later is that we have opportunities to build those deep relationships beforehand, learning from them to apply to our future spouse (if we don’t decide to stay single). That’s the opportunity but most don’t use it. Most instead take the time being single to focus entirely on themselves and their careers and then find themselves depressed. By the time they enter marriage they’re so stuck in their individualistic ways and it becomes far more challenging than if we grew up learning to relate to each other in the first place. I don’t doubt that this attitude also plays a part in why so many marriages fall apart. It’s a lot harder to maintain a marriage between two independent individuals than between two interdependent persons and the more time you spend focusing on yourself beforehand the harder it will be to love someone else.
To the Western – particularly urban – church, this is a mission field on your doorstep. There are thousands (millions depending on your city) single young professionals in close proximity to you. Many aren’t lonely or won’t admit they’re lonely. But many are searching for something. The church, living out the love of Jesus, has an obligation to meet this need to the best of our ability. It isn’t about trying to get them to become Christians; it is about extending the radical love to them with no judgement and viewing them with unsurpassable worth just as we know that God has extended to us. Wente has helped us identify a problem, even if her solution is a bit too extreme, and we should be stepping up to help solve it.