Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Art of Singleness at a Certain Age

Okay, here's what's next on my list of stuff I really don't want to write about.

A few weeks ago, one of the local churches in town hosted a weekend event called The Art of Marriage.  It is by all accounts an excellent series on developing a godly marriage in the midst of real life.  I've heard nothing but glowing reports about it.  And I'm genuinely glad for it.  When it was announced in church, they made it clear that it was open to anyone--seasoned marriage veterans, newlyweds, engaged couples, or...(with a sideways glance over at me)...anyone who thinks they might ever be married.

The inclusiveness of the invitation was kind and heartfelt; nevertheless, I found myself otherwise occupied that weekend.

I'm gonna warn you up front.  At some point you're probably going to think that this is just descending into a self-indulgent pity party, but please withhold your judgment and bear with me; I really am aiming at something redemptive.  And yes, I know that there are worse things than being alone.  This is not about whipping out our list of life grievances and comparing lengths.  But this is my story, my struggles, my points of vulnerability.

You may have heard of the term "WASP"--an affectionately disparaging acronym for White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant.  I'm going to introduce you to a new one--a "MASP"--Middle-Aged Single Person.  And you qualify as a MASP if you're over 35, have never been married, have no kids, and the likelihood of either of those things ever happening is discouragingly remote.  That's a MASP.

The older I get, the more bizarre and awkward it is to be single.  It's a completely different experience from being single in my 20s or even my 30s.  It's not that I spend my days languishing in self-pity.  But even against the backdrop of the Apostle Paul's beloved Sonnet to the Singles, First Corinthians Seven, there are some really tough days.  Paul admonishes us that singlehood is not only an acceptable lifestyle, but can actually be a preferable one; but there are still times when being alone is deeply troubling.  When you feel completely out of step--not just with society, but even with your faith community, and those closest to you.  When it seems like your singleness is the modern equivalent of leprosy.  (Hey, here's an idea...let's gather them all together and isolate them into colonies!  Problem solved!)

You probably think I'm overstating things, or that I need to stop looking at the world through MASP-colored lenses.  I realize that it's a tendency for those who fall into a minority demographic (whatever that may be) to see all of society in terms of discrimination, persecution, and bigotry.  But it's equally true that when we're in the majority demographic, it's easy to be blind to the struggles of our minority counterparts.

I am very grateful for the grace-filled "non-MASP" people in my life who don't treat my singlehood as a disease, a problem to be solved, a cause for pity or suspicion, a sign of weakness or selfishness, a symptom of some deep-seated psychological problem, or a mark of second-class citizenship.  Indeed, I'm very grateful for these people, because they are a rarity.

But then there is everyone else...you know, those who open the newspaper and read "unmarried man in his mid-40s" and expect, somewhere in the same article, to also read the phrase, "bodies of prostitutes buried in the crawlspace."

Someone I know--and mind you, this is someone who cares about me--recently said to me, "I just cannot for the life of me understand why you're not married."  To quote Miracle Max, "Why don't you just give me a nice paper cut and pour lemon juice in it?"  The irony is, it was both the sting of my own acute sense of marital deficiency...and the indignation that people presume my singleness is a deficiency in the first place.

Twenty years ago, the thought of being in my 40s and unmarried was unthinkable.  Even so, it was a still a complicated matter even back then.  I was living abroad, and having to navigate some treacherous cultural waters.  I had my heart broken, sort of--not so much by rejection, but by something far worse--the hollow embrace of false affection.  Not to put too fine a point on it...but the pretty young women who paid attention to me didn't see stars when they looked at me.  They did, however, see the stars that adorned the seal on my U.S. passport.

In retrospect, this may be an overly-simplistic and even unfair categorization of some of the girls that batted their eyelashes in my direction during those years.  But at that time, this sham just reinforced my old, deep-seated insecurities, which had convinced me that no woman of substance could ever truly fall for the likes of me.  Such a blessing wasn't in the cards for me; I didn't deserve it.  And any woman who would fall for me, well, she must either be desperate, have abysmal standards, or be gravely mistaken about what I had to offer.  I once read a quote by Abraham Lincoln that struck me between the eyes.  He had written, "I have now come to the conclusion never again to think of marrying, and for this reason--I can never be satisfied with anyone who would be blockhead enough to have me."

Fast-forward a number of years. Life and growth, hard knocks, and above all, the grace of God, have done some of its seasoning work in my life.  A lot of my youthful insecurities have been tempered--maybe not eliminated entirely, but they don't plague me like they once did.  And I've learned vicariously that romantic notions of love and passion are fleeting and overrated.  Nevertheless, the unfulfilled longing for the simple intimacy of steady companionship can be deeply haunting--especially when hope has been deferred so long that it simply crumbles.

Being alone has its challenges when you're able-bodied and (humanly speaking) self-reliant.  But sometimes in darker moments, my mind foolishly wanders over to what it will be like when I'm infirm, weak, unable to care for myself.  While my married peers watch their children grow, hopefully into responsible and caring adults who will one day hold their frail hands, I imagine approaching my dimming days alone, and dying unnoticed.  It's a dark place to go.  I don't recommend it.

One careless thing I have heard, too many times to count, is "You never really understand God's love until you marry or become a parent."  Be warned now: I will high-five your face if I ever hear you say it.

I'm not kidding.  I will make you cry.

Aside from it being self-righteous claptrap, it's also a lie from the pit of hell that dogged me for many years.  I struggled with this notion that I was not only missing out on the temporal benefits of marriage and family, but also that my relationship with God was second-rate as a result of it.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I'm NOT for a moment suggesting that God's love has not deeply and profoundly revealed itself to you through the trials and joys of your marriage or your experience with parenthood.  And in ways that I will likely never comprehend.

But if you subscribe to the myth that the deepest understanding of God's love is reserved exclusively for those who have experienced marriage or parenthood, I'd urge you to reconsider.  (In previous edits of this post, those last five words were actually three words, and were a little bit sharper.)  All that to say, the path God has placed me on is definitely a road less traveled, but it is my path, and God is still my God.  And who's to say that such a path can't have profound and meaningful lessons of its own?

When I cast my eyes down a road that looks pretty lonely, I have learned to slip my hand into the hand of a God whose care for and promises to the alien, the orphan, and the outcast, point to the utter magnificence of His character and glory of His love.  It sometimes overwhelms me.  I have no where else to turn.  I have no where else I want to turn.  I have nothing else in life in which to place my hope.  I have no choice but to cling ferociously to the One who clings ferociously to me.  And I wonder just how well I would have learned those things, if my life's path had taken me the route of a satisfying, married-with-kids kind of life, where my temptation would be to derive that sense of immediate security from my temporal family instead of from my eternal Creator.

But because God is my hope and my refuge, my shield and my portion, I have no reason to be pitied or ashamed, and I am not deficient in my singleness.  I have all that I need, and infinitely more.  Not just for the next life, but for this one.  I don't doubt that there are some hard days ahead, where the loneliness will be even more excruciating than I have yet to experience.  But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.  (2 Timothy 1:12)  And if, in some way, the path that God has placed me on does something to declare His works and proclaim His glory, then I'll walk it willingly, trusting in His grace, both when the road rises up to meet my feet...and when the road rises up meet my face.  

So here's an idea I'd like to pitch.  A weekend event called The Art of Singleness.  It would NOT be all about solving the "problem" of singleness, or presenting life skills for coping with it as if it were a chronic disease; and it certainly wouldn't be a thinly-veiled, last-resort meat market for desperate Christian singles.  But instead it would celebrate the fact that God's promises, love, and faithfulness hold just as true to those of us called to a different type of journey.
"Those who were not my people
I will call 'my people,'
and her who was not beloved
I will call 'my beloved.'
And in the very place where it was said to them,
'You are not my people,'
they will be called 'sons of the living God.'" 
     --Romans 9:25-26 (Quoting Hosea 2:23 & 1:10)
*****

A Post Script to readers in the former Soviet Republics, who, judging from my page-view statistics, make up the majority of my readers lately...this is NOT an invitation to send offers for mail-order brides.  Thank you.

4 comments:

  1. Scott.. as you fellow MASP, in my 50's, never married, no kids, and a friend of yours since our traveling days around the world in '87..thank you for your thoughts. I too share many of the experiences you have described and one about "you don't understand God's love until your a parent or married" is one of the most deceiving concepts I've seen. I think of Mother Theresa and there isn't a person on this planet who would say she didn't understand love. More than any other married person, parent, or even most singles. I don't pretend to be a "mother Theresa" but I do know God's love for me, I do know how to love and amazingly, I love other people's kids so much that I am part of several families as an extended family member. I have so many blessings and will have plenty of younger friends to call on as I grow into those years of being less able. I say let's plan an "Art of Singleness" weekend event! Leave the kids and spouses out of it...oh yeah..we don't have to worry about that! :) Your friend Lynn

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  2. I'm pretty sure if it were true that the only way one could fully or truly understand God's love for us was through marriage and children, then having children and being married would be a mandate for all Christians, rather than there being express Scriptures that actually encourage/exhort singleness. Great thoughts, Scott, I'm really enjoying your blog. -And per your last note, I promise never ever to send you an offer for a mail order bride. :)

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    1. Jacquelyn, you make me laugh...it just dawned on me that you're probably the reader that counts as "Russia" in my pageview count. I would trust your judgment more than most as per mail-order brides. ;o)

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  3. I love you Scott! I've been through one loveless marriage and one broken marriage that I was happier than anytime in my life until everything changed and again have found myself "in the single category".... with all the same thoughts and fears that one forsaken by her husband cannot avoid.
    Yes Isa 54 still is true and reminds us that our Father knows exactly the pain as He describes this all too common human experience. Thank you for your honesty you said what we all think and don't say.

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