12 July 2007

The Gift of Loneliness

When I get lonely these days, I think: So be lonely, Liz. Learn your way around loneliness. Make a map of it. Sit with it, for once in your life. Welcome to the human experience. -- Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love

It is not good that the man should be alone ... -- God, Genesis 2:18

Last week I had the irrepressible urge to watch the film, “Bridget Jones’ Diary”. While hardly a model for moral behavior with her heavy smoking, excessive drinking, and illicit sex, I believe the vulnerable and fumbling Bridget is an excellent partner in commiseration for any single gal.

Even if you possess only a superficial knowledge of the film, the reason behind my inclination will hardly be a mystery. I have quickly been reintroduced to the reasons being a “singleton” can be so frustrating and why, like Bridget, I feel some days like all I can do is stumble awkwardly through my days, flying solo in a world where sometimes, it seems like everyone else has paired off.

Like Bridget, I struggle between the desire to make my way through life confidently and independently, and on the other hand, to be part of a couple. All around me, I seem to be surrounded by smiling couples, all oozing contentedness and telling me things like “someone”, “someday”, and “out there”; these words are intended to be comforting and hopeful, but are too nebulous to be of any use to my heart.

Please don’t think me so naïve as to think that my married friends are swimming in unmitigated bliss all the time; single or married, we all have days where our lives are less than pleasant, and life can be hard work no matter what our marital status might be. Among my advantages I count as a single woman, I love that I can rent the videos I want without discussion, manage my finances as I see fit, or plan trips on a whim without ever having to consult another human being. Singleness does have its benefits beyond spur-of-the-moment travel and hassle-free video rentals, though (it boggles the mind, I know)!

Despite the obvious (and not-so-obvious) benefits when it comes to my relationship status, I have a struggle – one that may not be immediately evident. I have a good life and I desperately want to be content with it. I do not believe I should live in such a way that I am always waiting for something (or someone) else to enjoy it fully. I want to embrace my life and live in the now. I cannot be relying upon the maybes, the not yets, or might not happens. This does not mean I do not challenge myself to reach new goals, or that I don’t find happiness in or have a measure of reliance upon my relationships with family and friends.

I cannot silence the part of me that longs to partner with someone – with one particular someone – in life. The desire doesn’t abate, and it seems to compete fiercely with the contentment I seek. Perhaps it’s because God made us this way – to be in relationship, to be in community. He made us in such a way that there is a portion of our hearts that only human relationships can fill. It sounds so at-odds with what I’ve grown up believing.

Consider Adam and God in Eden prior to the creation of Eve: God gave Adam the task of naming all the animals he had created; Eve was not around for this, and Adam felt a lack of something he probably could not quite identify. I’ll allow Donald Miller to elaborate:

Moses said God knew Adam was lonely or incomplete or however you want to say it, but God did not create Eve directly after He stated Adam was lonely. This struck me as funny because a lot of times when I think about life before the Fall, I don’t think of people going around lonely. But that thought also comforted me because I realized loneliness in my own life doesn’t mean I am a complete screwup, rather that God made me this way.

He continues,

I looked up how many animals there are in the world, and it turns out there are between ten million and one hundred million species. So even if you believe in evolution, that means there were between one million and fifty million species around in the time of the Garden, and Adam, apparently, had to name all of them. And the entire time he was lonely.

I never thought of Adam the same again. … this was a man who, despite feeling a certain need for a companion, performed what must have been nearly one hundred years of work. … So here was this guy who was intensely relational, needing other people, and in order to cause him to appreciate the gift of companionship, God had him hang out with chimps for a hundred years. It’s quite beautiful, really.

Searching for God Knows What, pp 63, 64-65

And so I don’t think of loneliness the same anymore. There Adam was in the Garden, with perfect and unfettered access to God, and he still experienced a longing his relationship with God could not fill. Adam needed another like himself to partner and live with in community. I don’t have this unrequited longing because I don’t rely enough on God or, in Donald Miller’s words, because I am a “complete screwup”. This is the way God created it to be; needing other people is a part of the beautiful and heartbreaking journey.

I was speaking to a married friend the other day about the pithy clichés couples spout to their single friends in an attempt to squelch their disappointment with being unattached, and how thoroughly grating it can be to be on the receiving end. She replied that it was hard to know what to say. Even though I know it comes from a place of love, care, and of wanting to be a help, the last thing I want to hear is something like “there is someone out there for you”, “it will happen when you least expect it”, or “you’re just too intimidating”. Some others I’ve heard are, “God just isn’t done with the two of you yet”, “you just need to get yourself out there”, or “you just need to wait for God’s timing”.

The truth, friends, is this: however true the words may be, there really is nothing that can be said to relieve the deep soul-ache that is being single when you are longing for that unique and singular attachment with one other human being: someone who complements you and somehow causes you to know yourself better. You are not incomplete without him, but somehow being a partner in this relationship causes you to become more of yourself.

I cannot speak for others, but as far as this single-girl variety of loneliness goes, I am not looking for a fix (it is not broken) or a cure (it is not an illness). I don’t need advice on where to meet the good men that are “out there” or to be fixed up on a blind date. I’ve heard good things about some internet dating sites, too. I just want someone to listen when I find the need to unburden my heart; I want someone to connect with me in that moment in order to remind me that I am not as alone as I feel at times.

I truly believe singleness is as much of a gift as couple-ness is, and rather than seeing it as a layover on the way to an eventual destination, I see it as an opportunity to be about the work of my Father and to delve deeper into the exploration of who He has created me to be. I imagine God has work set aside for me, whether or not my future includes a partner. I imagine there will be periods of vast contentedness, and also days where I want to scream and tear my hair out in frustration, asking God, how many more animals could there possibly be?!

So you know what? I’m just going to be lonely sometimes. I will sit with it, I will make a map of it. I will cry and I will laugh with my friends. I will worship with the Body and I will extend love to my neighbors. I will read voraciously and learn more of what it means for me to be a writer. I will pray, I will praise, and let God plumb the depths of my soul. I will keep my eyes, my hands, and my heart open.

And we will see what happens.


  1. I AGREE 100%!!!! I was out on a date with a guy about a year ago, and he asked me some goals I had for myself for the next 5-10 years. I laughed to myself, and got sort of embarrased, and he asked what i was laughing about. I told him that I could give him the cliche answer of "I would love to be married with kids" but then I told him that I don't think of getting married as a goal or an accomplishment, because then if i don't reach it, I feel like I've failed. And I don't see being single as failing. I think that marriage (staying married and making it work) is an accomplishment, because I know that it takes work. But that is completely different from getting married.

    Thank you for your thoughts - feel free to chat with me any time, as I am right there with you. I have told married people that it is not helpful to look at singles as "incomplete", or to make comments like "when you lease expect it, it will happen". My friend Nicole is married with a kid, and although our friendship has changed since she got married, she has never treated me differently, because she is married and I am single. That is something I truly appreciate.

  2. Seriously, were you reading my thoughts?

    Very eloquently put! (:

    Like I would expect anything less!

  3. ... and the two single bloggers in my sphere are the first to comment!! Thank you, ladies. :o)

    Ilse -- I LOVE LOVE LOVE how you talk about how you don't consider not getting married as having failed. I think somehow, there's this pervasive (cultural? church?) mindset that if you're not with someone, you somehow have failed or not "made it". Those words don't quite fit what I want to say, but I think you know what I mean.

    And I agree -- there is a very clear distinction between getting married & then on the other hand, having a healthy marriage.

    Kaari -- Well, you know how you & I are, sharing a brain & all. I have been thinking about this a lot lately (obviously) and am glad to know that there are at least two other people I consider friends who are in the same place. :o)

  4. So, so beautiful, Kirsten. I love what you wrote here. It echoes so much of the conversations I've had with my single friends (both when I've been single and when they've been the ones still there). I remember when you told all of us about the decision to end your relationship, I so did not want to "go there" with all those pithy sayings. None of us can ever know what God is up to in our lives, but we know He is always after something in whatever place in life we are. More and more, I'm finding that the best we can offer each other are our shoulders, our arms, and our ears. Just being together in it. That seems to be the best gift.

  5. Thank you so much, Christianne. I think it is so much our culture to want to "fix" a heartache when we see it; I think we often feel the pressure to say something to try & alleviate a friend's grief. As anyone who has experienced loss knows, words are not equal to that task.

    Those pithy little sayings tend to have quite the opposite of their intended effect, making me feel like my heartache has been minimized, as if something so succinct & compact could address the sucking loneliness you feel after someone in whom you have invested so much is no longer a part of your life.

    "More and more, I'm finding that the best we can offer each other are our shoulders, our arms, and our ears. Just being together in it. That seems to be the best gift."

    I could not have said it better myself!

  6. Oh, something you just said made me think of another thought I've carried around about this kind of thing. You said that you think we often feel a pressure to fix something that's wrong. The interesting thing I've noticed about myself when I'm feeling that pressure is that sometimes it means I've drawn the focus onto MYSELF. "What can I say to help? What can I do to make sure I don't mess this moment up? I don't know if I have any answers for her. I need to know the right thing to say right now." It's all I, I, I . . . instead of focused on her, her, her. When I turn my eyes on her in that moment instead of focusing on what I should say, I think I love her better. And not just better, but more. My heart opens up, like a flower enveloping another, and it's soft and tender and pliable. I think that's the right heart-place to be to love another in a soft and tender place.

  7. It is interesting that our culture values this form of community above all else, when there is so much more community to be had in other ways. Indeed, the married person may someday face singleness again through death or rejection, and so on. If one's sense of community is only wrapped up in the romantic view... what a terrible shock this will be.

    And yet, as you say, we long... I do like your way of looking at it... straight in the face, to see what you can see.

  8. Dear Kirsten,
    Thank you so much. You've helped me put more words to something I've been struggling with for a long time. I've been struggling with it even more in the last year as three of my four roommates got married and then I went to Pennsylvania (with occasional visits back) to do dissertation research from January through June. Thank you for reminding me that this is not something I can just fix, or that it is something so wrong with me that God has to fix it before he will fulfill my desire.
    My heart aches to know you are going through it as well, but it also finds solace in knowing I am not alone.

  9. Christianne -- that is so beautifully put (and such a beautiful practice). I don't think most people see the "what should I say?" dilemma as becoming focused on self instead of the other person, but this is so wonderful that you see this (& that you shared it with me here, so I can recognize when I do) and modify your behavior so that you are the ears, arms, and shoulders of God's grace. How wonderful & lovely!

    LL -- It drives me nuts that our culture is so focused on this form of community, sometimes to the exclusion of others. We are all too wont to idealize it, make a god of it, pursue it relentlessly ... also to the exclusion of other forms of community more available to us.

    This drives me batty sometimes, but I must recognize that I am a part of this. Is this hard-wiring, I wonder, or is it culture? Probably a bit of both (one doesn't necessarily preclude the other). Did I sup on too many fairy tales growing up in which the beautiful maiden was rescued by the handsome prince?

    I don't want to idealize, I don't want to pursue the vaporous, imaginary Hollywood ending. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't want that one partner. Which is why I better be about being active in the community God has given me, and doing what it is He has me to do for now.

    Stephanie -- Thank you so much for stopping by!! It breaks my heart to hear you struggle with this also. It is common amongst us single gals, is it not? We long for what it seems like we cannot have, while all around us, people happily pair off. We are genuinely happy for our friends and then (at least I do this) guiltily wonder when it will be "my turn".

    No easy answers. I cling to the promise that Jesus came to give us all full & rich lives. So, if it's not my own pairing off, I wonder what else He could have for me...

    Many blessings to you!!

  10. I was thinking about your last musing, about being a writer, and I was wondering how all this deep feeling (especially the loneliness) might eventually feed that role in unexpected ways. Some of my best writing has come from the hard moments, you know?

  11. LL - I was thinking the same thing -- how this period of loneliness may in the long term yield some good, ripe fruit. May it be as the Lord wills!