Thursday 30 July 2015

Singles and Sorrow

As this phone conversation took place over seven years ago, consider the quotes a creative reconstruction. Basically, I was talking to my friend Ellen on the kitchen phone, and Ellen began to cry if she was not already crying. "I don't know what's wrong with me," she wailed. "I keep crying. I've been depressed and crying all week."

As usual, I had the answer. 

"It's because Lily just got engaged," I said. "It's normal to cry when your friends get engaged, especially when they're your housemate. On the one hand, we're happy for Lily. Of course, we are! But on the other hand, it sucks for us. First, we have to say good-bye to the way our friendship is now, and second, how come she's engaged and we're not? We're happy for her, but what about us? So we cry. Naturally."

"Oh my gosh, I think you're right," said Ellen, who was so shocked, she stopped crying. She even cheered up.  It's cheering to be told your sorrow is normal. Of course, you're sad. Of course. Nobody's sad because their friend is happy and in love. We just get sad because we know that with her happiness comes our loss of her as one of our fellow Single pals, plus the reminder of what we don't have. 

Amusingly, Lily was the first of my friends to marry a guy I thought was super-cute. I wouldn't want to marry him, but I do have to admit that had I met him before Lily, I would not have said no to dinner. I try not to mention this too often, of course. And seven or so years later, another one of my friends married the second guy among all these friends' men I thought was actually cute. I wouldn't want to marry him either, but what I am trying to get at is this: when your friend gets engaged, and you are crying, ask yourself this, "Do I want to marry that guy myself?" The answer, 90% of the time, is probably NO. As much as you like Scooter, and you are delighted he is making your friend so happy, you wouldn't want to go to bed with him yourself,  thanks. 

I am writing this today because I got an Auntie Seraphic letter from a Single who has friends who are pregnant, friends who are engaged, and friends with new boyfriends, and she feels left out. She's over thirty, too, so this is not like when you are nineteen and are just catastrophizing. When you're over thirty, when you feel left out, it's because you are, so far, left out. "Hey, what's going on here?" is a perfectly legitimate question to ask our Divine Creator. "You made me for marriage and children, and You haven't called me out of that to something greater, so what is going on here, Lord? What's up? What's going on? Where is he? What's the plan?"

And He's the One to ask because I simply do not know. I can offer a lot of hypotheses, but "They've all fallen victim to the love-destroying power of internet porn" doesn't wash when you're surrounded by happily engaged couples and young marrieds with babies on the way. Why them? Why not you? 
It is perfectly normal to ask these questions and then have a huge crying fit. Bring tissue to church. Cry away. Wail if you feel like it, and the church is empty. 

But then stop. Crying should cheer you up a bit, and now you need to build on that. Build the cheer. Call up a friend and make a girl-date for a movie you both want to see. Think of a physical activity you enjoy--even if that's just walking in the park--and do it, ASAP.  Go to the fabric shop and browse through the patterns. Go to the art gallery and learn something about the paintings in it. Go to the library and take out a book of the kind you never read: a layman's book on dinosaurs, if you haven't thought about dinos since you were seven, or a western. Go online and look at night-school courses. Buy a packet of crayons and a pad of paper at a dime store, and start drawing. It is natural to feel sad that you aren't married when you strongly feel you ought to be, but it is dangerous to feel sad all the time.

I'm not a psychiatrist (or a doctor or a lawyer or a canon lawyer), but I do have a mood disorder, and messing around with melancholia strikes me as just as dangerous as flirting with eating disorders. The last thing you want is full-blown depression. Crying is good for you, but crying all the time is not. You are the custodian of your own brain: keep it healthy.

If you aren't convinced that you should care for your brain for its own sake, consider this: men are most attracted to happy women. (Women are most attracted to confident men. I'd say "Confidence" is the second most attractive trait in women for men.) Men seem a bit terrified of female sorrow. Women may feel tenderly towards sorrow in other women, but men-in-general do not. "Issues," say men, and their eyes shoot back and forth like minnows trapped in a glass.

If you feel sad, you feel sad. But you don't have to be sad. You will not be rewarded for being sad. You will not get some kind of adult's cookie to cheer you up. And, let's face it, once you are over 12, the person primarily responsible for cheering you up is you. Figure out how to do it, and do it. There are people who, through sheer effort and imagination, manage to stay cheerful in jail.

Naturally you may ask yourself why you are Single, and why other women your age live with husbands and kids while you don't. My reader wrote, from the center of her heart, her most fervent and sacred cry: "I want a husband and family and don't understand what I am doing wrong. Why can other people have those things and not me?"  When I wrote back--late at night--I forgot to say this, but I will say it now, not as a reproof, but as comfort: "Because "a husband" and "a family" are not "things" that anyone "has." They are people, concrete people, and although people have certain tendencies as a group, concrete people, concrete individuals are unpredictable.

We all are born to families--and therefore we have families already, and we shouldn't consider them  as nothing compared to the families we want but don't even exist. We should celebrate them and thank God for them, e.g. "Dear God, thank you for my family, which is intact and not scattered, murdered and enslaved like too many Christian families in Syria and Iraq. O God, extend the mercy You have shown to me and mine to my brothers and sisters in the Middle East!"

We all have relationships with men, relationships including the rather offhand one we have with bus drivers, our next door neighbours, bloggers whose posts we comment on, and the evening security guard at night school. We have hundreds or thousands of mini-relationships, and some of these sprout into more substantial relationships. Aelianus at Laodicea began as a stranger leaving weird, critical comments accusing me of heresy on my blog, and a few weeks ago, he was staying in my spare room with his heavily pregnant wife. Although Aelianus is not his real name, he is a real guy, with a real history, and a real personality, which matched well enough with my history and my personality to result in him becoming my friend, the sort of friend who can always stay in the spare room, and for as long as he likes.

And then we don't all get married and have babies, and that's okay. Tracy was born with such serious disabilities that she remained "pre-verbal" for her entire life, just emitting shrieks and cries. She was happy just to have friends; I don't think she hadn't had any until she joined (or was adopted by) a L'Arche community. My friend Sister Mechtilde always wanted "something more" and found it in a Benedictine cloister. The late Miss Campbell of my parish lived to 94 without ever marrying; we were not close friends, but I know she was well-respected, and didn't want for friends, family and interesting pursuits.

As for the state of being childless, I live it, too, and I think it is preferable to losing a real live child that one has known and loved. I would rather be childless and have my nieces and nephews--who really exist and whom I actually know and love--than to lose one of them and then magically have my own--currently non-existent, totally imaginary and hypothetical--baby. No, thanks. What a horrible idea!

So the point of this sermon (which should probably be a second blog post) is the supreme value of the REAL and the FULFILLED over the IMAGINED and merely POTENTIAL. Instead of crying--except once in a while, as a kind of relief--over what relationships we don't have, we need to celebrate the relationships we do have and be deeply, deeply grateful for them.

Sorrow over singleness: it's normal to have a good old cry from time to time, but don't wallow. Wallowing is not good for you, and it won't bring happiness any faster. If you wallow so much that you get stuck in the mud-bath, go see your priest or consult a counselor. Full-blown depression is not romantically interesting; it sucks.


  1. Heather in Toronto30 July 2015 at 16:27

    "If you wallow so much that you get stuck in the mud-bath, go see your priest or consult a counselor."

    Better yet, do both! Especially if you are experiencing any kind of psychological health crisis that has the potential to be life threatening, because there are professionals who can help medically and there is also a Sacrament just for that (well, life threatening health conditions in general).

    I'm not just talking about temptations to self harm; I knew a woman with OCD and some accompanying disorders who once reacted so badly to a change in medication that she had a psychotic episode and woke up in hospital thinking she had died and gone to hell. That strikes me as a potentially life threatening health crisis worthy of the Sacrament of Anointing to me if there ever was one.

  2. Thanks for this! I've just had to witness both things this past month. One of my friends recently got engaged after a pretty brief dating period. Why not me?! Tear, tear. My second friend reminded me that marriage and family does not solve everything. She just buried her first and only child. He never left the NICU. Since it was a genetic issue, he might be the only child she will ever have.

    Thanks for reminding me that emotion is normal, but that life still has hard parts regardless of a person's station in life.

    1. Oh my, how sad! I cannot think of anything sadder--that is not one's own fault, of course--than burying one's own child. Yes, there are lots of hard things in life that we can do nothing about, and crying is the normal and hopefully healing response.

    2. Praying for your friend. That is so sad.

    3. Thanks Anamaria! And please pray for the wee darling's (probably unbaptized) soul. (I'm a convert, most of my friends are Protestants that don't practice infant baptism. I haven't dared ask my poor friend about it, but it weighs heavily on me.)

  3. Thank you for saying "of course you feel sad". When my best friend got married (when we were 23) I was so terribly sad but felt guilty about it. I thought I must be a terrible person and nobody ever told me it was understandable to feel that way. I knew I was losing her - not completely but we would never be the kind of close friends we were before. I wish I had somebody say to me "of course you feel sad" back then.

    Aussie girl in NZ

  4. I always knew because of Jo March crying over the thought of Meg marrying John, and because of Anne of Green Gables feeling sad about Diana. In Jo's and Anne's case, they weren't at the stage of feeling sad about being Single, though. L.M. Alcott was happy to live life as a Single woman, totally devoted her her crazy old dad, and L.M. Montgomery knew firsthand, poor thing, how difficult marriage can be. I like how when Amy gets married, Jo starts feeling left out, and how relieved and happy she was when Professor Bhaer came to the rescue. Originally LMA didn't want Jo to marry at all, but her readers begged and pleaded, so she came up with "a funny husband for Jo." In the Winona Ryder film, they really sexed him up by getting Gabriel Byrne to play him! Woot! I don't think LMA would have cast either WR or GB in a zillion years! :-D


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