A friend of mine lost her husband in an accident only a few years after they had been married. At the time we were twenty-five and I couldn’t fully wrap my mind around her loss. I had been through a few break-ups, had lost a close friend and two grandparents, but her loss seemed so much bigger. So much different.
She would shake when I hugged her. That’s what I remember.
In the last six months of my life, the weight of her aloneness has become more clear to me, even if I still don’t fully understand it.
The unexpectedness of it. The sudden change of direction. The going from being married to being single within a matter of moments. I’m learning that being single when you wish you weren’t is less about coming to grips with your singleness as it is about coming to grips with the fact that life doesn’t always turn out how we plan.
I spoke with another friend the other day who is forty-something and single. She’s never been married. This is not the carefully mapped-out plan she made for herself. It is not what she expected. Quite the opposite, in fact. She, like so many of us, expected that she would meet “the one” for her at a party one day, or that they would catch each other’s glances at a coffee shop, or that he would accidentally deliver a pizza to her house instead of the neighbor’s.
These are the love stories we long for—with all their serendipity and mystery.
We do not long for love stories that end in divorce or in death or that, for reasons we are never fully able to understand, never get started in the first place.
And yet, here we are, many of us, living love stories we didn’t ask for and trying to make them beautiful and our own and living inside of them with all the gumption and passion and creativity and presence as we would have brought to the one we thought we’d have.
The challenge of finding love
I can remember back to being twenty-seven years old and feeling like I was getting so old. So old. Everyone was getting married, all of my friends. They were all “moving on” with their lives. What must be wrong with me that I hadn’t found my person? What must I be doing that I was somehow single when I wished I wasn’t? How could I fix this problem? How could I make the loneliness go away?
These are the thoughts that would go through my brain late at night.
Now that I look back (at almost 33), 27 years old doesn’t seem old anymore. I can see now how my singleness wasn’t a problem to be fixed, and how the loneliness I felt would have been so much more bearable if I wasn’t trying to pretend like I didn’t feel it. And finally, I am beginning to understand how meaningful and purposeful singleness can be, regardless of the fact that it sometimes comes when we don’t ask for it.
But there’s a stigma around being single isn’t there?
On the one hand, there’s this quiet underlying feeling that marriage is the threshold into adulthood and that single people are somehow behind. I’m guessing very few people actually believe this to be true, but it is one of those pervasive thoughts that lingers with us, leftover from some old story. Like the foggy residue left on the mirror after a shower.
We expect to see it. But we can’t fully explain where it came from or exactly why it is there.
Then, on the very confusing other hand, we’re all supposed to be “totally content” with our single lives, living it up and just having the most amazing time. The number one piece of advice given to singles goes something like this: “when you stop looking for it, that’s when love will come.”
But is this really true? I’m not sure.
I know way too many stories which don’t fit that paradigm.
Meanwhile, none of this seems to allow for the possibility that a person could be deeply satisfied with the life they are building for themselves, and also desire to be sharing that life with a romantic partner. This does a better job of describing most of the singles I know. They are not desperate to be married—or at least not so desperate they are going to give up their lives and their ideas and their dreams to get there.
But they do wish and wonder if maybe it will happen for them someday. They pray they aren’t missing something.
They hope they didn’t take a wrong turn somewhere.
The “problem” of loneliness.
Then there’s the loneliness, which no one wants to talk about. Because if you love yourself and you “have a good community” and you don’t spend too much time on Facebook, you shouldn’t feel lonely at all. Or at least that’s how we talk about it—as if loneliness were some sort of disease we were trying to cure.
To be fair, I think there is some truth to those ideas.
By that I mean I think we can learn to love ourselves and stay connected to the people around us and that will help us turn down the volume of our loneliness. I do think social media—the exact platforms designed to keep us connected—so strangely and ironically make people feel more alone than we’ve ever felt before.
Too many of us feel isolated and alone in life. In our materially advanced and technologically sophisticated society, we’ve done little to advance a collective sense of love and relatedness. As a culture, we are well versed in growing ourselves in material value but terribly undernourished in recognizing the opportunities we have to give and receive love. These opportunities come our way constantly. Yet we often do not even acknowledge them, let alone allow ourselves to seize upon them.
—Katherine Woodward Thomas, Calling in the One
See—we do not need to be afraid of our loneliness, which is pointing to something.
The curse of being alone?
My grandpa—my dad’s dad—passed away more than ten years ago now, and I still remember the first conversation I had with my grandma after his death. I called the house and she picked up but didn’t say anything. All I could her was her gentle breathing on the other end of the line.
“Grandma?” I asked.
There was a long pause.
Finally, she spoke.
“He kissed me on our first date,” she said.
Then she stayed on the phone and kept weeping quietly and neither of us said anything. That was enough. It was enough for me to know how lonely she must feel. Sometimes, maybe, our loneliness just needs a quiet witness—just someone to acknowledge that it isn’t easy, and that it’s also so very out of our control, and to assure us that at the end of this day, the world will turn and we are going to wake up tomorrow to a new one.
See, singleness is not a curse that is cast down upon the unworthy. It is a natural, normal stage and phase of life. Aloneness will come to all of us, at some point or another, with or without our permission.
We might as well get good at navigating it.
Getting good at being alone
One of the great benefits to being single when you didn’t expect it is that it forces you to enjoy being with yourself. This might sound strange, but it’s a gift and a skill too many of us have avoided or ignored by numbing out with alcohol or Netflix or shopping or ice cream; or by conceding to relationships that are terrible for us but good distractions from the deep ache of loneliness.
The truth is a little loneliness is good for us.
It is only when we have surrendered to our aloneness that we are finally able to answer the question far too many of us have been avoiding.
Who am I without you?
Who am I on my own?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor known for his staunch resistance to the Nazi regime, went as far as to say, “Until we can be alone with our own thoughts, we are a danger to society.” A danger to society. Soak that in. I think what he means is that, until we can get comfortable with the beautiful and terrible parts of ourselves, until we come to grips with the fact that we are capable of great good and great evil…we are flying blind.
Or flying drunk might be a better metaphor.
Blind people know they can’t see. Drunk people have a terrible reputation for thinking: I’m fine. I’m totally fine.
Until we get good at being alone, we won’t actually be that good at being together.
Loneliness wakes us up to ourselves.
A beautiful unfolding.
I heard a quote from the poet David Whyte about aloneness a few weeks ago that stopped me dead in my tracks. If you get a chance, you should check out the On Being podcast, where he recites this line within the first five seconds. Hearing him speak his own words is powerful.
They go like this:
Sometimes it takes darkness or the sweet confinement of your aloneness to realize that anyone or anything that does not bring you alive is too small for you.
Here’s what I think he’s saying: sometimes it takes the deep pain of loneliness to discover the beauty of yourself.
- The gifts you have to bring to the world
- The passions lying dormant inside of you
- The things you’ve always wanted to do but have been too scared
- The help you think you need from someone else that you can give to yourself
- The incredible power you have to ask for help
- The inner-strength that rises up like a wild animal to accomplish tasks you thought were too big for you
- The direct connection you have to the divine
- The friendship you have to offer yourself
- The deep sense of care and compassion for yourself and others
What if, instead of asking the questions we tend to ask in our singleness, questions like what must be wrong with us or what we could have done differently to keep that last relationship from ending, or how we can find our next one… what if we just allowed the aloneness to shape us, to form us, to show us how beautiful and amazing we have been all along?
Breathe that in.
Sometimes aloneness is what it takes for you to experience your beautiful unfolding.
Learning to Pay Attention
One of the great gifts of being alone when you wish you weren’t is that there is nothing but time to pay attention. You suddenly begin to notice things you weren’t able to notice before.
You simply didn’t have the time, or the energy.
You were too distracted.
You begin to notice things like the voices in your own head, like the thoughts you think about yourself and other people, like the way the forsythia bush blooms outside your front window, and the not-so-subtle way the light shifts across the room from morning until dusk. Somehow you never noticed those things before, but now you do.
As Julia Cameron suggests, there is a great reward for paying attention.
“The reward for attention is always healing. It may begin as the healing of a particular pain—the lost lover, the sickly child, the shattered dream. But what is healed, finally, is the pain that underlies all pain: the pain that we are all, as Rilke puts it, “unutterably alone”. More than anything else, attention is an act of connection.” Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
Attention is an act of connection. If that is true—and I think it is—then it means the salve for our aloneness is present in us and around us, at all times. It means that as we begin to pay attention, we begin to feel more connected to ourselves and others. Maybe this is why Instagram and Facebook and other platforms like them have a tendency to make us feel lonely.
They distract us from paying attention.
All we have to do is pay attention.
None of it is wasted.
The incredible thing that begins to happen as we pay attention is we realize nothing is wasted. Not one minute. Not the terrible relationship we stayed in for way too long, not the wonderful guy we dated but never married, not the years we spent in a marriage that ended. The invisible timeline we’ve been living by doesn’t exist.
It’s not a thing. Sure, our biological clocks are ticking and we only have so many years on this earth…
But as such… shouldn’t we be enjoying them? Shouldn’t we be surrendering the things over which we have no control and paying attention to all the ways life is unfolding with us and for us? It’s so hard to live here. It’s so hard to trust. But if we can do it, we relieve the stress of thinking marriage is some sort of finish line, and find ourselves paying attention to a life that is full and deep and beautiful and rich.
Already. As it is.
No minute of your life is wasted. Not your single life. Not your dating life. Not your married life. Because the great gift and the great challenge of life is that, when you leave one season, you take yourself into the next.
All that you’ve battled. All that you’ve accomplished. All that you’ve become.
And you, my friend, are becoming truly remarkable.
- Loveability by Robert Holden, PhD
- Calling in the One, by Katherine Woodward Thomas
- Love Your Single Life, with Stephanie May Wilson
- On Being podcast w/ Krista Tippet and David Whyte