Save us from ourselves
I was a bit hard on single people in one of my previous articles. I do think that we need to take responsibility for cultivating friendships and community and cannot rely on others, particularly those with families, to do it for us. At the same time, I want to acknowledge the cross that we singletons carry, one that I think is unknown or misunderstood by most married people. No, it’s not loneliness (though, of course, there is that). It’s the objective (not subjective) and thus unavoidable state of self-centeredness.
As a single person, I have not given my life away in any definitive choice that makes concrete demands of me. Instead, I am somehow supposed to choose, every day, to love and serve people. Doing this is not expected of me by anyone except God—and at the end of the day it is still up to me to examine my conscience; He doesn’t tend to force the issue. When you are single, you can go a long way down selfish paths before really experiencing any consequences of that selfishness. By way of contrast, if you try being super selfish in marriage, you are at least going to hear about it from your spouse; I never hear about it, even if I do something really selfish, because it’s more than possible that no one even knows I did. Often, they are acts of omission—not reaching out to the neighbor, not making a meal for that family. No one (but God) is ever going to call me out for those.
Married people and single people are sometimes tempted to idealize the other state. Neither is a walk in the park, but they are different in so many ways that it is easy to lose a sense of what the other is like. But single people do get glimpses of the trials of family life, not only in their own families, but also in visiting friends. Some of the trials of marriage are visible and external: A biting comment, a toddler who won’t eat, a diaper blowout, a teenager stomping up to his room, worry over how to pay for Catholic schools. These are communicable challenges. Friends talk about them and cluck with sympathy.
On the other hand, married people don’t often get glimpses of the trials of single life, because they are almost all internal and often go unshared. We don’t often tell anyone the daily frustrations of our life because we recognize how mundane and boring they are. Saying, “Yesterday, when I got home from work after picking up my dry cleaning, I realized that the turkey I’d taken out to defrost had gone bad, and since I was supposed to meet up with a friend at 7, I ran out to Whole Foods to get something to eat, but while I was there, my friend canceled,” is just… not very interesting. Single people have to take care of all the things, and it doesn’t matter that much to anyone else whether we eat or drink or show up places. People with children can consider themselves to have done their duty as long as the kids are still alive at the end of the day. Their biggest responsibility has been discharged and there were probably at least a few good moments in there somewhere. Single people may have fewer responsibilities, but the other side of that is that we have less sense of accomplishment or meaning at the end of the day.
Here is some of what your single friends might not be telling you. If they live alone, they may occasionally wonder what would happen if they collapsed suddenly (brain aneurism maybe?). How long would it take for anyone to notice? They may long to travel, but can’t muster up the energy to plan it by themselves, and then wonder if it would just be a waste of money since they would be the only one enjoying it. They may want to be helpful so badly that they lack boundaries such that any request, however unreasonable, is met because they think they “have nothing better to do.” They may find it hard to muster the motivation to cook for themselves because it doesn’t seem worth the effort, and so by eating out constantly, become unhealthy. In short, what many single people need, sometimes, is just something other than ourselves to think about. And that’s where you come in!
Because, you see, the only person we must think about is us. It’s the worst thing, by far; worse than loneliness, unfulfilled desire, heartbreak, or many other trials. When I say that singleness an objectively self-centered state, that modifier, objectively, is key. Single people are not necessarily self-centered in the way that we usually use that term – i.e self-absorbed or selfish. Not at all. In fact, some of my single friends are the most other-centered, service-oriented people you will ever meet. They go out of their way for people all the time. But on the objective level, it remains true that the only person that I, a single person, am responsible to is… me. So I need you, dear reader, to help me out. Invite me over and when I get to the door, hand me the baby and say, “She needs to be changed, you know what to do”; put me in charge of the casserole; tell me to do the dishes. Force me into virtue, as you are forced every day by your vocation. Give me a chance to rise to the occasion.