Those of us who are single often have what I call “single moments.” I remember one particularly clearly. I had just graduated from college and I was working in the Silicon Valley, earning what was then considered good money. I stopped at a shopping mall one night after work, and a profound depression settled over me. I sat down to try to discern the cause. “Me, me, me,” I remember thinking. “My whole world revolves around me. I go to work every day, devoting all of my energies to helping this monolithic corporation I don’t care about sell more software than its competitor, another monolithic corporation I don’t care about. And why? So I can make more money that I can then spend on . . . me.”
Such a small, unsatisfying circle.
Delayed marriage, divorces, annulments—all of these social phenomena are leading to huge increases in the numbers of unmarried people in our society. And many of them are struggling with the “small circle.” They struggle to find their place in a world and a Church that seems geared primarily toward dealing with families. Parishes, in particular, are oriented toward families, and have no idea what to do with adults who aren’t parents. Up until a few years ago, the prevailing mentality seemed to be, “Let’s throw them all into a room together. Maybe they’ll all pair off and marry each other.” With no programming of substance offered, the result was that many young adult ministry programs became a sort of “Friends for the Friendless” (or, as one friend of mine called it, “The Home for Broken Toys”).
Not a good plan.
Even theology seems to conspire against single people. (Note I said “seems.” God wouldn’t really do that to us.) I’m currently teaching a class at my own parish on the theology of John Paul II. In our discussion of the theology of the body (which is, for my money, the single greatest contribution to the theological world since the close of the canon), with its emphasis on the beauty of married love, the language of human sexuality, and the centrality of the family, the single people in the class are adamantly asking where exactly they fit in.
But, ironically, it is in that same theology of the body that those single people are finding the key to a deeper understanding of their own vocation.
The theology of the body, at its deepest level, is about the one true human vocation—the vocation to love. Man is created in the image and likeness of God. That image and likeness is reflected, in its deepest way, in our capacity and desire to give ourselves in authentic love. All creation is a gift to us from a God who personifies love. We were made, as Gaudium et Spes reminds us, to find fulfillment only in a sincere gift of self. True happiness is only found in recognizing the image and likeness of God in others, and reacting accordingly by seeking what is truly best for them. The creation of our very bodies, as male and female, reflects our capacity to give ourselves, body and soul, to another human person. God’s favorite act, the creation of new human life, is accomplished through the love of a man and a woman. The resulting family is a “communion of persons,” a school of love in which each member lives not just for self but by looking out for what is best for all.
It is at this point, of course, that all of the ringless left hands of the class begin to rise into the air. “What about us?” they ask. “Look at what we’re missing out on!”
Let’s not jump to conclusions. The body reflects our capacity to give of the self in love. That capacity to give of oneself is by no means limited to the complete self-surrender of marriage. We’re all called to self-gift. We’re called to love—to recognize the image and likeness of God in every human person and to respond accordingly. That is the purpose of life. That is why God placed us on this earth. We’re called to make a difference by loving, by spreading the Good News of the love of Christ. That is the standard by which we will be judged on the last day.
In order to do that, we must live within a communion of persons. It is impossible to love, and, therefore, to find any real fulfillment, in isolation. The family is the prototype of the communion of persons, where each member (supposedly) loves and looks out for the others. Religious communities also constitute a communion of persons, where each person (supposedly) contributes to the welfare of the community, and each looks out for and loves the others. (Note the “supposedly.” Some families—and some religious communities—have obviously fallen significantly short of the mark.)
So what is the communion of persons for those of us who are single? Many of us live alone. The single people we meet seem younger and younger. (I attended a party recently where we played a game of charades. Upon selecting my contribution—Groucho Marx—the stumped young Gen X player could only lead his team to Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch.) We may have coworkers, but those people go home to their own families at the end of the day. Who is there to show an interest in our day-to-day lives, to share our problems and our triumphs? Most importantly, who is there for us to love and to give ourselves to?
The answer for all too many single people is “no one.” And, unfortunately, that unfulfilled need to love can manifest itself in very strange ways. First and most obvious, that loneliness will manifest itself in an accelerated sex drive. If a person is frustrating a legitimate need to give of himself, what more obvious outlet could he find than engaging in sexual activity? Intimacy like that is sure to bring love into our lives, isn’t it?
Of course it doesn’t, for reasons that would fill volumes. But the underlying truth is that most unmarried sexual activity in this world is motivated by a futile attempt to stave off the loneliness caused by the frustrated need to give and receive authentic human love.
Single people absolutely need a communion of persons. We need friends—not just acquaintances or coworkers or people who invite us over to dinner once a month. We need a community of people who show an interest in us on a day-in-and-day-out basis.
In this regard, I’ve had the good fortune to have been blessed with an extraordinary group of single Catholic friends. I am at an advantage, however, in that I work in Catholic circles and most of the people I meet in the course of my work are serious Catholics. Catholic singles who work for your average high-tech company don’t have that advantage. They need to seek out these kinds of friendships, and Catholic parishes have an obligation to do what they can to facilitate that. (Note: This kind of help is not accomplished by buying some cheese logs and cheap Chablis and sticking all of the single parishioners in a room together. Neither is it accomplished on shallow retreats where participants meditate on piles of salt or speculate endlessly on their feelings. Believe me, it happens. I’ve seen it all.)
Catholic parishes need to offer single adults good, solid support in their faith. Many, having grown up in the confusing years just after Vatican II, have significant gaps in their own faith formation. They’re spiritually hungry, looking to fill the “God-shaped hole” in their lives. When they come to parish single adult events and find pablum or worse, they leave disgusted and don’t come back. When we offer them substance, those who crave substance will stay. And they will find each other.
There is another kind of community that is vitally important to Catholic singles: the community of Catholic families. Most families underestimate the role they play in the lives of single people—and the role that single people could play in their families. I’m not talking about “invite a single person to dinner.” I’m talking about really, honestly making single friends a part of your family, creating an atmosphere where they feel truly comfortable in your home. Once again, I speak from experience. I’ve been richly blessed by the friendship of families (one in particular) who have truly opened their homes and their hearts to me. I eat dinner with them several times each week. I help with the kids when Mom is sick and Mom looks out for me when I’m sick. They know when I leave town and when I return. I act as a “nonparent parent” for the kids to talk to when Mom and Dad are unavailable or just at the end of their ropes. They have become extremely important to me.
Single people need community. We need to have people around us, and we need to love the people around us. We also need a purpose—a goal that goes beyond making money and spending it. We need to know that our presence on this earth is making a difference. We need to know that we are using the gifts God gave us in a way that gives Him glory.
Once again, I’m very fortunate. I’m doing exactly what I want to do. I have a ministry I love that gives me a reason to get up in the morning. I realize, however, that not all single people are so lucky. Many find themselves working for faceless corporations in jobs they see as insignificant. They feel useless. But they are not useless. We are all called simply to use our talents for the betterment of the world. What are those talents? If certain people have significant skills and interest in the business world, then perhaps they are called to the business world. God’s “job” for them is to be a witness to Christ in that environment. Not, of course, by attempting to start each meeting with a rosary or by grilling clients on their relationship with Jesus Christ, but simply by bringing their Christian values to the workplace. When they conduct business ethically, when they treat each and every person with the respect due to one who is made in the image and likeness of God, they are bearing witness to Christ. And they are making a difference. The same goes for doctors, landscapers, bus drivers, and even, yes, lawyers.
For years, my singlehood was the subject of endless deal-making with God. “Okay, God, I’m happy being single right now. But if I’m still single when I’m 25, I’m not gonna be so happy.” And then, “Okay, so 25 is here and I’m still happy single. But if I hit 30. . . .” And then, “Well, 30 is fine. But 35 . .”
But something different happened when I turned 35. I looked back at all of my deals with God and realized that my unhappiness was always projected into the future, from the satisfaction of a very happy, very single present. It was, at root, an issue of trust. I had concluded that perhaps God was looking out for me at the moment, but He couldn’t necessarily be trusted to continue to do so in the future.
I don’t know how much longer I will remain single, or indeed if this will be a permanent state. I do know, however, that the primary requisite for being happily married is being happily single. Too often I’ve seen unhappy single people rush into marriage thinking it will solve all of their problems. But “wherever you go, there you are,” and more often than not they find their same unhappy selves in their marriages, only now they find they’re joined to another— frequently unhappy—self. They inevitably wind up disappointed.
For my part, I remain truly happy. I’ve been blessed with a full-time ministry that fulfills me and consumes me and enlarges my small little circle of self. I’m surrounded by people I love. My singleness affords me opportunities for self-giving I would not have if I were married.
Life is good.