Monday, August 17, 2009

I Think We're Alone Now

It used to be that families weren't merely people to live with, but one's family actually gave meaning and opportunity to a person. The family was the built-in relationships that a person had, more established and longstanding than even the best of friendships. And for those who had difficulty making friends, for whatever reason, the family provided at least the potential that one never need be lonely.

I don't mean that "in the old days" people weren't lonely. Loneliness is part of the fallen human condition. We might be lonely even with many people around. But there is at least one particular way of life that is more common today and increases the chances of loneliness: the single adult.

I also don't mean there have never been single adults. But I would venture to suggest that in the last 100 years, and surely in the last 50 years, the number of single adults who live alone in their own households has greatly increased. And the single adult who lives alone is already at a disadvantage when it comes to loneliness; he or she doesn't have the built-in family in the household.

I know there are plenty of exceptions and caveats: family may still live nearby; single adults have roommates; single adults take advantage of and enjoy this lack of attachment. That's fine, but it's not really what I'm musing about. I'm thinking about the single adult who basically lives alone (or with a roommate who has his or her own life), and doesn't have the schedule and obligations of other family members filling the day.

Many people may think of this as a blessing, as an opportunity for the person to make the most of the lack of obligation. But at some point, sooner or later, the person will want more permanent companionship. Marriage is what many look for, but sometimes marriage doesn't avail itself right away, or ever. And, sadly, marriages sometimes end, leaving them alone again.

I have often encouraged such single adults to combat this loneliness by volunteering, by inserting themselves, so to speak, into the lives of other families, helping them in the busy-ness and craziness of their schedules, babysitting, doing chores, running errands, whatever. But this does, in a way, seem to leave the family as the focus, and the individual as someone who has to fit him- or herself into the established family. Some singles have responded to me that families should be just as intentional in interacting with and interesting themselves in the activities and interests of the singles. Yet anyone who has spent time with a busy family knows that this also is a difficult request.

So, what do we do to combat this kind of loneliness? Are established families being selfish? How do they balance their God-given responsibilities of raising their children and caring for others in their households with the call to interact with others outside of their households? Especially, what should the church, as the new household of God, do?


Christopher Gillespie said...

My family has been gone for a few days. I have been musing on this subject. I have been generally unsatisfied. Meals are not very interesting and there are too many leftovers. Working only passes the time. Reading a nice novel is not a luxury but can be done all day. Plus the only visual/aural stimulation I get is either from music or TV.

The biggest problem is personal interaction. I had a twenty minute conversation with the guy at Lowe's about nothing. I suppose I could start talking to the dog and cat.

During this temporary bachelor status, I am utterly sympathetic to single folks. I don't enjoy it. Its not a gratifying experience. In their absence I recognize how important to satisfying my yearnings.

I can't help but think of the seminary where the single guys often are isolated to their dorms, while the married guys go home. Integration happens with the various infrequent social events. I wonder how this contributes to their formation? I suppose it is fraternal and not familial.

Just a few thoughts.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Our conversations about celibacy in recent years have given me some helpful new perspectives, which I appreciate, and it seems that some of those considerations come into play here, too.

I realize that "celibacy" would typically be used in the case of someone who has intentionally chosen to remain single; which is certainly not the case for everyone. However, if we think of celibacy in terms of vocation and as a gift of God, that changes the perspective on what it means to be a single person.

I used to suppose that "celibacy" meant a person simply had no real interest in the opposite sex, or somehow lacked the usual desire for companionship and the intimacy of marriage, etc. But I believe that is entirely the wrong way to look at it. Each vocation carries its own crosses and burdens, for which the Lord graciously provides the strength and means to live in faith and love.

What I am trying to say -- though it is difficult to express with the brevity and clarity I would prefer -- is that a single person, at least for the time being, finds himself (or herself) within a vocation or station in life that is both given and supported by God: under the cross, in the midst of suffering, sadness and other struggles, but also His blessing. He enables the person to remain chaste, on the one hand, but also provides the opportunity to serve the Church and other neighbors in the world in ways that a married individual, especially one with a family, would not be able to do.

So, similar to your good advice that a single person look for ways to serve and interact with families, I would suggest, more generally, that a single person is called by God to use his time and energy for faithful service to the Church and the world. And with that vocation comes also the spiritual gift and grace of God to carry it out in a life that is lived eschatalogically.

As marriage gives us a picture of Christ and His Bride, the Church; and as our human families point beyond themselves, and move beyond themselves, to the household and family of God; so do single Christians look beyond themselves and their temporal circumstances to the heavenly Bridegroom, to the great cloud of fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters with which we are surrounded -- and with whom we are all bound in the body and blood of Christ. There is this sense in which the single person is called to live the heavenly life already here on earth, that is to say, within the communion of the Church as the company of the blessed; in much the same way that a husband is called to live as Christ to his bride, and a wife is called to live as the Church to her groom. Which is not to say, in any of these cases, that it is easy! But it is to suggest that there is a unifying purpose at work, which finds its consummation in the Body of Christ, our Head.

Moria said...

(I'm trying to draw the discussion over from facebook, since our comments aren't limited here, so my response is to some comments originally posted there):

Ken, what you say about problems within a family is certainly true, and I don't in any way want to suggest otherwise. My only point in making that contrast is to say that within a family structure, there is at least the potential for companionship. Clearly and tragically, that potential is sometimes abused.

The prescription to charity and the opportunity to serve others is, as I noted, how I have usually counseled singles. But that often makes them feel like they need to order their lives around the families of others. That may even enhance the feelings of loneliness.

The other difficulty is that families often simply are not hospitable. When a single person does offer to serve, or simply to come over and socialize, often the family is so wrapped up in their own affairs and worried about the cleanliness of the house or the behavior of their kids, that they refuse to invite the single person in. There needs to be some consideration of the call to hospitality on the part of the family.

Ken, your point about not separating the household and the church is the paradigm under which to think about this. The church is the new household. The single person isn't really single, but has been brought into the family of Christ.

So, back to my question: practically, how do we exercise that? What does it actually look like? Specifically, how do we encourage single people to charity and service, and families in hospitality and expanding their own concept of the household?

organistsandra said...

Expanding our concept of the household - oh, this is such a good question. I don't know the answer, but it must have to do with encouraging generosity. We should simply be generous with our stuff or our opinions or our dinner table or our time.
Being generous brings joy to oneself and encourages others to generosity. You receive far more than you give. When you relate to people generously, it has the effect of freeing you for more generosity.

And of course this is all because of Jesus and the generous love He constantly shows us.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

This is actually a theme that came up more and more in light of the Industrial revolution, where it became commonplace for people to move to another locale in search of work. There were actually some really neat studies on this in Japanese Society in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century - the idea of being alone in the crowd really came forward.

And as one who was single until just over 2 years ago, the simple fact of having another person around is fantastic. It is not good for man to be alone.