I recently spoke at a Catholic conference and met lots of wonderful single Catholics at the event. One particular encounter has been on my mind ever since.
A woman approached me at my book table, and after introducing herself told me quite bluntly: “Stephanie, I’m single too…just a lot older than you. And sometimes it’s really, really hard.”
The hurt in her eyes and the ache in her voice were all too familiar. I’ve encounter the same in my travels to Catholic events, in emails and letters I receive from my radio listeners and article readers, in my local Catholic singles’ group, and sometimes in the mirror.
I never know how to respond to such a confession from a fellow single person. The “I hear you, Sister Soul…I definitely understand what you are saying” doesn’t quite cut it sometimes. And yet I knew this woman needed some encouragement, something positive or comforting to take home with her that day. As I tried my best to uplift her spirits, she caught me off guard with a penetrating question:
“Stephanie I realize you probably struggle with a lot of the same emotions that I do as a single woman…but I just want to ask you, are you content?”
Am I content???
I quickly racked my brain for the honest answer. “YES…” I replied, but even as I said the word she was looking at me with a knowing gaze that told me I wasn’t the only person who noticed the hesitation in my voice. “Well,” I admitted with a sigh, “The answer is really ‘Yes….BUT.’”
I then shared with her that I truly am happy with my life. I am blessed with an amazing family, terrific friends, I love my job, I’m grateful for the opportunities I get to travel around the country and participate in so many exciting things – some of which would probably not be possible if I was married with children at this point in my life. However, even though I am happy, there is definitely a “BUT” at the end of my answer. I’m sure many of you readers will relate to the feeling, so let me explain.
The dictionary defines “content” as “satisfied or showing satisfaction with things as they are.” Most single people would probably admit to being happy, and even content with many areas of their lives, and yet in the background, on the fringe, or in the deep recesses of their hearts there is an ache, a longing for something more. Or, more specifically, for someone more in their lives.
The woman at my book table understood the “Yes…BUT” answer all too well. We talked for several minutes longer about our mutual desire for a husband and a family someday, and some of the struggles of living as a single woman. It was refreshing for both of us to admit our struggles to each other, and commiserate a little bit about shared experiences.
Ever since that encounter at the conference, I’ve been asking myself why we single folks often feel the need to act as if everything is always okay, to pretend that we are perfectly content or that we don’t struggle internally with this ache for the day when we will enter the sacrament of marriage. We probably all feel it, on one level or another, but why do we try to hide it – either from each other or from friends and family and ones we love?
While transparency and vulnerability are never easy, I suspect that many single people are walking around with smiling faces and deeply hurting hearts. Sometimes it’s important for us to let our guards down and share that – to commiserate with each other, not in a “woe is me” pity party, but to be vulnerable in a way that is honest, so that we know we are not alone in the daily struggle to live the single life with faith, hope, and perseverance.
Longing is a very real, often painful, emotion. And it’s a fact of life that sometimes the heart hurts – badly. St. John of the Cross wrote, “Yearning: It needs to hurt in order to be worthy of the word. Otherwise it is just wanting.” That quote reminds me of a conversation I had with a young woman who, while telling me about her struggles with “waiting” for the right person, said to me “Don’t tell me my pain, my suffering is not real. I realize that it’s a different kind of pain than children starving in Africa are feeling, or cancer patients on their deathbed are feeling, but don’t tell me my pain – this hurt in my heart – is not real.”
These feelings are universal to both single women and single men. A single guy recently told me, “I hope God gives me the grace I need to live a single life obediently as I should and with joy. That last part is hard sometimes though, you know? It's tough seeing all those married couples at church and you’re as single as you were the Sunday before.”
I often refer to those periods of loneliness or relationship disappointment in my life as my “Blockbuster and China Wok years.” I’ve spent way too many Friday nights at home with a movie and Chinese takeout while friends, siblings, and relatives were out with their sweetheart on date night. Is that the end of the world? Certainly not. Is it a struggle sometimes? Absolutely! And it doesn’t make you or I a bad person to admit that we are less than content with the way we spend our Friday nights.
Singleness Labor Pains
I’ve heard the struggle of the single life sometimes compared to the childbirth experience. During labor, all a woman can think about is the immediacy of the physical pain of childbirth (so I’ve been told). But afterwards, a mother is so consumed with joy at the arrival of her child that the pain is soon forgotten. On an emotional level, the same often goes for single people: the struggles of loneliness and yearning can be difficult and at times consuming. But all of the couples that I know who have waited a long time for their spouse – they look back on those years and wouldn’t trade it for anything. They see God’s hand both in their relationship, and in the period of waiting and testing that came beforehand.
Not long ago, on a visit to St. Louis, I attended one of the city’s gorgeous old churches for morning mass. A very pregnant young woman approached me after mass and whispered “Excuse me, are you Stephanie Wood?” Although we had never met in person, I had spoken several times on the phone with this woman – and every time we talked, she asked me for advice or encouragement about waiting for a great Catholic guy, and what to do about feeling so hopeless or desperate or disappointed. As she gave me a hug and introduced herself, she told me about meeting her husband right in her hometown, and shared the news that they were expecting their first baby that summer.
God still answers prayers…we just need to be faithful about waiting for His timing. In the meantime, as we strive for patience, pray for grace, and seek the joy of following Christ no matter the cost, be encouraged that it’s okay to be honest and vulnerable about how you feel about being single. If we all answer the “are you content?” question more honestly, we just may be able to do a better job of encouraging and uplifting one another.
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” – Romans 15:13