Monday, January 4, 2016

Second-Guessing Singlehood

I used to write monthly columns about singlehood for a popular Christian webzine.

My perspective came from the Apostle Paul's endorsement of singlehood as a viable - and even advantageous - lifestyle.  Some scholars speculate the Apostle Paul had either never been married, or was a widower.  Hey, even Jesus Christ is single, after all.  Sure, being single may not be for everybody, and it's certainly no way to propagate the human species, but it's not the anathema many within evangelicalism consider it to be.

For me, that was then.  However, this is now.  And now, I believe I have experienced a change in how I personally view singleness.

Sure, in terms of pure practicality, the Apostle Paul remains correct in his assertion that unmarried folks have fewer encumbrances than married folks when it comes to devoting one's self utterly to Christian service.  Singlehood is generally cheaper, decisions can be made more unilaterally, and risk becomes far more tolerable.  Indeed, dragging a spouse and some kids off to Outer Mongolia - or Chicago's South Side - requires strategies of deeper and broader complexity than if one goes there alone.

Yet for the rest of God's people, who are tasked with lifestyles dominated by things other than professional Christendom, is singlehood the viable option many of us Christ-followers have come to believe it is?

Or has my disillusionment with singlehood evolved from my own frustrations with it, particularly as the big 5-0 looms large in my not-too-distant future?

Statistically, singlehood is looking more and more like an established trend.  The numbers of young people getting married are dropping, while the numbers of kids being raised by only one parent are rising.  Rates of divorce by people claiming some church affiliation nearly mirror the rates of divorce among what we call the "unchurched."

Some people wonder if online porn is distracting today's young men from seriously pursuing marriage.  Others suspect that it's a mix of online porn's unrealistic presentation of sex combined with new depths of immaturity fostered by teen-centric digital games.

Of course, it's not just today's men who could be at fault when it comes to marriage's unpopularity.  Having been bombarded with nearly a half-century of conflicting messages of liberation and licentiousness, modern young women have become more of a quandary than ever before to males considering marriage.  Women now outnumber men as students on many college campuses, indicating a societal dissatisfaction with traditional maternal roles, even as the cost of quality daycare for the children of couples who both work outside the home can be prohibitive.  Throw in easy access to methods that prevent or abort pregnancies, and the need for a marriage certificate becomes less and less obvious.

Not that there haven't been other impediments to happily-ever-after marriages in times past.  It's just that historically, social mores and job opportunities for both women and men rested more on whether one was married.  And of course, those variables generally were punitive for women when it came to jobs outside of the home, and beneficial when it came to men trying to promote their personal integrity as a solid, responsible "family man."

Ironically, these days, being a "family man" can have an oddly quaint tinge to it, and women who aren't looking for a job outside of their home can be viewed as unsophisticated.

From all of these dynamics re-shaping the Western family, it's still difficult to assess whether modern singlehood is really what people want, or if the new statistics away from traditional families have less to do with the popularity of the concept, and more broadly to do with our society's changing ideals.

Consider, for example, the way nuclear families have replaced the ancient notion of extended families.  Particularly in the United States, parents and children have long been the conventional family unit, whereas extended families remain the family unit in far less developed countries.  Economics, and the drive for more wealth, has a way of fracturing the extended family, and we've come to expect that nuclear families should be as autonomous as extended families.

That's why our children go to colleges across the state - and across the country.  That's why people move multiple times to places with better job opportunities - or, at least, job opportunities that pay more money.  Extrapolate all of this mobility across scores of families across the country, and it doesn't take long before the extended family becomes virtually extinct - and singlehood becomes a more functional life stage as people wait for and wander to something better than what is available back home.

Hey - it's not that waiting for a desirable spouse is a bad thing.  Nor is trying to find a good job a bad thing, either.  And extended families are notorious for forcing their young people into marriages those young people probably wouldn't have chosen for themselves.  But isn't it interesting that what nuclear families we see in the Bible are usually at more of a financial disadvantage than the extended families?  Those widows "adopted" by the Old Testament prophets, for example?  There was nobody left to care for them.

Meanwhile, even Christ was born into a large, extended family, and one of His brothers eventually became an apostle of His.  Only the prosperity Gospel folks say Christ's family was financially wealthy, but Christ's request of an apostle to care for his widowed mother indicates that most of Christ's extended family abandoned Him during His extraordinary ministry.  How painful must that have been for Him and his mom?

Christ remained single not because He couldn't find anybody to marry, but because marriage wasn't God's destiny for Him.  Besides, Jesus was probably 33 years old when His earthly ministry concluded, and how would that have looked; for a young guy, Who knew His time on our planet would be limited, to marry anyway?  Marriage just wasn't part of His eternal purpose.

And maybe it's not part of my purpose.  Or yours, if you're single.  But guess what?  If you are married right now, marriage is part of your purpose, whether you want it to be or not!  Divorce may be acceptable in the church you attend, but it shouldn't be convenient.  Commitment should still mean something, even if everybody else around us considers commitment dispensable.

Perhaps one reason why divorce is as widespread as it is these days has more to do with the popularity of nuclear families than extended ones.  In nuclear families, which are little pods of people, it may appear easier to get out of one challenging pod and hopefully find a more enjoyable pod; whereas in extended families, there are far more people to consider when it comes to ending a marriage covenant.  Extended families aren't nuclear pods of people, but broader communities and networks of various personalities, ages, needs, abilities, and resources.  Maybe I'm wrong, but from the few extended families I know who tend to generally live in or near the same municipality, there seems to be more intra-family accountability, affection, and even patience through individual problems than there are in more cloistered nuclear families.

After all, when grandparents live close by, don't parents seem to have an easier time with child-rearing?  Don't children seem to grow up better-able to relate with people outside of their age group?  Don't their grandparents seem to be more content with their own purpose in their later years?

When disaster strikes, from a death in the family to a natural disaster like a fire or flood, don't extended families seem to bounce back better than nuclear families?

I heard a pastor once preach from the pulpit about the virtues of nuclear families compared with the presumably stifling nature of extended ones.  He encouraged teens in our church to consider living far away from their parents and grandparents when they graduated college.  I was dumbfounded - as if the experiences that help cultivate independence and tenacity can best be found through neglecting an extended family!

Part of this celebration of independence and self-sufficiency stems from our country's founding and development as a frontier.  North America was the frontier for all of its settlers - from the Native Americans who crossed over the Bering Strait from Asia, to the whites who sailed west from Europe, and even the Africans who were shipped here against their will.  Most newcomers to our shores came as singles, or as nuclear families.  And the New World zeal to explore and expand pushed singles and nuclear families ever westward, from the first colonies in New England and the southern coast, into the midwest, and on to California.  Being able to survive and thrive was easier the fewer dependents a person had.  And that mindset seems to remain alive and thriving today.

But is it a good mindset to have?  At least for people not intending to be professional cross-cultural missionaries?

Singlehood has become the smallest representation of the family unit - from extended families, to the nuclear family, to the single-parent family, to the single adult.  Like everything else in Western society, it's the lowest-common-denominator at work, isn't it?

Not that anybody should get married just for the sake of being married.  But singlehood isn't all some of us crack it up to be, is it?  After all, there's a reason the website for which I wrote has a singles channel - not just to market its content to a growing segment of society, but to provide useful reference material for making the journey just a little less difficult.  Just as marriage isn't easy, or always fun, or stress-free.  Indeed, I'd rather be a melancholy single person than a miserable married one.

Just let's not work too hard at finding the good things to being single these days.  I guess that's what I'm trying to say.  As a marital status, it may fit what God wants to do in us unmarried folks for this season of our lives, but the longer I remain single, the less willing I am to consider singlehood a viable alternative to marriage.

A lot of it comes down to contentment, doesn't it?  Being content to wait, being content with what God has provided, being content with His sovereignty over every aspect of my life.

Maybe America wouldn't have been developed as extensively as it's been if everybody had been content with God's sovereignty.  I'm sure plenty of extended families are woefully discontent with how God has provided for their family members.  I know married folks who are quite discontent with where they are in life, and especially with who they married!

My dear Dad, at his Alzheimer facility,
four months before his death.
Nevertheless, enough with the macro-perspective.  After watching my Dad suffer through eight years of dementia, I have been struck by the importance an extended family represents when disease and heartache strikes a loved one.  This importance extends beyond the availability of financial resources, or logistical considerations such as caring for a loved one with a terminal illness at home.  Since we have a very small family, I can only imagine how helpful and comforting it would be having a broad coalition of family members both emotionally AND physically close.  For when I need them, and when they need me.

Sharing burdens is something we independent-minded Americans don't like talking about.  Moving away from family for our job is normal for us.  Single-parent families living in isolation from their extended family is normal for us.  Single adults climbing the corporate ladder solo, from city to city, is normal for us.  But should it be?

We give lip service to the notion that churches should now be our extended family.  Some companies like to say their employees are one big family.  Every now and then, we'll hear about a local bar someplace raising money for a sick patron in a sign of familial compassion.  But aren't all of these merely substitutes for the extended family?

God's Word never expressly advocates for extended families as the only, or best, or even preferred format for family life.  By contrast, however, the Bible does teach that community - particularly in a family setting - is more helpful to us than independence.

Sure, singleness may be a trend that's gaining steam, but that doesn't mean it's a good trend.  If you'll pardon the puns, singles may not nuke the family unit, but singles won't extend it, either.

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