catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 11 :: 2009.05.22 — 2009.06.05


Gift enough

In the fall of 2008, I made a daring move for a twenty-something: I boxed my books and drove my belongings to an apartment in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a place where most young people do not choose to settle.

Most twenty-somethings, if they aren’t getting married, aren’t looking for places to settle; they are looking for cheap rent and good jobs, the possibilities of adventure and exploration that big cities offer, big cities like Chicago, in whose shadow I spent my whole life, my childhood and early adulthood lived in its south suburbs. Why didn’t I follow the path of my peers and move into the city itself, into some funky studio apartment perched above the intersection of Milwaukee and Damen in Wicker Park? Why did I move to a city without the promise of a job, and why did I choose Grand Rapids, a place that made one of my co-workers, a Michigan native who relocated to Chicago, grimace: “Why the hell are you going there?”

It was a question I had to answer for many people, myself included. And its answer was not immediate to me at the time of my move, but has become a complex and dynamic answer, one that has shaken my expectations of what it means to be single and female and Christian, along with my expectations for what my life would look like and what I would want from it.

I did not grow up in the church; I became a Christian when I was sixteen, and was the first in my family to do so. I went to a large evangelical church where dating was seen as a secular enterprise, something that, if I wished to be a witness to the power of the Gospel, I would refrain from doing. Which I did. I saw my singleness as a chance to grow into a fuller spirituality, a deeper walk with Jesus, a way to empty myself of pride and desire and to be a purer channel of the Holy Spirit in the lives of others. My impulses were, unbeknownst to me, akin to the vows of celibacy known in monastic life, but without one very vital component: I had no sense of community or place, no way to offer myself to people. In some ways, this was my church’s fault; there was a sense of individualism that ran through my church, one that focused on the dramatic nature of a person’s conversion and her outward expressions of passion and piety.  Keeping your eyes closed during a whole praise and worship service was, in effect, a way of showing how close you were to God.

But I think that my own insecurities were what made my views of singleness and dating as wretched and miserable as they were when I was in high school; coming from divorced parents and a dysfunctional home, I believed in my gut that what would show God’s care and favor towards me was a good man, a happy marriage and loving children. Because I had experienced brokenness in my own home, I assumed that God would heal me by making me a wife. It sounds ridiculous to write this, but I believed and longed for it with all my heart. And when the prospects of becoming a wife were not apparent to me by the time I moved away to college, I assumed that college was the place for me to find a husband — that this would be the time in my life where God would prepare me for the man I was supposed to be with, the man who would show me how God would make everything in my life right and good again.

What this was, essentially, was a gospel of prosperity. I believed that God owed me for this, for the abuse and addiction that I watched my family suffer from, for the righteousness I showed by going to church instead of partying or sexing it up on the weekends. But what was at the heart of it, I think, was an overwhelming and terrifying belief that being alone was a punishment, a way for God to teach me some lesson that I somehow could not learn by being with someone, a lesson meant to make me more pure, more usable, more deserving. I thought that if I suffered from loneliness enough that God would, hopefully, have pity on me.

And I continued to suffer from loneliness through college, seeing the crushes I had on boys as proofs that I, like my mother, was attracted to “wrong” men, that my attractions were in and of themselves wrong, indicative of my inability to choose good people to like, or even love. I wept to my friends on a weekly basis. “I feel so stupid for liking so-and-so,” I would say, as if being attracted to someone was something that made you stupid, something that proved what I took to be God’s point: I did not have luck with dating because I was not supposed to date, because I was not ready to date, and because the desire to date was something that had the potential to mess me up. 

These ideas spiraled me into varying states of righteousness and despair.  My friends can’t tell you how many times I’ve claimed to be “called” to certain things, to teaching and scholarship and, yes, writing. Writing, above all the things that I have sought to do, lends itself most to the idea of being alone, the image of the solitary writer working into the dark hours of the night, so bent over her work that the rest of the world dims indistinguishably around her. The idea of being a writer fed these insecurities and assumptions of mine, helping me to continue believing that singleness was all about finding fulfillment in your life work, that it was a necessary combination of curse and blessing. Becoming a writer brought out my inner Romantic, in the Byronic sense of the word, and also my inner demons, the ones who whispered about my stupidity, my inability and my false hopes. “Maybe if I keep writing long enough,” I thought when I began work on my MFA, “I’ll finish whatever work I have to do and maybe finally settle down.”

Moving to Grand Rapids was an attempt to silence those demons. My undergraduate experience, while it didn’t land me a husband, did give me the experience of place and community, and above all, a renewed sense of family; the friends I made at college became the family I had ached to have, and their care and continued presence in my life was unexpected and surprising. People talk about their college friends as chums, people they partied with and got hung over with, people with whom they spent spring breaks on beaches playing beer pong. My college friends took me to baseball games and came to my school presentations; they let me stay at their houses in the summer so that I could have some time away from my family and its harmful patterns of living. They paid for my food. They played practical jokes. They were my family in a way that my family of origin had never been, faithful and committed and loving in ways I could not expect, ways that demonstrated a kind of grace, instant and encompassing. It caught me completely off-guard. This was the way of love: I was cared for, and I belonged, and I didn’t have to prove a thing to anybody.

So what else was I to do when one of my best friends got a full-ride scholarship to Calvin Seminary, and my other best friend accepted a nursing job in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids? Of course I packed my boxes. And, of course, it has proven to be a complex transition, fraught with various joys and tensions, like any other kind of life, like any other attempt to settle down.

I think that Christians tend to look at singlehood in two different ways: as a preparation for married life, or as a time of searching and exploration, a time to find work and purpose that corresponds to your sense of calling and vocation. It seems that, in my experience, both views of singlehood ignored an obvious aspect of my life and fed those demonic insecurities; when is it ever right to assume that a spouse or a career is the complete answer to loneliness or dissatisfaction? We spend so much time trying to make our lives come to neat, linear points, assuming that our desires and God’s plans are perfectly aligned, or that our loneliness is something that God uses, so we have to be thankful for loneliness in order to hope for something better. We assume, I think, that our singleness means that we haven’t got it figured out quite yet, that we still have a ways to go before God will reward us with the intimacy and companionship that we desire.

And the answer to this is that God does not work through a system of rewards; we do not pay our dues and then get what we want. God does not barter with us, and he is not cruel with us — he does not dangle the fullness of life before us with no hopes of having it. Instead, God works to transform our desires, is quietly faithful to our needs and hopes, continually shaping us in his likeness, not out of a demand for perfection, but out of love and hope for us, his creation, his children. The story of redemption, of Christ’s coming and his return, is something that recalls and remakes our intent towards each other, not as lovers to be won, but as family to come back to, prodigals and sniveling older brothers that we are. If we see singleness as a time of preparation, then we must see it as the preparation that takes up the whole span of our life, married or unmarried; it is the preparation for the coming of the kingdom, where we will know each other as brothers and sisters in the fullest sense, in the bonds of our adoption, our belonging to each other, our reclaimed family of origin: the family of the people of God.

How else would I come to this if it weren’t for the saga of my friendships, for the people who asked me to move to a new city, the only security being a small apartment and a simple life? I still want marriage and children. But I no longer see these things as proofs that I finally have gotten it together, or that God has finally deemed me worthy of the intimacy that I desire. Discipleship, as I am coming to practice it, deepens and cultivates our sense of desire, our longing for rightness and shalom, which we must do as married or unmarried people.

For me, being single is no longer some marked period of my life whose end I anticipate with a bitter, unspoken kind of hope. That was no hope at all. Now I look to live in the present. I keep a garden on my balcony and make bread on Sundays. I spend more time listening to my friends, and when I write, I do it out of the desire to actually write. I am settling myself down. For isn’t this what any kind of life requires, that we take root and submit ourselves to others, wondering with amazement at what we are actually given, what it is that grace imparts to us? I could have stayed in Chicago. It would have given me a different kind of life. The one I now have is gift enough.

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