Sunday, October 8, 2017

2 Books about Singlehood: Eckel and Coles

It's Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You're Single by Sara Eckel and Single Gay Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity by Gregory Coles both address singleness.

Eckel's book is mostly aimed at heterosexual women hoping to get married. Coles' book is aimed partly at straights who want to understand Christian gays and partly at gays who wish to remain within the fold of conservative Christianity. I am not going to address the political or religious significance of either book. I'm going to focus instead on three insightful points that both writers make about singleness.

1. Being single does not equate to a flaw that if tweaked would entirely fix that person's life: "If you would just/only/simply..."

Granted, Coles's reason for singleness is a tad more fundamental than "if you would just lose 5 pounds." He addresses his gayness quite frankly as something he didn't want (again, I'm not going to discuss whether this is a "right" opinion or not; Coles is more than capable of taking on questioners himself). When he hit adolescence, he realized, rather to his astonishment and consternation, that he was gay. He makes clear that he did not grow up in a troubled household; he has an excellent relationship with his parents. And considering he was living overseas at the time, he was not influenced by supposedly degenerate American culture.

He struggled with being gay for years, conscientiously and religiously. Implying or stating outright that he didn't try hard enough, pray long enough, love God thoroughly enough is the kind of thing that would send a less self-analytical, far less objective man out of his church.

Coles also repudiates the coy "same-sex attraction" verbiage, relying instead on the more communicative vernacular "gay." As Mythbusters discovered, trying to alter one's biological self through self-hypnosis or wishful thinking is problematic in the extreme. It also, as Coles points out, distracts a person from dealing directly with issues and finding a way to create a life for oneself.

Eckel likewise repudiates the "If you would just/only/simply . . ." perspective. Her funny and commensical chapters each begin with a piece of advice symptomatic of this mindset: "You have low self-esteem;" "You are too intimidating;" "You're too picky;" "You should have married that guy;" "You suck." The implication: If you would only stop having low-self-esteem, being too intimidating, being too picky, refusing the offers of 'good guys'--if you would improve yourself . . . THEN you would find Mr. Right and get married.

Eckel points out the flaws in each piece of advice using current research into human decision-making, how the brain works, and how people communicate. She bolsters her analysis with  true-life stories of women who were similarly advised to change their ways and didn't. And ended up happily married anyway.

I appreciate the dismissal of the "if only" idea, which I consider one of the stupidest psychological reactions ever invented by the human brain under stress. The truth is--even with massive amounts of cash, one cannot undo certain realities. More importantly, the idea that life's outcomes come down to a single issue or trait is like dumber science-fiction: there are far too many variables to justify such an argument.

Based on commonsense, Eckel and Coles have every reason to point out that married people are not in fact perfect before they get married yet . . .

2. Marriage is not an "unfair" event that single people should jealously despise.

Both Eckel and Coles see man-woman marriage as a positive. Coles has adopted celibacy for the sake of his personal theology. He admits wryly that there are people in the same pew with him who would willingly find him a boyfriend--alongside people who would send him to "ex-gay" boot camp. And he reflects quite wisely on the difference between a gay friend who remains faithful to a spouse and a heterosexual friend who plays around: who is being truly Christian?

His overall point, however, is that his chosen position is not anti-heterosexual marriage--and does not entail getting angry about other types of marriage (Coles takes quite seriously the reaching-out-to-all-people part of the New Testament). Eckel is the same. The answer is not to get bitter. Or for that matter, to remove oneself to a tribe of only one's type.

I appreciate this since I have always enjoyed being in churches/social milieus that are a microcosm of humanity's stages: babies, children, young married people, young single people, older married people, older single people, elderly people--married, divorced,  widowed, and never married.

At various points of my life, I have been shuffled off into "singles" churches/organizations, which I hated. There was a falseness about the experience, a feeling of being forcibly separated from reality (in order to be "fixed").

3. Singleness is a part of life, not a wading pool hiatus. 

It is not unusual for many married people and some single people to treat being single as "treading water until my real life starts."

Here's Reality 101: There are 24-hours in the day for everyone. And everyone chooses to fill those 24-hours in one's own way. And the time gets filled--not matter who that someone is or what that someone does.

Married people can sit around and snooze on the couch. So can single people. Or go to the movies. Or go shopping. Or work. Or take care of kids. Or visit friends. Or balance a checkbook. Or volunteer for the Red Cross. Or cook. Or clean. Or mow the grass. Or study. Or write. Or exercise. Or go on dates. Or visit people in the hospital. Or feed the cats. Or delete spam. Or do laundry. Or invent time travel.

From the view of linear time, there is nothing on this list that will not take time, fill time, or exclude the ability to do other things with that time. Time management experts may tell you that the big priorities come first. Children will tell you that the time between holidays is SOOOO SLOOOOW. While older people, like me, will tell you how quicklytimeflies. But the hours get used up no matter who you are.

Eckel and Coles allow that sure, yeah, singleness affords a person freedoms that married people don't have (remember, married people: you asked for it). Where both writers do justice to this issue is when they comment on loneliness not as some kind of disease that makes singleness a wasteland of pointlessness but as a condition of the experience. It doesn't invalidate the experience and can even, to an extent, enrich it. As Nietzsche stated, "The irrationality of a thing is not an argument against its existence, rather a condition of it."

What Eckel and Coles do not point out--because they are too nice--is that loneliness is not inherent to singleness. Its cause is seemingly obvious with singleness but it is not a condition owned by single people. Married people can get lonely. Married people with children can get lonely. Married people who have recently moved from their old neighborhoods and have to make new friends can get lonely. Married people can get lonely despite the person next to them in bed.

The loneliness may not be the same, which I think would be an interesting discussion/analysis if people could get past the idea that all experiences have to be graded on some kind of "I'm better or worse off than you" scale. We seem to think that unless there's a thumbs-up or smiley-face, we don't really exist.

But we do.