As someone who [mostly] identifies as an extroverted people-person, I’ve been extremely surprised to find how much I’m enjoying the self-isolation life. I might even go so far as to say I feel like I am flourishing more right now than I have in years.
This has been a bizarre experience to make sense of, especially as I see people all around me struggling with loneliness, anxiety or despair. I’ve felt guilty for thriving, and I’ve tried to keep it quiet except from those I’m really close to, because there’s something really messed up about flaunting joy when most people’s experience of a pandemic is quite traumatising.
At the same time, there have been some things I’ve found unexpectedly difficult about all the alone time. Things I hadn’t anticipated. I’ve been trying to make sense of why I’m reacting the way I am.
Meanwhile, I’ve been observing the people around me and their different responses to this strange new way of life, and I’ve been struck over and over again by the radically different experiences of different parts of the population. I’ve seen everything from vibrant personal flourishing to flat-out despair. At risk of over-generalising different demographics, it’s easy to see how, for example, the introverted artists/gamers are enjoying the self-isolation more than extroverted parents of young children.
I was chatting to a friend recently about how he’s coping with the isolation, and he made a comment which was like a sudden jolt of insight for me. He observed that he’d been living alone for years already and was accustomed to lots of time to himself, so not much about his home-life had changed dramatically this year. This left him feeling quite resilient and able to adapt to the demands of this new lifestyle.
That got me thinking – what if long-term single people are actually equipped in unique ways to cope with self-isolation?
- What if we’re the ones that have already spent years learning to be at peace with our own company instead of needing to be stimulated by other people or constant activities?
- What if we’re the ones that have already cultivated extensive support networks with a greater number of people to share the load?
- What if we’ve already developed patterns of staying connected virtually with people we don’t live with?
- What if the loss of relational security and proximity to those we love is something we’ve already grieved over the years, so while we find ourselves still grieving self-isolation, we do it with the greater resilience we’ve developed over time?
Of course, there will be lots of other things that are much more painful for single people during this time, and I know many of my single friends are having an absolutely rubbish time right now. I grieve with you, and I don’t want this to feel like forced positivity that invalidates your experiences. Singleness has made social distancing uniquely difficult for me too, and I’ll share how in another post tomorrow.
But I do think that there are some valuable things we single people have to share with the rest of our community during this time. I’ve said for a while that one of the things that needs to change in Christian culture to be consistent with our theology is that we need to have a much higher regard for singleness and start celebrating stories of single people more publicly. Hopefully this is an opportunity to learn from our single friends and celebrate the resilience they’ve developed for such a time as this.
Notice as well how frequently I use the word “resilience.” None of what I’m about to say is claiming that life is easier for single people in a pandemic. But maybe some of the things that everyone is finding difficult about social distancing are the same things that single people have been dealing with for years. So while these things continue to be a painful battle for us, it’s a battle we’ve been fighting for years and developing resilience from. Hopefully sharing some of our experiences can offer other people a shortcut to developing their own resilience.
It prepared me for healthy solitude.
I can only speak to my own experience, but for most of my adult life as a single guy, I’ve had a fairly autonomous life. Well-connected, but autonomous. Most of those years have been spent in close community with people I love deeply, but all while remaining quite emotionally independent (with maybe a few significant exceptions). Even as I’ve drawn on the support of other people’s company, I’ve had to develop a self-contained stability, knowing that the people around me would come and go. The richest, deepest community I ever lived in was an amazing sharehouse with some of my closest friends. It was one of the best years of my life, but by the end of the year, my three housemates had all moved overseas. By the time one of them came back from exchange, I was moving to Brisbane the same week and everything about my social life was changing drastically.
Not much has remained stable in my life, with this year being the first time in my entire adult life that I’ve lived in the same house with the same people for two consecutive years. Over that time, with constant upheaval and changing social networks, I’ve had to learn to make peace with my own company. Now you all know I’m a massive people person, but despite my nature I’ve learned to enjoy time in solitude – time to slow down and reflect, to actually listen to my own thoughts and allow myself to feel the emotions I would normally push back to my subconscious. Being alone used to scare me. If you fill your life with sound, what happens when the music stops? What do you do with the silence? A quiet night at home can be a nightmare when you’re not comfortable with solitude.
Fast forward to my eighth year of living independently… these days I crave weekends when my housemates are out of town and I get the place to myself. Being alone means I can have quality time with myself and quality time with God. I don’t need to verbally process to another person to make sense of my own emotions anymore (though I do enjoy it and I love you for listening – you know who you are). Being alone and being lonely aren’t the same thing, as anyone who’s ever been surrounded by people and still lonely can tell you. There is a deep joy in becoming comfortable in your own company. It’s good for you, and it’s paradoxically good for the people you care about, as healthy alone time in solitude enriches healthy connection in relationships. As the famous line by Bonhoeffer goes, “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 77). I am at my best when I am more fully dependent on God and more attuned to my own emotional well-being so I can cultivate healthy relationships of intentionally connecting to people and being attuned to their needs and emotions.
Plus – it just feels really good. Imagine not feeling like you need anybody to ‘complete’ you, but being perfectly at ease in your own company. I love the words of this nun who has some insights to share after “social distancing for 29 years:”
“People say they want peace and quiet. Then when it is thrown in their lap, they panic. They don’t know how to be alone. They are afraid to confront their “shadow side,” the hard truths about themselves that they don’t like. They fill their lives with noise to run away from their emotions. Life isn’t meant to be rushed. Use this time to get to know yourself.”Sister Mary Catherine Perry
I’m no nun, but I do believe that being single has taught me to enjoy solitude so much that this extrovert now gets excited about a quiet time at home.
[Side note: to parents of young kids reading this, I’m sorry. Having so much time alone is such a privilege for some of us, and I wish you had more if it too. Normally we’re envious of your families and loving relationships, but for once, not having dependents during self-isolation seems pretty great. Just let us have this one, okay?]
It prepared me for staying connected from home.
As a single guy who’s moved around a lot, I’ve had to get really creative at finding ways to stay connected to the people I love. I see a lot of couples/families move cities and basically start over with a new social network in their new city, but for me, breaking all ties with all my old community has never been an option. From the day I moved out of home at 17, I knew I was on my own unless I could foster deep friendships of loyalty and reliability. Those characteristics don’t come particularly easily to teenage boys, but if I wanted to feel connected to people, I had no choice. My parents lived in a small country town I knew I would never move back to, and I had no partner or family of my own to function as my ‘in-built support network.’
Knowing that as an aspiring musician I would have to move interstate within a few years didn’t help either, so I was forced to think about cultivating enduring friendships and learning ways to stay connected through change.
Since then, I’ve moved interstate three times in four years. A lot has changed. In 2016 I moved to Brisbane with no friends or family in the whole state of Queensland, and I moved knowing that I would only be there for two semesters before moving somewhere else to pursue music. Somehow through all that disruption I had to find a way to stay connected to the people I loved. At the back of my mind was always an unsettling sense of urgency that if I didn’t manage to maintain these important friendships, I would be left alone with no one committed to being a part of my life. That’s one of the scary things about being single; even if you’re surrounded by people who know and love you, there’s always that niggling fear that when things change, you don’t have that one special person who’s committed to staying by your side through it all. That fear was crippling when I first considered the move to Brisbane, but as I trusted God more, I came to appreciate that sense of urgency as a positive motivation to become the most loyal friend I could be. It prompted a deep value for enduring and committed friendship that is countercultural in our world and especially for my demographic. In short, I think being single made me a more loyal friend.
Of course, it’s one thing to have good intentions of staying in touch, but a different matter to see how life actually plays out when change hits you. I’ve had my fair share of struggles with staying connected, and I’ve farewelled numerous dear friendships that have slowly grown apart, either on their account or mine, or both. Sometimes it’s not possible or even healthy to expect relationships to stay the same after life takes a different turn.
But for the most part, I’ve been blessed with a very strong and supportive core of friendships that have now withstood numerous interstate moves, career changes, and life stages. I have friends that call me for long phone calls every week who are a more consistent part of my life than even the housemates I live with. I have family group chats where I can spontaneously connect at a moment’s notice, like last night when my sister video-called at 11pm for no reason and I got to listen to her talk about her day while I brushed my teeth. I have the community of a Facebook group of other celibate gay Christians who offer each other support and prayer from all over the world. I’ve had the support of a mentor who continued scheduling regular catch-ups with me when I moved away to help me transition into a new city, but then continued catching up with me regularly for two years until I happened to move back to Brisbane. I’ve had to do long-distance friendships for years to stay connected to the people I love, so now in self-isolation, calling people from home is a much smaller adjustment for me. In fact, many of my core friendships haven’t changed at all this year, except that now we have more time for longer calls.
The thing is, though, it took a long time for my friendships to get to the point where this felt ‘normal.’ When I first started long-distance friendships, there were months of being disappointed at how distant my friends felt. Not just physically distant, but emotionally distant, like we just didn’t know our place in each other’s lives anymore. I lost trust when people I relied on just weren’t there for me in the way I had hoped they would be. I let my friends down when I felt so fatigued by all the change and just didn’t have it in me to reach out anymore after hours of other calls. It took time to rebuild trust, restore equilibrium, and find new ways of staying connected in new ways. I think that’s what everyone else is going through right now as we’re in lockdown mode. It’s a sucky feeling, and I’ve been there. But I’ve lived through this feeling enough times to know that the friendships that come out of this weird season will be more enduring and adaptable than ever.
I’m not suggesting that virtual communication is a substitute for real, face-to-face friendship. I grieve the loss of hugs, meals together, and sharing everyday life together like doing a Costco run or laughing at trashy TV together. I grieve the loss of these real, embodied experiences. But I grieve them as someone who has grieved them every year, then resolved to find creative ways to stay connected to the people I love. When I phone my best friend or video call my family, I don’t do it thinking it’s enough to sustain our friendship. I do it to show them that I still love them and that I want to stay meaningfully connected until the next time I can visit them face-to-face and give them a real hug.
It prepared me with a broader support network.
I mentioned above that as a single guy I’ve never had the privilege of a significant other who is committed to staying by my side no matter what. There have been times when I’ve longed for this: to have an in-built support network of at least one person I can always rely on. But paradoxically, the lack of certainty in one person to support me has resulted in a support network of many people who support me (and I them). We all know that annoying young person who falls head over heels for someone and before you know it, they’ve become that couple who don’t really have space for anyone else in their life but each other. It’s easy to criticise from the outside, but I see subtle versions of this in so many couples and families: people who think that the only support they need is from their spouse, and the only relationships that really last are their nuclear family. For lots of people, it might mean that their entire support network exists in the four walls of their home. That’s comfortable and convenient.
Until you’re trapped in your own home and there’s no one else. When patience is running thin and kids are running wild. I can’t even imagine the pressure on a marriage when someone expects their spouse to be everything for them. Your spouse may be exceptional and they may love you more than anyone, but they can never be everything for you. They can’t be your spouse as well as your therapist, your best friend, your pastor, your mentor, etc. It’s like we’ve forgotten that we need community.
Well, it’s pretty hard for a single person to forget that, because community might be all we have. Our households might not be our core support networks, or they may not be part of it at all. We may live alone or live in sharehouses with strangers. Over the years, we’ve been forced to step outside our homes and cultivate broader support networks with larger numbers of people. This means some of us are struggling with being cut off from those support networks outside of our homes, but it also means others who have found creative ways of connecting actually have access to a much broader support network than if they were limited to their own household. For me, singleness isn’t just about a lack of relationship, but a breadth of friendships. I might not have a +1, but I enjoy the x 10 deep friendships I’ve been able to invest in, and I would be struggling much more if I didn’t have them through this season.
In closing, here’s a story that pulls together a few of the themes I’ve shared so far:
For a while last year I was going through quite a traumatic series of events. After one episode, a therapist told me it was really important to debrief with someone to process things within 48 hours of the incident, so I made a habit of calling a particular friend every time I needed to debrief something. He lived many hours away, but we were in the habit of phone calls already and this virtual communication meant he was actually the most accessible support I had. In the time it took me to drive home, I was able to process my feelings out loud with a trusted confidant. One night, a particularly intense experience had shaken me up, and when I tried to call him, it went to voicemail. I started to think about who else I could randomly call late at night and started to make a mental list of my options. As I sat in my car thinking about who I could talk to for such an intense conversation, I was overwhelmed with gratitude to realise how many other friends would support me in a heartbeat. I was spoiled for choice. Five minutes later I was on the phone to another friend who I trusted enough to be vulnerable with. He was able to give me the support I needed, and 15 minutes later I arrived home with the peace of mind to keep processing things in healthy solitude as I sat down to journal, feeling loved and supported, and resilient enough to take the next step forward.
Singleness isn’t always fun or easy, and that’s probably truer now than ever. But I firmly believe that the resilience and depth of friendship keeping me sane in self-isolation owe a lot to my experience of singleness.
How has singleness affected your experience of self-isolation?