If yesterday’s post gave you the impression that being single while stuck at home during a pandemic is fun and games, today I’m here to tell you it’s not. I’m all about celebrating stories of flourishing single people, but I’m also all about honest vulnerability and admitting when things suck. So here are some of the things I’m struggling with that singleness didn’t prepare me for.
It didn’t prepare me for touch hunger.
For single people, missing out on physical touch is nothing new. There have been so many conversations about people missing human touch that the phenomenon has its own name: skin hunger. I think “skin hunger” has kinda creepy vibes, so I prefer the slightly-less-creepy “touch hunger.” That feeling when it’s been too long since a real person has hugged you or even touched your shoulder in affectionate familiarity. That feeling when it’s been too long since anyone has held you—really held you. That feeling when you’ve had plenty of handshakes and even a few hugs, but you still hunger to be close enough to another human being that you can physically feel their closeness next to you on the couch as you watch a movie. But either your friends keep the appropriate distance across the couch, or there’s no one there at all, so you pick up a pillow to cuddle.
Touch hunger isn’t just a sexual urge, either. Right now, I’m absolutely craving a good hug, but my sex drive this week is uncharacteristically low. They’re not the same for me. I know what it feels like to want to sleep with someone, and this is different. Sometimes they do overlap, but I think our culture’s lack of platonic male physical affection means that when most guys experience touch hunger, they mistake it for sexual desire. Because our culture has so sexualised love, we don’t really know how to give and receive physical affection to mates in comfortable, platonic ways. Women seem to do better at platonic touch: even holding hands or cuddling up close on the couch seem to be acceptable. But for the single adult male, a lack of human touch has long been the norm.
All this to say, if lack of physical affection was a minor problem before social distancing, it’s a major one now.
Physical touch is one of my love languages, which doesn’t make it any easier. A couple of months ago I had dinner with some very close friends and was sharing how I struggled with missing physical affection. At the end of the conversation, one of them smiled thoughtfully and said, “It sounds like we should make it a thing that every time we see Matt, we just give him a hug.” So every time I saw them, even if it was the third time that week, I’d enjoy the embrace of a familiar friend. I loved those hugs. Some days, at the end of a really good day I would replay the day and count how many hugs I’d received. On weeks when I’d visited a place I used to live and reconnected with lots of old friends, I might number dozens of hugs. Even recalling the memory of those embraces at the end of a good day would make me smile.
It all changed a couple of weeks ago. At first we could still see people, but would socially distance from each other. The last group gathering I had was with my church small group, so we gathered in the parklands on a warm Sunday morning. As people arrived, we had to consciously restrain ourselves from shaking hands or hugging. It seems so normal now just a few weeks later, but it felt unnatural and strange. A friend arrived and took a step back but offered the ‘corona foot tap’ as a greeting. We tapped shoes. He said it helped remind him that I was a real person when he could physically feel my presence, even if it was a tap felt through a shoe. I laughed because it sounded silly at the time. But with every day that has passed since, I’ve felt the truth of those words as I talk to people on a screen with no physical sensation to assure me that it is a ‘real’ person. Because it’s not real. It’s a face on a screen. That foot tap was the last time I’ve had physical contact with another person.
Yesterday I visited the same friend. It was my first face-to-face interaction in weeks (other than housemates). I thought it would be nice to see some friends in the flesh again, and I guess it was, but it was also really hard. Saying hello while stepping away from each other. Walking into the apartment then taking a seat on the far side of the room. Walking away without a hug, and fighting the twisted feeling of knowing that the most loving thing to do is to refuse to hug the people I love. All this while seeing a married couple holding hands, sitting comfortably on the couch together, and putting their arms around each other with ease. It’s hard to describe the mixed emotions I felt seeing that: joy and delight and envy and even recoiling with the conditioned stigma of physical closeness that has changed our world so quickly. Even watching TV and seeing people shake hands now triggers an involuntary horrified response, and I hate that something so good now feels so wrong.
Every once in a while I start to get used to feeling physically distant from people. Then I see people who live in the same household touching—a couple holding hands, a dad picking up a toddler and cuddling, kids play-wrestling together—and in an instant it reminds me of what I’m lacking. In that moment I remember that it might be 6 months or a year before I get to shake hands or hug someone again.
It’s easy to feel like I shouldn’t have to grieve this because it’s nothing new. I’ve never had someone with whom I could hold hands or cuddle on the couch. But I guess that’s not how hunger works. Being accustomed to hunger doesn’t take away the need for food. When a famine hits, those who were already hungry are probably the ones who will be hit hardest. If we found touch hunger a problem before, chances are being stuck at home for months isn’t going to do us any favours. I know I’m not alone in this, because I’ve heard lots of other stories of single people finding the physical isolation difficult.
It didn’t prepare me for the helplessness of not being able to serve
I love hospitality. I love opening my home to people and feeding them as much as they can eat, then sending them home with takeaway containers of leftover food. The only time I feel my Asian heritage is when I’m serving people in the kitchen or the dining room and speaking in my native love language: food.
Sharing meals with people is important to me, not just because food is my love language, but also because I’ve come to find that the act of eating together is a profound expression of our embodied togetherness in community. Giving someone food is my way of showing that I want to love them as a whole person, a person with a body that is nourished physically at the same time as I am connecting with them emotionally and spiritually. Every Tuesday I would host my church Growth Group for chats, Bible study, prayer, and dinner. I agreed to provide dinner for up to 16 people every Tuesday after a long day of classes, because serving people is an important way of expressing our togetherness. Meeting each other’s practical and physical needs was a way we could show our love for each other. Serving each other is a critical part of being in community.
I hate that I can’t serve my community like that anymore.
Sure, I can still talk to people and even enjoy some virtual quality time. But opportunities to serve are in short supply.
I feel it affecting my community. I feel it affecting me. I believe serving is a big part of human flourishing. Jesus repeatedly teaches that excellence and success in his world looks more like serving each other. To serve is to grow. Serving is what love looks like in practice.
So if serving is love in action, how can I love or be loved while I’m stuck at home?
This isn’t entirely a single person problem, but if you’re living with a partner or family, you’re probably not so desperate to get out and serve more people. Chances are you’re already a bit overwhelmed at caring for the needs of your own household, especially if your household includes kids. Whether it’s cooking, cleaning or home-schooling, there are still lots of ways to serve people you love. Maybe there are even more ways to serve than you can cope with right now.
How I wish I could help with some of that! I see young families struggling to get through each day, and I wish I could come over and take the kids to the park to give the parents a break. I see couples exhausted after trying to get work done at home, and I wish I could drop off a meal to make things easier. I see other singles home alone for the fourth week in a row, and I wish I could invite them over.
I wish I could serve.
I wish I could show my community I love them in tangible ways.
I wish the people who have too much weight on their shoulders could let me carry some of it with them.
I’m also worried about what 6-18 months of only caring for my own needs will do to my character. How will that shape me as a person? It won’t be good. I need to be able to care for others to be healthy myself.
Serving each other is how we’re meant to flourish. So what does that mean for an era of social distancing? I think it means two things:
- We can, and should, grieve the opportunities we’ve lost to serve in tangible, embodied ways. And when we can finally do things like share meals together again, we should do it All. The. Time.
- In the meantime, we should use all the creativity we’ve got to imagine different and safer ways of serving.
EDIT: Since journalling the above reflections a couple of days ago, I’ve spent some time pondering what creative serving opportunities might look like. I’m far from being a creative thinker, but here are some of the thoughts that came to me in the shower the other day (where all big ideas happen). I’d love to hear your thoughts and keep growing the list, so please share your own ideas in the comments!
- Order takeaway meals for someone. I prefer cooking for people myself, and this might still be an option for some people, but for hygienic reasons I feel more comfortable with ordering takeaway until the risk of transmission subsides. Plus it would be so much better to support local restaurants if you can afford it. That family with young kids that are going insane stuck at home all day? The older widow who is scared to leave her home for groceries? The uni student with chronic depression that is finding life too overwhelming to feed themselves properly? They could use a meal or two they don’t have to think about. And you can help without even having to leave the house. If you have a low budget but still want to show some love, I found a cool new initiative last night where you can send a friend 5 fresh cookies for $6 through Cookie Monster Catering (let me know if you need my address to send a test delivery to).
- Set up a regular storybook reading session for your little friends. As someone who loves kids, I miss seeing the little people run up to me on a Sunday morning and tell me which tooth they lost this week or being sneak-attack-cuddled from behind by an aggressively affectionate toddler while I’m setting up music. I loved the place these kids had in my life, and I miss them. Their parents are probably at their wits end trying to keep their kids sane at home all day, so why not set up a regular video call to read some stories to those kids. It may be messy and chaotic, but I imagine the kids will be enriched by having an extra person in their lives over the coming months, and the parents could probably use a 10-minute break. I enjoyed reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Wombat Stew last night to my little friend Hugo while his mum made dinner. I discovered that I can access millions of free e-books at https://archive.org/ and easily screenshare them on Facebook Messenger video calls from my laptop.
- Check in with at-risk people and see if you can do a grocery run for them. This one seems really obvious, but it’s been nearly a month and I hadn’t offered this to a single person yet. Have you? I think I was held back by a fear of coming across as condescending by offering to help another person, so I just sat back and perpetuated the individualistic ‘every-man-for-himself’ attitude Westerners are so proud of. Eventually, I bit the bullet and sent a message to an older church friend who I affectionately call my adopted grandmother (she approves). I nervously waited for her reply, hoping I hadn’t offended her by implying that I thought her age meant she couldn’t take her of herself. Instead, I got this beautiful message in return: “After reading your message, tears welled up in my eyes and suddenly I felt Easter Sunday has brought me reassurance by Lord in your form that I’m not alone! So far I’m doing well but for sure if I’m ever stuck up with something, will definitely seek your help! Bless you son you’ve stolen my heart. God Bless you.” Well. Reading that, tears welled up in my eyes. I didn’t even have to do anything, but we felt mutually loved just by showing we cared for each other’s practical needs.
- Pray for people. I may not have control over my friends’ situations, but God does, and I know he loves these people even more than I do and loves to answer our prayers. So love your friends my praying for them. Tell them you’re praying for them, and ask what they’d like prayer for. If they’re the praying type, why not set up a call and pray together? My pastor has been holding [mostly] daily prayer meetings over Zoom for our community, and it’s a beautiful way to meet the spiritual needs of people from afar. Personally, I suck at healthy prayer habits, but I’m trying to build good habits into my day by starting a morning ritual of making a cup of tea and sitting in the sunshine on my balcony and praying for people for as long as it takes to finish the cup of tea. Sometimes I pray for whoever is on my heart, sometimes I scroll through the names on my Messenger as a memory prompt for people who are a big part of my life.
Serving each other is such a big part of expressing our togetherness. What are your ideas for how single people can keep serving in isolation? And what are some of the ways that I can be serving you?