Seeing beyond the Category: Reflections on a Single Life

“Seeing beyond the Category: Reflections on a Single Life,” Ensign, Mar. 1984, 27

Seeing beyond the Category:

Reflections on a Single Life

It’s been just a few years since I left the university. But already much of what I learned there has been sent to a very fuzzy region of my brain, just this side of oblivion. When I am pressed to call up a fact, I can respond vaguely at best: “I’m sure I studied that in college once.”

But a handful of concepts have remained bright and distinct through constant use. One of these came from an unlikely source, a rather baffling course in research techniques and statistics. As our class of humanities majors was struggling one day to master the finer points of gathering, classifying, and analyzing data, our professor gave us a simple rule. And it has become fundamental to my way of looking at the world. “Remember,” he cautioned, “there can be as much variation within a category as between categories.”

Put another way, members of two different groups may have as much in common as two members of any one group. In my practical experience, this tells me that a person in a different educational, cultural, age, or religious group may have as much in common with me—perhaps, even more—as someone apparently more similar. Applying this idea in human relations has opened up many avenues of friendship that might otherwise have remained closed.

But, as I have become a member of a category loosely defined as “Woman, over twenty-five, single,” this concept has also helped me see how I fit into the world, into the Church, and into the Lord’s plan. It has persuaded me that, in terms of my fundamental aims and aspirations, I share many more similarities than differences with my married friends.

It seems to me that we who follow Jesus Christ—regardless of our shape or size, I. Q. or native language, Church calling or marital status—share two basic goals: to love the Lord with all of our faculties and abilities, and to love and serve those around us. Jesus made these the pivotal commandments, on which all other aspects of our discipleship turn.

Realizing that the Savior extends this call to us all, regardless of our circumstance, has helped me see that my life’s work need not be “on hold” in any sense until I am married. I can live the gospel now. When my life some day includes a husband and children, the approach to that end may vary, but my fundamental goals will remain the same.

At the same time, though, my single situation does require that the approach I take to attaining those basic goals differs in some ways from the means my married friends use to reach those same goals. For single life presents some particular challenges, as well as opportunities, in meeting those common goals. Recognizing both has helped me focus my efforts and avoid becoming discouraged at times when I would prefer another set of circumstances.

I have long felt that the central challenge of life as a single person is to find ways to keep the second great commandment. Life within the structure of a family seems to require the gift of charity as an ever-increasing attribute. When someone once commented to Elder S. Dilworth Young on his loving efforts to care for his wife Gladys after her cruelly debilitating stroke, Elder Young confided, “It was the worst thing in the world that could have happened to Gladys and the best thing for me. It made me decent. I learned what love really should be.” (Quoted by Elder James E. Faust in Ensign, July 1981, p. 37.)

From an outsider’s point of view, it seems that family life can be a great purifying and refining experience, a help in overcoming selfishness. Indeed, it requires that we learn to love freely and sacrifice spontaneously. A hungry baby at 2:00 A.M. simply won’t wait for a tired parent to get just one more hour of sleep. And a troubling personality conflict between spouses can’t be resolved by simply changing roommates or living alone. A rewarding marriage and family life demand that we develop the crucial skills of forgiving, empathizing, and compromising.

The challenge of single life consists in the ease with which we can avoid such uncomfortable demands. No one asserts any claim on my paycheck. If I like, I can spend most of my spare cash on luxuries for myself—clothes, travel, and symphony tickets. And the society we live in will reward me for doing so. Similarly, I can spend most of my free time entertaining myself. No child is waiting at home to be nursed through an illness, taught to play the piano, or helped with a homework assignment.

But I think this absence of demand, which may make my life-style seem so appealing to some, is precisely my chief handicap as a single person. And I must recognize it to overcome it.

None of my married friends doubt that the Lord expects them to make substantial sacrifices for the well-being of the children who depend on them. But it is easy for me to forget that the Lord has similar expectations of me. It is easy for me to ignore the human need that exists in so many forms, just outside my normal field of vision. But virtually every community has children who are hungry, elderly people who are alone, people of every age who are discouraged. My challenge, then, is to exceed the demands of my circumstance, to find my own ways to fulfill the Savior’s universal command to love and serve others.

And we who are single can make an essential contribution to the world. Because we do not have the consuming demands of family life, we are in a better position to reach out to the motherless and fatherless, to many whom our married friends cannot reach.

I also believe that many of the rich emotional rewards that parents receive through serving each other and their children are available to the single person. They are not, perhaps, so convenient. But, whenever we reach out to love and serve another, the sweet gifts of joy and affection inevitably result.

Although my life’s pattern has presented a challenge in keeping the second great commandment, I think it has been helpful to me in keeping the first.

A single adult member of the Church violates some of his culture’s very basic expectations. On the one hand, our society at large questions why any normal adult would continue to live a chaste life, committed to such homely virtues as service, obedience, and self-control. On the other, many who share our gospel culture wonder, sometimes pointedly, why we aren’t married yet. And most of us have ourselves expected, and wished, that we would be married by this point in our lives.

In short, we may feel that we are on a solitary road with no map and no adequate role-model to show the way. Actually, I think we can find a number of fine role-models among us—men and women of faith and compassion, married and single, who are seeking to serve the Lord in their own spheres.

But I take even greater comfort from the example of the Savior, whose own path took him beyond the approval of all but a handful of devoted followers. Finally, his only sustenance came from his loving Father, who gave him the approval he needed to continue and finish his work.

In my experience, the same kind of divine approval is available to all who love the Lord. And the very absence of some kinds of security offered by a more usual life-style can prompt us to seek this approval.

Every person has moments of bafflement and confusion, pain and self-doubt—as well as times of joy and fulfillment. Who would not prefer to face life’s occasional terrors, and also its joys, with the loving support of a faithful and devoted other? Even for those who are married, there are times when the spiritual journey must be taken alone. For the single person, the journey is almost always solitary.

But the process of facing life essentially alone can cause us to turn to the Lord in a way we might otherwise avoid. At times when we would be inclined to seek affirmation from an understanding spouse, we must turn instead to the true source of comfort and healing. In my own private trials and solitary temptations, God has been to me an unfailingly merciful and generous Father, always faithful to forgive, comfort, and heal. And my love for him has resultingly grown more trusting and sure.

At the same time, I think my faith in the Lord has grown more accurate and realistic over the years. For one thing, I have come to realize that God is a person who respects human agency. He has never rushed in to make my difficult choices for me. He has been willing to let me slowly and painfully learn to exercise my own judgment and choice. And I love him for not wanting me to stay weak and dependent. Now I appreciate even more the principle of repentance, which allows him to give me the freedom I need to exercise my agency. I believe the discomfort we feel in struggling through the long, uncertain stretches of our own lives is more than counterbalanced by the strength of soul we gain in the process. As we feel our inherent powers unfolding, we can be grateful that the Lord has not spared us the circumstances that have developed them.

Without increasing our understanding of God’s nature, none of us can maintain a real and sustaining faith in him. If we see him chiefly as a bestower of tangible gifts to the obedient, we may feel disillusioned and betrayed when all our years of faithfulness are not rewarded with a companion, an expectation that might seem reasonable enough. But pioneers and prophets who have cast their lots with God have often lost home, family, friends, and every other “reasonable” earthly comfort. But they have learned that many of the Lord’s blessings, while they may be less tangible, are eternal.

This does not mean that these blessings are available only in the next life, but that they are of an everlasting quality. Servants of the Lord are not always blessed with the circumstance they would precisely wish. More often, they are required to develop a quality they will have long after the earthly circumstance would have perished.

All the scars of mortality can be healed, if we have not complicated our suffering with bitterness. As we come to understand how surely and steadily the Lord’s love is extended, then some “dry spells,” some personal tragedies, some instances when we are not rescued will not damage our faith. Experiences that can sharpen our understanding of God and exercise our faith in him abound in every life situation. But I have come to count these experiences as a very valuable aspect of my life as a single person.

One of my favorite Old Testament stories tells of the boy Joseph, who would one day inherit the blessings of birthright and be a savior to his people. How solitary and strange must have seemed the course his life took to reach that glorious end. Hated by his brothers and sold into slavery, he spent many years in an alien land. “But the Lord was with Joseph, and shewed him mercy,” records the scripture. (Gen. 39:21.) And Joseph, remaining faithful, was able to serve the Lord in a particular way because of his peculiar circumstance. Then, finally, with tears of rejoicing, and probably amazement, he was reunited with his family and received all the promised blessings.

Photography by Eldon K. Linschoten