Being a single adult during a global pandemic has been a very lonely experience. But in some ways, it has offered me an incredible gift—although it’s not the gift that most people assume. I have noticed some married folks, especially those with young kids at home right now during our stay-at-home orders, looking longingly to the single life, wishing for what they perceive to be a life of freedom and independence and oceans of spare time. Mostly, people have tried to tell me that I’m so much better off being single right now. “Start that project, read those books, practice that skill, enroll in that program now while you’re single and have tons of time at home, because there isn’t the same capacity when you’re married.” Here’s the truth: singleness is simultaneously a gift and a burden, just like married life.
We All Feel Lonely
As a single woman and a pastor, I hear a lot of comparisons between the single life and the married life. At times we both want what the other has, but what I think we all share is a deep sense of loneliness that’s inherent to the human condition. We all feel the burden of doing work only we can do, taking steps only we can take. We all feel like no one fully understands our unique challenges, or that no one can truly share in our individual journey. All this physical distance is taking a toll and has caused many of us to feel disconnected from others and even from God.
Aside from the pandemic, studies have already shown that collectively we are lonelier than ever before (single or not). This is perhaps the most anxious generation ever, and we can easily imagine how a global pandemic and prolonged quarantine will continue to affect those metrics. When we’re unable to be physically present to one another, the reality is that we are all deeply lonely whether we can easily name it or not.
But here’s the invitation this pandemic might be offering us: confront that loneliness. Turn your longing for connection or for freedom toward God and find that you are released from anxious grasping to instead welcome each moment as a gift with open hands.
The Gift Singles Offer to Everyone
I think we can learn from single people how to release our anxious loneliness and move to a solitude that is rooted in peace and freedom and affords us a deep attention to our inner life and our life in God. I think single folks can more obviously name the ways that they experience loneliness and are primed to turn toward Christ as their constant companion, but it might be difficult for partnered folks to clearly name their own loneliness when they’re in a loving relationship with an ever-present partner or children. I think emotionally healthy, well-adjusted single folks are doing this work every day, acknowledging that they live a solitary existence, but that doesn't mean they have to live with a perpetual anxious loneliness.
Single folks, more often than not, are constantly affirming that simply being alone does not mean they have to be lonely and having a solitary life does not mean they are isolated. They’ve learned to echo the apostle Paul, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through Christ who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:12–13, NIV). It seems to me that single folks are accustomed to doing this work of settling into a solitude of the heart. Let’s listen to them and let them lead the way for us. Instead of telling single people how easy their lives must be right now (trust me, it’s really not easy), let’s look to the real and lasting gifts they can offer to us, and follow their lead. Let’s learn from them how to practice a holy solitude.
Receive the Gift of Solitude
I’ve been reflecting on what gifts this coronavirus season might offer to us—all of us—whether we’re single or married, with young kids or empty nests. While most of our to-do lists and plans have been put on pause, it seems to me that we have a unique opportunity to turn inward and do some deep spiritual work, to practice holy solitude. Regardless of our relationship status, every one of us can pay attention to our own inner life, moving from anxious loneliness into a settled solitude of the heart that is the root of true freedom. I think this state of mind and heart is what married folks really long for when they look toward the freedom and the capacity of the single life. But single folks don’t have a monopoly on that state of being; it’s available for everyone.
Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest who never married, writes about this inner work in his book Reaching Out. He says, “In the midst of a turbulent, often chaotic life, we are called to reach out, with courageous honesty to our innermost self, with relentless care to our fellow human beings, and with increasing prayer to our God.” This has been my hope during this season, that we would all begin to do this inner work so that we may be more deeply connected to one another and to God.
I think it’s important that Nouwen begins his discussion of the spiritual life with this attention to our inner self, moving from loneliness to solitude. He writes,
To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude. The movement from loneliness to solitude, however, is the beginning of any spiritual life because it is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit, from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.
I’m constantly riding this rolling wave of loneliness to solitude.
On my worst days, I can feel tugged under by the riptide of loneliness. The silence is too loud. I can’t remember the last time I looked into someone’s eyes. I send a million texts and wait hours for a single reply. I can be anxiously grasping for some kind of connection to fill the void.
On my best days, I can float gently on the gift of solitude. I can embrace a slow pace and detox from the hustle with an abundance of quiet space and room to breathe. I can engage the spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude and find myself at home in God alone. I can be at peace and at home in myself and in God.
Practices to Cultivate Holy Solitude
No matter what life stage you’re in, there are ways to practice solitude in your everyday life by:
- Moving mindfully—Try taking a meditative walk in your neighborhood or on a trail. Find a labyrinth nearby and take a prayerful stroll. Engage a yoga practice. Cook your next meal and wash the dishes slowly and attentively. Be present and attentive to the sensations of the moment; be at home in your body.
- Reading reflectively—Read a poem aloud slowly. Engage Scripture through the practice of lectio divina or memorization. Return to those meaningful words over and over throughout the day and let them take root in your heart.
- Observing gently—Observe and notice your surroundings. Gaze at something beautiful and notice how it makes you feel. Engage art through the practice of visio divina, a prayerful observation of art or an icon, and notice what it prompts in you.
- Listening deeply—Move away from distracting noises as best you can, quiet yourself, listen for God’s voice in the silence. St. John of the Cross wrote, “The language of God is the language of silence.” Try listening to the sounds of nature or to music that you love; pay attention to how these move you. Explore the Pray As You Go app/podcast or a playlist of songs from Taize.
- Focusing attentively—Stop task switching for a while, and take some time to be fully present without distractions. Devote your whole attention to journaling a list of your joys, your hopes, your dreams. Practice contemplative prayer, like the daily examen, breath prayer, or the welcoming prayer.
Perhaps this season is inviting you to find moments of inner solitude whether you are surrounded by noise or feeling the pressure of deafening silence. Single or married, you can experience the presence of God today by cultivating a holy solitude.