A Mediation for Singles
When a junior in college, I was given a pink Helen Steiner Rice birthday card by a grandmotherly woman who watched me open the envelope and read the rhymed sentiment. The now long-forgotten exact wording was clearly inspired by a portion of Psalm 37 that refers to God giving a heart its desires.
I looked up from the card to thank the giver for her thoughtfulness and saw the word “husband” written, as clear as this type, across her beaming face.
I flushed with embarrassment. Desire for a soul-mate was something I felt all too keenly, but something I talked about with only a few close friends. Although I looked for him, the man of my dreams had not ridden – on a horse or in a sports car – over the horizon. For my emotional survival, desire was, then and for several years, something to repress.
Seven years later, I was again taken by surprise at how Psalm 37 slipped into a nonexistent conversation – a married person’s counsel or comfort to me, a single woman approaching thirty.
It was my sister’s wedding. She was much older than I, and her marriage was no cause for tears. I knew that and had intended to celebrate wholeheartedly. Yet I, the maid of honor, sobbed throughout the benediction and the recession. I saw my unidentified heartache to its conclusion in a secluded Sunday school room, and within two minutes of my silent escape from the embryonic receiving line, one of my brothers found me. I said nothing to him; he quoted the promise to me, as if it were the clamp that would close my gaping wound. Again, a married person’s presumption flooded me with embarrassment.
Desire. Most single women don’t talk of it because they sense the truth in what Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey stated in A Women of Independent Means: “Nothing frightens people more than undisguised need.” And the intensity of our need tends to frighten even ourselves. Not all the time, surely, but too often when we allow ourselves to be alone, we feel empty, as if some part of us were missing. As a recent book title queries, “Why Do I Feel Like Nothing When I Don’t Have a Man?”
In writing about deprivation in his book Creative Suffering, Paul Tournier says, “I think first of all those unmarried women who have confided in me…They are deprived of physical love, but even more – even if they have a lover – they lack the sharing of the whole of life, the ‘togetherness’ which women (he suggests) need more than men.”
In young women the need is not necessarily perceived in the present tense. Many do not want to marry now, but, assuredly, eventually. (I have met several Christian women who say that they, when younger, didn’t particularly want to marry; their left finger is now encircled with gold.) And the need is not perceived as being predominantly or necessarily genital, as a man’s need may be, but emotional – a need for permanence, affection, security, for a home defined by a relationship.
In her book In a Different Voice, Carl Gilligan asks that psychologists acknowledge the reality that “women’s development points to a different history of human attachment [than man’s].” She explains further, “Illuminating life as a web rather than a succession of relationships, women portray autonomy rather that attachment as the illusory and dangerous quest.” And Jean Baker Miller, in Toward a New Psychology of Women claims that a woman’s very “sense of self becomes very organized around being able to make, and then to maintain, affiliations and relationships.”
Exactly what do we single women do with this desire, which tends to drag behind it an iron ball of guilt? After all, don’t our Bibles and our enlightened minds tell us we’re supposed to be content? And what seems more antithetical to contentment than wanting something we don’t have?
As with most unmet needs, most of us tackle desire with some combination of prayer and active pursuit of satisfaction – some combination of faith and works.
The problems of pursuing a husband could fill a whole book, but can be quickly summarized by acknowledging that the final remedial decision traditionally is a woman’s only in negative terms. She may decide whom she will turn down, not whom she will forthrightly ask. Even MS. magazine acknowledged the problem and that its solution is beyond our reach. In an article entitled “The Choices that Brought Me Here” (Nov., 1984) Amanda Spake wrote: “Even if women can learn to savor the power of female pursuit, can men?...Unfortunately, it’s a dilemma that women, no matter how assertive or understanding we become, can do little to resolve.” Although a woman may, by work, find a mate, he, not she, is the earthly being most in control of the marriage proposition.
So, some say, why work when you can pray? The Lord surely will provide or at least take away the emptiness, fill the void.
A person’s need for communion with God has been referred to as a God-shaped void. Whether that vacuum, which God can and does fill, be expressed in terms of our hearts, souls, or minds, it is distinctly different from our mate-shaped voids. Even before the Fall, when God apparently walked with Adam daily, God acknowledged that human void which He couldn’t or chose not to fill: Adam needed Eve, who, once created, needed Adam, and her need was more intense or at least different from Adam’s. Genesis 3:16 describes a “curse” of need, not physical, it seems, but emotional. “Your desire will be for your husband,” translates King James. Other versions replace desire with yearning (JB) or with be eager for (NEB).
As a result of the Fall, a basis exists for our want. And, more, a basis exists for our powerlessness in pursuit: the next phrase, describing a man’s power over a woman (“and he shall rule over thee”), may be more a statement of a natural effect of the desire (even politically, a nondesiring party wields power over a more vulnerable, needy one) than a second and separate burden.
In his book Beyond Sex Roles, Gilbert Bilezikian proffers an explanation of the Genesis 3 verse: “[The woman’s] desire will be for her husband, so as to perpetuate the intimacy that had characterized their relationship in paradise lost. But her nostalgia for the relation of love and mutuality that existed between them before the Fall, when they both desired each other, will not be reciprocated by her husband.”
This often seems magnified in single women, who have more to desire – not only the attentions of a mate but his very presence. Although the “curse” of desire stands alongside its counterparts, the labors of childbirth and the toil of making a living that have always made life less than idyllic, it is fundamentally different from them in that it is emotional more than physical. Its mental, and therefore not touchable or boxable, nature can cause the crippling and unnecessary fall, like down a flight of stairs: guilt.
We are told that we are supposed to be content, that Jesus is supposed to satisfy. But why do we expect him to cancel one effect of Eve’s sin and not the others? I have heard of one woman who prayed away the pain of childbirth – surely a miracle and surely miracles happen. But I’ve never heard of a mother who carried guilt for the pain she bore in her bearing or who measured the severity of that pain against her spiritual depravity.
As long as we equate every twinge of emotional pain with spiritual weakness, we’re in for a long battle with self-condemnation.
Many women grow tired in their attempts to convince themselves that Jesus is all they need. They speak in tones similar to my toddler nephew when he was terrified. In Lady MacBeth fashion, he too vehemently declared, repeatedly, “It’s all right. It’s all right,” convincing no one but himself that he wasn’t afraid.
Although there is truth in the claim that the closer we walk with God, the more His peace calms our psyches, there simply will be nights when a spiritual presence doesn’t seem loving enough, personal enough, physical enough.
Lest we despair of hope, let’s take a closer look – a personal inventory of our discontent. Only recently did I personalize the existence of two separate vacuums. Once discovered, the difference seemed so obvious to me, but I quickly saw why the two had for so long been indistinguishable from each other.
My “revelation” came while reading a Graham Greene novel, The End of the Affair, in which a dramatic conversion changes a woman’s outlook on life. She walks into a church one day and sees a crucifix: “And of course on the altar there was a body too – such a familiar body, more familiar than Maurice’s that it had never struck me before as a body with all the parts of a body, even the parts of the loincloth concealed.” Further on she reflects, “So today I looked at that material body on that material cross, and I wondered, how could the world have nailed a vapour there?”
Our salvation, our Savior, is male. Some choose to debate God’s gender, but not Jesus’, and from our earliest exposure to Christianity we hear of him meeting our needs in language identical to that of a husband meeting those of a wife. Besides the biblical allusion of the church as Christ’s future bride, we sing, “Fill Me Now,” “I Surrender All,” “He Tells Me I Am His own,” “Jesus, Lover of My Soul.”
More than a man, who identifies neither with a lover being addressed as he, nor with sex in terms of being filled or entered, a woman easily confuses the desire for a lover of her soul with the desire for a physical lover. The language in no way helps her distinguish between the lacks or between the two sources of relief, and, therefore, the two will never be separated as easily, as obviously, as egg yolks from egg whites.
Our minds, our personalities, function on many levels. None of us lives above the temptation to ask of one another what we should ask of God – or maybe I am mistaken to label such as sin, for on one plane we are called to be Christs to each other. Nevertheless, only as we give that God-void to the One who is able to satisfy its emptiness, allowing Him to give us His fullness, are we able to take strides toward facing rather than denying or tiptoeing around the desire He cannot in bodily presence ease. (It takes strong faith – or imagination – to visualize Him sitting across the dinner table.)
Defining the source of discontent and then casting off unnecessary guilt may be emotional equivalents of a pregnant woman’s breathing exercises; it’s the fighting against legitimate pain that makes it worse, the embracing of it that mysteriously breaks its controlling power over us and makes us more conscious of God’s spiritual and sustaining presence.
Like death, which is the ultimate curse, a woman’s desire has no spiritual or eternal sting, but like death, the living out of the process can be – most likely will be – painful. Jesus’ death and resurrection will ultimately vanquish the effects of the Fall, but with few promises for the here and now that can’t be boiled down to: His grace is sufficient, and His presence, though not physical, is constant.
This article first appeared in the August, 1986 Reformed Journal and is reprinted by permission of the author.