Selfishness vs. Self-Care for the Single

Because I am single and childless, people often assume I have an endless supply of free time. After all, I don’t go home to the usual husband and kids, so that must mean I’m blessed with a vast expanse of time and space. Time and space just waiting to be filled with ministry opportunities, social expectations, extra work duties, civic engagement and, of course, babysitting.

To be realistic, there have been times in my perpetual single state when I’ve probably had more free time than most married people, especially ones with kids. And even when I’m busy, I do have more time to myself merely by having a room of my own (it’s been awhile since I had a roommate and not just a flat or housemate).

Today, for instance, I’m writing the rough draft for this blog entry while sitting on a bench in the gardens of The Getty Museum, with the sound of the water fountain and the gorgeous gloom of an overcast sky as rays of sunshine  break through here and there. There are hundreds of people here today, but so far I’ve only noticed one or two other people entirely alone. For a second, I’ll notice one, and then their friend/family/date meets them to continue on together.

Throughout my life, I’ve been to many museums across the world completely on my own. There is a luxurious peace to it – no pressure to keep others entertained, no bargaining for which wings to visit, no debate over when museum fatigue hits. It is a special experience, both beautiful and lonely, a bit melancholic, but thoughtful and freeing.

This is not an opportunity I have very often these days. My weekends book up months in advance, and each weeknight seems to be spoken for. And, you know, I have a job (or two, or three) which keep my days solidly full.

Other than the almost four year period in which I lived alone in a crappy studio apartment when I first moved to Los Angeles, I’ve always lived with family or room/flatmates. The jobs I’ve held throughout my life often having me working with hundreds and hundreds of people each week, mostly children. At one point, I saw almost 1200 students every single week. They have been rather performative jobs, very public, requiring me to be “on” for hours on end.

(At this moment, I witness one solo young man strolling through the garden in front of me, peacefully and blissfully alone. He looks happy.)

The idea that singles have it good because we can do whatever we want with our time is both true and false. All humans have limitations, and have to answer to others for much of our time, whether to a boss or store hours, appointments or other’s schedules. Yes, I am often solely responsible for what to do with the rest of my time. And yes, that can be awesome. It’s also incredibly stressful and sometimes confusing. You see, one day I will stand before my creator and answer for how I used this gift of a life. And I will answer alone. If I had a husband and kids, the choice regarding time would indeed be much more limited, but also a bit more delineated. Priorities would be set. Responsibilities more spelled out.

Today, by choosing to spend 24 hours alone, I said “no” to being with family and friends, to that birthday party and that church women’s event, to my side job and being an involved aunt. I said “no” to running errands and helping others. It is easy to spiral into my head and feel guilty – to think I am being selfish.

The church tradition from which I come isn’t so hot on the idea of “self-care” and “rest” and “solitude.” It often translates all of these into “selfishness” and “isolation,” or perhaps just “an unwise use of time.” The thoughts that we need to be “intentional” and “wise,” we must be “productive” and “do all things with excellence,” that we must always be “serving one another” and “selfless” are pervasive. Not necessarily bad thoughts, just impossible ones for the long haul.

I needed today. I needed to say “no” to everything else, drive out of town, and remove myself from my day to day life. I needed to walk outside, smell flowers, stroll slowly and think. I needed to wander through vaulted rooms and narrow corridors filled with insightful depictions of the world, with beauty. I needed to be able to have one long, broken conversation in my head with my Lord.

Days like today help fuel me for all the other days; the endlessly busy days, filled with family and friends, students and their parents, counselees and ministry partners. I am better for days like today.

Lately, I’ve been feeling weighed down, exhausted. My heart has been heavy. The state of the world and the church’s role in it is breaking me, tiny piece by piece. In the same week in which Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court, I spoke with two separate women regarding their own experiences with sexual assault, both of which happened in Christian spheres. Each week, I sit with 10-20 people in the midst of deep grief over loved ones who have died, some as recently as 2 weeks ago. I help over 350 children navigate learning to read and think well, and I deal with many of their parents on top of that.

I have to stop and remind myself that the busy, ever-filled pace of life so common to the Southern Californian Christian is not a biblically mandated one. There are entire cultures and churches which appreciate stopping. Ruminating. Resting. Being. Slowing down. A Sabbath is good and holy and necessary for all of us. Sometimes, the best rest is with others we love. But for singles who do not have a partner, sometimes time alone can also be helpful. And the example Christ himself set includes many moments of solitude.

This both goes against my nature and releases it at the same time.

So no, I don’t have tons of spare time because I work hard, and I choose to put effort into being part of the local church and my family. And yet, I do have tons of time – often at night when my brain is no longer functioning well and my body is tired.

On days like today, when I have the chance to carve out and protect time, my soul yearns for my beloved city. For refreshment. For time to talk to God one on one as I witness his creation and the creation of those made in his image. For slowing down from my usual quick pace to a stroll.

I’m learning the difference between selfishness and self-care. I’m learning that true self-care is not wrong. And I’m learning that, in order to preempt another physical breakdown and emotional burnout, self-care is not only a requirement, but a beautiful and good use of this one body and mind given me by God.

Comments

  1. Beautifully said and what a an amazing place to say it. There’s that gentle place between “rusting out and burning out” that refreshes the soul that you’ve just described.

  2. Could you please repeat this to my inner human? They have a really hard time accepting any of what you just said. Mostly, because I’m too busy – with all the busyness and responsibilities people with no kids have time so much extra time for – to stop and listen to anything.

    Good luck on your journey to self care!

    Oh! And one more thing: I’m sure you’ve already figured this out, but a great lesson I learned is that real self care often requires significant investment. Time, work, sometimes money, but usually work…

    • Ah, my dear friend, why is it that so many of the important things require time and work? Here’s to looking our busy lives right in the face to see what needs to stay and what can go.

  3. I just found you through The Bloggess and this post reminds me of a singles pastor’s wife who explained to me how singles really needed to be doing ministry work on Friday and Saturday nights because couples needed to be going on dates then. At the time, I was going to our singles group meetings on Mondays, leading a women’s Bible study on Tuesdays, volunteering with the youth group on Wednesdays, and volunteer tutoring this woman’s daughter on Thursdays. I was speechless. So many Christians marry young and have no idea what it’s like to be single beyond the very early 20s, so church leadership doesn’t often include anyone who actually understands. Yes, you have free time. You’re also shouldering all of the burden of doing life alone. Of course family and friends can help, but it’s not the same as having a partner whose role it is to share the work. Anyway, all of that just to say “YUP”. Good for you for taking the time to feed your soul. You are entitled to it.

    • Oh my goodness, I would struggle to be as gracious as you were if someone said that to me! Thank you for finding my site and commenting so thoughtfully.