Singles and Self-Care

Somehow, I got it into my head that “self-care” is a dirty word. Not for other people, just for me. I’ve always encouraged friends and family to take care of themselves: to rest when they’re tired, see the doctor when they’re ill, care for their injuries, be gentle with themselves when they’re depressed or grieving, and to say no to other plans when they’re overwhelmed. Yet, when it came to myself, I was relentless.

I’m the girl who sprained my ankle more than 20 times and yet never went to a doctor about it. The one who worked 70 hours a week, and still agreed to volunteer at church or help out with the school play. The person who always answered her phone, texted back right away, or responded to emails at all hours of the day and night. The teacher who edited student college essays via Google Doc even on vacation, or after they had graduated and were at community college, and who never said no when asked to write a college recommendation. The insomniac counselor who could always chat at 2 in the morning when my counselee was in crisis.

That’s who I was, mostly defined by my lack of self-care. And, in the Christian community, this was seen by most as good, godly even. I got Teacher of the Year and was constantly praised for what a great role model I was. I was commended for my commitment to my counselees and students. I was encouraged to keep up the good work, and expected to do so. And all the while I was growing more and more broken inside – constantly sick, frequently injured, always exhausted, emotionally drained, depressed, and forever worried I’d disappoint everyone.

I know I developed these expectations myself, that I am responsible for living my life this way for so long. But the thoughts that this is how a Christian single woman should live her life were planted and watered somewhere.

When you grow up in the evangelical conservative church, there is often an emphasis placed on one side of Christianity or the other: grace or righteousness, faith or works. If asked, the pastors and teachers I had would have said that the Bible teaches the importance of both; however, the culture of these institutions, and often the sermons and lessons, tended to highlight righteousness and works over grace and faith. My Christian school’s motto was “Excellence in everything,” and, little straight A student that I was, I took this to heart probably a bit more than I was meant to. In my head, the idea that I needed to sacrificially serve everyone in my life, do everything in my power to help those around me, even to or especially to my own detriment, was ground in.

I remember last year Googling “do all things with excellence” when I was looking for the verse that’s found in, since my church and school taught it so fiercely, and was shocked to find there is no verse that says this. The closest one, Colossians 3:23 actually says “whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not men.” Some translations say “work at it with all your heart,” “do it enthusiastically,” or “work from the soul.” This has a very different connotation than doing all things with excellence. You can work heartily, or do things with all your heart, and still suck at it. It’s freeing, actually! I can work from my soul, doing my job and ministry for the Lord, and still not be the best one at it, and that’s ok! It’s actually God-glorifying! I can’t even find the word “excellence” as my school defined it as necessary for us. We are told to excel still more in many of the epistles, but the vast majority of them tell us to “excel” at love for one another and for God (Philippians 1:9-10, 2 Corinthians 8:7, 1 Thessalonians 3:12, 4:1, 4:10). Nowhere does it say we have to excel academically, at sports, as missionaries, as wives and husbands, and in all other aspects of life. We don’t have to be superior in these areas, we just have to work heartily at them. We can and will fail, and it’s not the end of our faith. There is a big difference there, this is beautiful and freeing.

My mum tells a similar story, how growing up in the charismatic church as she did made her feel like she was never doing enough for the Gospel. Missionaries were held up as the gold standard for Christian living, and since she was merely a mother of 5 and a teacher, she didn’t quite make the grade. The motto at her parents’ churches was “burn out rather than rust out.” When I look at her life, I see nothing but service to her family and students, to her friends at church and her coworkers, but for her she still fights an inward battle of feeling like it’s never enough.

This weekend, I had the great joy of having afternoon tea with one of the young women I met in my term at English L’Abri last winter. During our reminiscing, we touched on this topic, remarking that many of the students ended up at the Manor House with similar questions: Is it okay to rest? What does that even mean? What is the balance between living a godly life of obedience and grace?

James 2:14-17 teaches about obedience:

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

Ephesians 2:9-89 says this about grace:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

The Scriptures are filled with verses about both of these sides to our relationship with Christ. I’m not saying I have the perfect answer to the questions listed above, but I do know it’s important to remember both the incredibly loving unending grace of God as well as showing our gratefulness to Him for his sacrifice by worshipping Him through trust and obedience, not just one or the other. While I do know there are some churches that emphasize the grace part without the works, I’ve always gone to ones that have done the opposite, telling us to glorify God without reminding us of the second half to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “and enjoy him forever.”

So here I am at 39 taking the time out of life to try to sort through what is actually expected of me, not by myself or what I think other Christians expect, but by God. And I’m realizing that the one thing God seems to want more than anything else is my love; for me to love him and love others (Matthew 22:36-40). And, as counter-cultural as this is for many in the conservative evangelical church to believe, I’m learning that one of the best ways for me to love God and love others is to be a bit less broken. This means that I am allowed to, even encouraged to, take care of myself.

I am better able to love God and others, to spend time in his word and prayer, to reach out and help my friends and family, if I am well rested, alert, and in as little pain as I can be. Getting rid of pain isn’t the goal of my life, but if I can rest my ankle by saying no to a few things the first couple weeks after I sprain it, then I will be able to say yes to more things later because it might actually heal for once. If I get more sleep, I can actually focus on conversations with my friends who are hurting or need encouragement, and I’ll be more patient with my students and more loving. My enjoyment of this incredible world around me helps me start to overcome my cynical views, and enjoy God even more.

Our culture in America today, especially in the cities where being overworked and tired is worn like a badge of honor, pushes us past what we were created to do. We were created with limitations and yet we think we can overcome them by working more. We work hard and play hard – even our free time is “hard.” The church seems to take this one step further with its obsession with the Puritan work ethic and martyr worship. And for singles, we get caught up in this without a partner to help us try to balance it all out.

Single people may die younger because of it – with no one to urge us to see a doctor, care for us after procedures, or give us companionship as we age, some studies have shown that singles, on the whole, die a bit earlier than our married counterparts. As much as married people struggle with this too – wanting to sacrifice everything for their kids or work more hours to provide for their families, they often have their husband to tell them to rest so they can be a better mother tomorrow, or to come home right away after work so they can spend time with their kids as a better father. It’s incredibly rare to hear Christians telling single men and women that they need to go home to take care of, well, themselves, that they should probably say no to this new ministry opportunity because they already need a break to just be alone. Yet, this might be even more necessary since the single person doesn’t have a spouse to pressure them into necessary rest.

Though I was taught that loving our neighbors as ourselves means we already love ourselves too much, so we need to work hard to get our love of others on par with that, I’m learning this might be the wrong view of Mark 12:31. I agree that we should not be selfish and make self-care more important than everything else in life to the point we stop caring about others; however, I do now think self-care is necessary and can actually be a beautiful part of our walk with God. It is humbling to admit we are broken and can’t do everything, to ask others for help, and admit we can’t be quite as active in ministry and work as we used to be. It takes a lot of reliance on God to follow doctor’s orders and sit on a couch, ankle on ice, instead of working overtime when finances are tight. It opens up a new kind of vulnerability in friendship when I, the counselor, tell my friends I need their help instead of the other way around.

I’m learning that I was not created to be Wonder Woman, as much as I yearn to be; instead, I am just me, a 39 year old single lady with foot problems and insomnia, a cynic who has struggled with depression, prone to sinus infections and back pain, whom God loves and cherishes and created for a community of believers in which we mutually love and help one another. In this weakness, there is beauty and true grace.

2 Corinthians 12:8-10 states:

“Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

So, my dear single readers, take care of yourselves, not the point of being unloving to others but to help you be able to love and enjoy God and others all the more. And my dear married readers, do the same, and try to encourage your single friends to go to the doctor when they need to, or go home to rest, or say no to some activities when they’re stressed, or just carve out time to be alone without some task to do. Remember, they might not have anyone else counteracting all the voices in their lives that tell them they have to do more and be more. Be that voice for them.

The Top 5 Things I Like to do Alone

As a perpetually single adult, I’ve spent a large portion of my life doing things alone. I even lived entirely on my own in a tiny rundown studio apartment for a few years when I first moved to LA. In all these years, I’ve grown to adore doing certain things completely solo as much as I abhor even just the thought of doing others sans company. Today’s blog will explore my top 5 list of the things I love doing all on my own, and next week I’ll tackle the things I hate.

We singles often think about how we feel awkward or depressed without a partner to do certain things with, but are we forgetting the awesomeness that comes from partaking in certain activities without anyone else? The older I get, the more I appreciate the rare opportunity I have to do the following things without one, or several, other people tagging along at all times. There can be great beauty and joy in solitude if approached the right way.

Here are the top 5 things I like to do alone:

Shopping

Some of my friends just love shopping together, but carpooling to Target or hitting up the closest outdoor mall is a bonding experience I’d rather forego. Even when I was a teen, I hated shopping with my friends, especially for clothes. As a plus size woman, I know which stores actually have clothes for my body type, and which styles may be worth trying on. When I shop with friends, many of whom are much smaller and have never had to consider that a store won’t have anything at all in their size, they inevitably want me to try stores or clothes that I already know will not work, so I’d rather just avoid that awkwardness and frustration.

When I go shopping on my own, I can shop as methodically and efficiently as I like. I am a list-maker, so heading down the aisles for exactly what I need and checking it off my list quickly brings me great satisfaction. I love getting in and out of the grocery store with what I need quickly and smoothly. My mother, a diligent browser who always gets things for amazing deals, can browse all day. I cannot – I reach my “shopping limit” and just don’t have it in me to go on. Honestly, most of my Christmas and birthday shopping is done online so I don’t have to worry about dealing with other humans and their differing shopping styles.

Even when it comes to larger purchases, like my car or phone, I enjoy shopping on my own. I can do as much online research as I like to find out the exact product I want, what it’s worth, and what I want to pay before heading into the dealership or shop on my own to get exactly what I’m looking for. I didn’t always enjoy doing this alone, and even cried when I was treated badly by a car dealer the first time I bought a car years ago. But, after another decade, I grew more confident and learned how to present myself, and I also learned how awesome it is to just get up and walk out if you are treated badly as a customer, especially if they are treating you disrespectfully for being a woman on your own. Now that I’m older and more confident, I don’t have that problem very often. When shopping with others for these big ticket items, I find myself trying to be polite by deferring to their opinions when I should just go with my instincts. Also, since I do extensive research and know what I’m looking for, it is easier to shop on my own without other people putting in their two cents when they don’t actually know what they’re talking about.

Many of my friends who are married with children have shared with me how much they miss just being able to shop without kids at their heels. For moms especially, shopping can become a chaotic chore. As a single woman, I can browse my way through bookstores (the one place my “shopping limit” is extended) for hours peacefully without having to worry about little ones knocking things over or husbands getting bored. Instead, shopping can become a quiet, enjoyable, independent experience.

Driving

Sometimes, when I’ve had a rough day or am just feeling antsy, I’ll get in my car and just drive. I’ll crank up the music, roll down the windows or blast the AC, pick a road or freeway, and just head out for an hour or two. When I lived in LA, my favorite time to do this was late at night – after traffic got less claustrophobic and the lights of the city blinked on to cast a romantic glow over buildings and concrete.

I remember when my dad was dying, just driving alone through the hills surrounding my desert town at night, listening to Damien Rice, crying a bit, and trying to process my grief. When you live with other people – family or roommates – a drive alone can be the best way to process tough emotions. While it is important to be vulnerable and let others help us when we’re feeling sad or are grieving, sometimes it’s nice to have the space to not have to worry about other people worrying about us.

Solo drives are also excellent opportunities for conversations with God, for crying out to him or singing his praises. Yes, sometimes I talk to myself or to God while driving, so don’t judge me too harshly if you see me driving by chattering on to no one. There is also great catharsis in blasting loud punk or rock music and singing along at the top of your lungs. Seriously, try it, it’s amazing.

Going for a solo evening stroll along a Santa Monica beach.

Beach Strolling

When I lived in West LA, one of my favorite things to do was stroll the beach by myself just before sunset. I’d park in that pay-by-the-hour lot off Ocean Park that the locals know about and the tourists never use, kick off my shoes, and walk along the sand just above the water line. Sometimes, friends would join me for this stroll, which I loved, and some of my best memories are walking with friends on the beach. But other times, it was just me, and it was beautiful.

I find my mind reaches a peaceful kind of clarity by the ocean which it rarely finds elsewhere. With my toes in the wet sand, the breeze in my hair, and the view of seagulls, giggling kids chasing waves, surfers way out where the whitecaps start, and the lights of the ferris wheel on the horizon, these walks alone were therapeutic. Again, I would find myself talking to God, though this time not out loud (I’m not that crazy yet).

In the last decade, quite a few big life decisions I’ve had to face were mulled over as I sat on the sand, looking out over the Pacific as the sun began to set. Infinity is easier to process when there is no end to the horizon, and big decisions seem more palatable. The edge of the ocean is a great place to spend some time alone.

Reading the Chronicles of Narnia alone over tea at the Vaults and Garden cafe in Oxford, England.

Reading & Writing

I was that nerdy kid in high school and college who abhorred group projects and would rather just get my work done on my own. I knew I’d either get stuck with a bossy partner who wanted to take over but do it worse than I could, or lazy students who’d make me do all the work. Either way, it wouldn’t be good. As an adult, I still feel this way.

One of my favorite things to do alone is read and write. I have some friends and family who also love to read, but even then it’s better alone because they can’t distract me, and I can’t distract them. When sitting in a room with another reader, inevitably one of us will end up commenting on something to the other and concentration is broken.

When the weather is good, it’s lovely to go outside in a garden (Descanso Gardens is great for this), or the backyard, iced tea or water in hand, and read for an hour or two. Cafes and coffee shops are perfect when it’s colder. I read well with ambient noise that doesn’t include people talking directly to me.

I also like to journal, but am rather shy about it so rarely do it when others are around. Since I’ve lived with family or roommates most of my life, I often wait until everyone else has gone to bed to write. My mum kindly set up a little desk for me in the guest room as my “home office” so I can blog peacefully in the back corner of the house without interruption.

The Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, one of my favorite places to be alone.

Traveling

One of my absolute favorite things to do alone is travel. I also enjoy traveling with friends and family, so this isn’t exclusive – I’m pretty much going to love any chance to explore new places. But, traveling alone does have some of its own perks.

As someone who is very aware of those around me and how they are feeling/reacting to the situations we’re in, traveling with others can be particularly stressful. I feel responsible for helping those I’m with feel comfortable and have a good time whether I’m actually responsible for this or not. Perhaps this stems from the fact that much of my world traveling has been as a chaperone to 50 high school students when I actually was responsible for them!

When I travel alone, most of the stress is removed. I know how to pack, how to deal with airports and transportation, I’m pretty flexible when it comes to food and places to stay, so when it’s just me, I don’t worry as much.

Traveling in groups is also difficult because everyone has different tastes in what they like to do. When I’m on my own, I can wander through museums for as long as I like, or plop myself down in front of one painting for an hour. I can discover an old cathedral and kneel to pray silently. I can stroll through cemeteries and libraries without worrying that people will think this is an odd hobby to have. I can sit at a sidewalk cafe with a cappuccino reading or journaling, people watching, and just enjoying the scenery.

Traveling alone also affords me the opportunity to stretch myself socially as well, which is stressful indeed, but good for me. When I travel with friends or family, I am usually just with them. When I travel on my own, I tend to stay at places like hostels or communes, where I am forced to interact with other people and make new friends. This is incredibly difficult for me, but also one of the most rewarding things in my life, and I now have friends all over the world who are dear to me because of experiencing new cities and countries together as strangers.

Some of my deepest spiritual moments have occurred while I traveled alone. Without the comfort of friends and family, it is easy to get lonely and feel a bit lost when traveling, especially in other countries and on other continents. It is in these times that I turn all the more to God and his word, finding comfort in knowing he is with me, finding joy in knowing I can always rely on him.

Traveling alone is not for everyone, and must be approached carefully, especially for women, but I have found those trips to be some of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.

The single life has some amazing benefits and we should remind ourselves of them more frequently. Much of what is spoken or written about singleness focuses on the negative side when some things are tremendously fulfilling and sometimes even more lovely when we get to do them on our own.

What are some of the things you enjoy doing alone?

A Season of Joyful Lament

When I was little, this was the month school started, the nights became colder, and we celebrated my oldest brother’s and my mum’s birthdays. Now, school’s been in full swing since August, our cool nights compete with unseasonably hot days and wildfires, my brother and mum share their birth month with my precious nephew Benji, and all of this is tinged with the slightly nostalgic melancholy memory of those weeks 15 years ago as my dad lay dying. September.  

Perhaps I was always meant to be in education since shopping for school supplies was the highlight of my fall. Browsing through the aisles of not-yet-used pens, pencils, and notebooks filled me with a sense of euphoria. Nothing called to me quite like the neon designs of Trapper Keepers or Lisa Frank folders. We’d place new school clothes on layaway back when department stores were still a thing and there were no Targets or Walmarts, teaching us patience and the joy of delayed gratification as we had to wait a few weeks to wear our fresh duds.

This September found me frantically browsing Pinterest for bulletin board ideas and rejoicing in the small box of supplies the front office ordered for me – various types of special tape created just for books, post it notes, fall themed bookmarks, and other library necessities. Mum and I dug out our autumnal decorations from various boxes in the garage to fill the house with the semblance of fall even when it was still 109° outside.

I love fall. As someone who is constantly overheated, I embrace the time of year when our excessive Southern Californian heat gives way to cool breezes and crisp weather. Honestly, I should live in Seattle, London, or Edinburgh – somewhere the sun is not quite as prevalent as the middle of a desert in one of the sunniest states. Halloween is my favorite holiday, cinnamon apples my favorite scent, and hot toddies a favorite drink.

Yet this is the season in which my father died. Even now, 15 years later, those weeks in the hospital form some of my most vivid memories. Though I will never stop missing him, his absence has been assimilated into my existence, a normal part of who I am. As a woman who never married, he still remains the most influential man in my life.

So what to do with September? Two things: be okay with being a bit more sad this month and also celebrate as much as possible, giving thanks to God for both the joy and losses.

Grief is like a muscle memory, it often hits without thought, somehow present in the body before the brain and heart catch up. There are days I’ll wake up feeling wistful – melancholy, yearning for something but not knowing what, and then I’ll remember suddenly that it is September. My body remembers this month. So instead of fighting it, feeling confused or bad about still getting sad all these years later, I have learned to accept grief, to trust my body. There is a huge difference between wallowing and experiencing. I don’t allow myself to sit in my pain all day every day, dwelling on the hard memories or what I’ve lost – but I do allow myself to cry if I feel like crying, to remember him, to talk about him or just quietly acknowledge to myself that I have felt true loss.

I pray about this too, thanking God for giving us a good dad for as long as we had him. My family is well aware how rare and special he was. It’s an oddly beautiful thing to be able to pray with joy and deep grief at the same time, to thank God while tears slip down my face.

One of my favorite hymns expresses this dichotomy better than I can:

It Is Well with my Soul by Horatio G. Spafford

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
it is well, it is well with my soul.

Refrain:
It is well with my soul,
it is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
let this blest assurance control,
that Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
and hath shed his own blood for my soul.
(Refrain)

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
my sin, not in part but the whole,
is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
(Refrain)

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
if Jordan above me shall roll,
no pang shall be mine, for in death as in life
thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
(Refrain)

But, Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
the sky, not the grave, is our goal;
oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul!
(Refrain)

And, Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
the clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
the trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
even so, it is well with my soul.
(Refrain)

As Christians, we often focus on how we’re supposed to be filled with joy, as if smiling all the time will somehow bring those around us to fall in love with our God. The older I get, the more I appreciate the Christian’s call to lament. I can think of sermon after sermon that paint Christians as needing to have a positive attitude all the time, but can’t think of many I’ve heard on how we should also lament – mourn with God, cry out to him, let him see our pain and grief, let him be part of that.

There is deep beauty in simultaneously being grateful to God for what has happened in our lives while grieving what has happened, to be able to be sad,yet fine. Just as our country marks days to remember great men who helped form our ideals like George Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr., just as we build memorials and lower the flag to half mast on 9/11 and other such days of loss, it is important for us to allow these moments, days, even months of remembrance.

I know those who fear grief, who push it back and try to ignore or forget it with the mantra of moving on. I know others who cannot escape grief, who let it drown them, unable to function. There is this third option – that of trusting God in the midst of acknowledging our grief. To thank him while crying out to him. To turn our eyes to those God has placed in our path, loving and serving them, while still recognizing we are a little extra broken right now and we might need some space or more hugs or greater patience or a cup of tea. Or perhaps a trip to Disneyland to see the fall decorations.

And somehow after a couple particularly difficult years, September regained its seat as one of our favorite months. Autumn reigns once more as the best season. My family relearned how to celebrate the birthdays, the weather, the flavors and scents, the holidays, the changing leaves. Perhaps experiencing loss in this season is a bit easier, as fall represents the beautiful merging of life and death – harvest and the coming winter, leaves changing color to bright reds and yellows, then falling away for the year. Halloween and Dia de los Muertos bring the dead together with the living. Warm days merge with colder nights. It is the perfect time to be filled with joy and melancholy simultaneously. We don’t need to choose one or the other, we can dwell in both.