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.

When the World Expects Too Much

I decided to take last week off blogging since it was the first week of school. Always a hectic time, it was particularly insane this year as I was opening a school library for my first time ever, getting out consumables (workbooks) for every kid in the school (4-7 books per kid for over 1,100 students), and I had to do it all on my own as my partner had transferred to a different school and they haven’t replaced her yet. I’m trying to give myself permission to say no to things more often, but it’s still a struggle.

The thing is that I care . . . a lot . . . about a lot of things. I care about my students and teachers. I care about my family. I care about my friends. I care about my community, especially the poor and underrepresented, the voiceless and the weak. I care about my fellow Christians. I care about my country and my world.

But it’s just not enough.

As much as I tried, I didn’t have time for a kind word to each and every one of my students, many who really needed to be seen and appreciated in the first week of school. Even though I worked for hours and hours on the schedule, I still made a mistake and was unable to accommodate a couple of the teachers right away. Even though I prayed for energy, endurance, and patience I still complained more than I should have, still struggled not to cry at the end of a rough Friday. Even though I wanted to spend time with my brother and his son, I sat out their zoo trip on Saturday and stayed home instead because I felt like a giant walking bruise. Even though I followed the news all weekend and posted condemnation of the racist violence of the alt-right and the equivocating weak rhetoric of our president, I couldn’t actually make anything better. Even though I wanted to try hard to get to know people at my old/new church, I felt closed off and defensive Sunday morning at a church which seemed to act like nothing had happened, like America hadn’t just experienced horrible sin and violence.

It’s just not enough. I’m just not enough.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much our modern world demands of us and how much we demand of ourselves because of these expectations. As work got more and more stressful this week, I thought of every single person I know and realized not one of them has a job which is not frequently stressful. This brought up the question, are all jobs stressful? Is it a requirement to our survival (financial, physical) to be constantly stressed out?

Since Genesis 3 promises post-Fall humanity pain, sweat, and toil just for us to be able to eat, I suppose the answer to this is a resounding “Yes!” Which I find utterly depressing. I get that we can find rest in the Lord and all that, I even wrote a previous blog entry about that sort of thing, but some days I just can’t figure out how to practically do that in this difficult world of ours.

When I think about what the world expects of me and what I expect of myself, the only logical response seems to be feeling overwhelmed. Let’s break this down.

Expectations of the Awkward Spinster:

As a 39 year old, educated, Master’s degree carrying single adult woman

  • I should be doing quite well in my career by now.
  • I should be earning a decent wage with a retirement fund, savings account, and health insurance.
  • I should be either finished or almost finished with paying off my school loans and car.
  • I should be a leader or mentor at work at this point, helping newer younger coworkers find their way.
  • I shouldn’t just be writing a blog, but should be also working on my book and speaking career to go along with it.
  • I should have close relationships with the women in my church and be a vital part of a weekly Bible Study as well as my biweekly global prayer group.
  • I should be an involved aunt, a role model to my little loves, a reliable help to their parents.
  • I should be a helpful daughter to my mother financially, physically, and emotionally.
  • I should be a mature Christian woman who reads her Bible and has a significant time of prayer every day, memorizes scripture, journals, and processes it all.
  • I should somehow be both strong and meek, quiet and confident, submissive and yet a teacher.
  • I should be a dedicated biblical counselor, helping my church to set up a counseling training program, mentoring newer counselors, while counseling as many people as I can for free.
  • I should be active in my community, helping those in need with donations, volunteering, etc.
  • I should be an involved friend to those who’ve poured into me throughout my life, keeping up with them by writing e-mails, letters, text messages, social media comments, inviting them over, and talking to them on the phone.
  • I should be an involved member of the human race by keeping up with the news, being aware of what’s going on, and finding ways to help.
  • I should continue to be a passionate advocate for my former students and clients, encouraging them as they go off to college and careers and families, letting them know they are still loved and supported.
  • I should be an expert in my fields, keeping up with the latest in literature, writing, education, and biblical counseling.
  • I should be creative, writing poetry and journaling, blogging, and creating.
  • I should be a student of the world by traveling each year.
  • I should be a patron of the arts and news, things that matter to me and the world.
  • I should help around the house with cooking, cleaning, & maintenance. 
  • I should support my friends in the mission field through letters, prayer, and finances.
  • I should visit my friends and family out of state at least once a year.
  • I should spend time with my friends in LA by visiting once a month at least, and yet still be able to make new friends in my current town and invest in them too.
  • I should be a good doggy mamma and take him for walks and to the park.
  • I should keep up my geek cred by watching the latest Marvel or DC movies, reading the latest comic books, and going to a convention or two.
  • I should try online dating again and be open to possibilities.
  • I should lose weight, eat healthy, go to my doctor, and exercise daily.
  • I should march against white supremacy, protest the cruel regime shaping America today, stand up for the little guy.
  • I should, I should, I should . . .

This list never ends. I’m sure if you make a list for yourself, it will be just as long and overwhelming. Now, many of these expectations come from the world around me, what people expect of me, while some of them are what I expect of myself. It’s hard to parse through this list and separate them as many are intrinsically linked; I expect things of myself because I think others expect them of me.

It’s too much.

Wonder Woman #15 art by Terry & Rachel Dodson, story by Gail Simone

After a weekend like this one, when I wish I could just chuck everything else and go be a freedom fighter for a few months, I don’t even know where to start.

Which things are the most important of all? I am a finite human and cannot do everything. So where do I begin? In Mark 12:28-31, a scribe approaches Jesus and asks him,

“Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Since many, if not most, of the things on my list of “shoulds” are related to trying to love God and love others, I’m still struggling my way through these top two commandments. The practical application of theology is rarely straightforward. This is not one of those blogs where I post a question and then answer it at the end. I’m still scratching my way to the surface on this one, still overwhelmed, still confused. Just thought I’d put this out there because I’m pretty sure there are a lot of us in this predicament.

So, if you’ve got any answers for me, please comment away. In the meantime, I’ll be looking through this list of mine trying to figure out where these expectations come from, which ones really matter, and which ones take priority. Prayers, encouragement, British chocolate, and scotch are appreciated along the way!

Don’t Just Bide Your Time

I’m meant to be working on another draft of this second blog in the “What Do You Believe About Singleness” series, but instead I am distracted, scrolling through all my friends’ Mother’s Day photos on Instagram. In my family, over the past 3 years since we’ve had the little ones around, we celebrate mums, grandmas, and aunts. Pretty much all the women who love the littles, and the not-so-little-anymores. And this means the world to me. As a woman who very likely will never have or raise kids of her own, being part of the team that raises my nephews and niece, my godson and goddaughter, my friends’ children, and my students is incredibly special to me. So here’s to all the mums and all the other women who raise up kids in this world, who teach them to love God and love each other, and hopefully to love reading and bugs and bubbles and space and fake tattoos and adventures while they’re at it.

I’m also texting (and praying for and weeping for) my friend whose mother is currently in hospital dying, at a loss for the right words as there are no words that can make death right. So here’s to everyone who has lost their mothers, or never had them in the first place – may God grant you strong women to hold you up when you are broken, to laugh with you until you cry, and to remind you just how loved you are by God.

You see, my first point in looking at singleness based on the theological view presented in my last blog is that we need to choose not to just bide our time as singles until we’re married. We need to use our time well. And, in this season of my life, being part of this semi-connected family currently celebrating or grieving their mothers is my world. Father’s Day will come soon enough, and I’ll be among the mourners, and I will need my brothers, and brother-in-law, and best friends, and pastors, and other guy friends to remind me to carry on as much as I need to celebrate the women in my life today. That’s how this works, this living in community thing. We get through it together, the good, the bad, and the ugly. So singles, if you haven’t surrounded yourself in a community like this yet, it’s time to build one.

You see, singleness is not the waiting room for life, for growing up, for being wandering lone wolves; it IS life. It’s neither a time to sit back and think, “someday, when I’m married, then I’ll . . .” or “when I have a family, then I could . . .” James 4:14 warns us “yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” My sister discovered a giant dead moth in my niece’s fairy garden this afternoon. What a juxtaposition of life, this gorgeous creature that lives for such a short time, next to the beautiful imaginary world of my 3 year old little love! And we were reminded, this, right now, is the life God has given us on earth. How are you going to use yours?

Single people are some of the busiest I know. Or maybe that’s just because I spent the last decade in Los Angeles, where singles lead rather hectic urban lives. We work, and we work hard, often putting in more hours than our married-with-kids counterparts. You won’t see most of us calling in sick because we have to stay home with a sick child, or leaving work early because we must carpool with our spouse when the other car’s in the shop. The single childless professional doesn’t need to rush off to pick the kids up from school or take a long lunch to get them to the dentist. We just work long hours. We rarely take time off. We tend to come in even when we’re sick rather than use sick time. Yet, like our married counterparts, we still need family time. Our family time may look a bit different, more like basketball every Thursday evening with the guys, Happy Hour Wednesday after work with the girls, hours babysitting the niece and nephew, watching MST3K with the besties, or Skype dates with the parents, but it is still family time for us. It is still necessary for a full, God-glorifying, sustainable life.

It is easy for us to get caught up in the day to day plans, the minutia of life as it is in this moment, but we can’t keep waiting for big life events to change how we are living. We need to stop and take stock of our lives frequently. We need to pause and figure out what our goals are for this season instead of waiting for another one before we fulfill them. We need to spend time in scripture and in prayer to reassess what our goals should even be. And, we need to be willing to make some big moves, deep commitments now, not in some far off tomorrow.

One of the coolest things about singleness is often being a bit more open to what God has for us. While we should still seek wise counsel and make careful decisions, ultimately the choice of what we do with our lives rests on our shoulders, not someone else’s. Are you using this freedom? Or are you wasting your time?

Here are some questions to ask yourself about your current season in life:

  • How can I be part of a family with people I can care for who will care for me?
  • How can I be lifting up God’s name at work, with friends, with family?
  • How can I not just be busy, but use my time wisely, including rest?
  • How can I be involved in a ministry for which God has suited me?
  • How can I better love the people in my life? In my city?
  • How can I develop gifts God has given me into skills?
  • How can I ENJOY God today?

The Westminster Shorter Catechism is a favorite of mine, beginning with:

Question 1. What is the chief end of man?

A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

So what are you doing today to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever? What are you doing to help others do the same? Don’t just bide your time, thinking one day in the future I’ll rethink my life, because it’s not just the Steve Miller Band who think “time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future.” Let us live our lives today in a way that we, like Christ, can say to our Father in heaven “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:4).