“Lonely, I’m so lonely, I’m Mr Lonely, I have nobody for my own”… The catchy tune of a few years ago came to my mind (and, as often happens, stubbornly refused to get away) after reading a thought-provoking article published a few days ago on MercatorNet. It dealt with a study showing that single persons are more likely than married people to suffer from loneliness, and, relatedly, to develop psychological and/or physical issues, potentially threatening for their well-being. I read the article with interest, not least because I belong in the category and it makes you feel important when scientific studies deal with people like yourself.
So, did I recognise myself in the picture? Yes and no. First of all – but this has nothing to do with the article – I dislike labels. They are useful, of course, to group people and situations and to be able to discuss them, but they can never explain the complexity of a human being. I am a single woman, meaning I have no husband or fiancé, but my being a single person is not a full description of myself. I’m a daughter, a sister, a pianist, a scholar, a friend, a Catholic, an Italian, etc. etc.; but none of these labels, important as they may be for me and my life, constitutes my identity; they all contribute to creating it, but none is sufficient.
Secondly, being a single woman does not necessarily mean that I’m lonely. I am very fortunate because both of my parents are alive and (quite) well, and their unconditional love and support, their wisdom and irony, their tenderness and laughter are an immense gift for which I’m deeply grateful. I have a wonderful brother, whose endless supply of jokes always helps me not to take myself too seriously. I have numerous friends who are a great blessing; I have colleagues and students with whom I share not just knowledge and abilities, but also care, experiences and values.
‘Care’ is the keyword
Care, indeed. This is possibly the keyword. The refrain I quoted in the beginning uses two verbs, “I am [so lonely]”, and “I have [nobody]”. But is marriage about “having” somebody? And is loneliness a quality of my “being”? No and no, in my opinion. I may feel lonely, and indeed sometimes I do, but that feeling may be experienced also by many married people, especially when the husband or wife they have seems not to give them the happiness they expected of him or her.
But that notion, in my opinion, betrays both the true meaning of marriage and that of human life as a whole. Marriage, for me, is the possibility of giving life by giving one’s life; procreation brings new human beings to life, and is the marvellous result of two people who give their entire self to each other. Happy and healthy marriages – such as that of my parents – are not about expecting happiness from one’s husband or wife, but trying to make him or her happy. And this, in turn, is what constructs our own joy: because “there is more joy in giving than in receiving” – and this is one of those verses of the Gospel whose truth is self-evident also for those who don’t believe in God or in Jesus.
True happiness thus comes from caring for others and from giving one’s life. And this applies to both single and married people. Indeed (and I think this applies in a particularly intense fashion to single women like myself) we are so deeply hard-wired for caring that our main risk, when we have no family of our own, is to care too much for ourselves, to worry too much about our health, our well-being, our outward appearance and even our feelings, and to become too focused on ourselves. When our great potential for care is not channelled, as it almost forcedly is when a baby cries at two in the morning or a husband needs our advice, it may become a prison of sorts in which we endlessly reflect our own image.
But this doesn’t have to happen. Many people who are single by choice or by necessity, for not having found the “right” person or for being widowed, or after a divorce, or who lack a predisposition for creating a family, can be entirely open to the world surrounding them, and live their singlehood not as a lack of something, but as an opportunity.
Not looking for a better ‘half’ but to give my whole self
Good old Plato knew a thing or two, but the image he used for describing our search of a soulmate is – in my humble opinion – singularly ill-chosen. For him, a human being is like half an apple, in the quest for its other half. So, according to him, as long as I am a single person, I am – quite literally – a halved being. This is very far from the Christian concept of human life: the anthropology I espouse, instead, maintains that what fulfils me comes not from outside myself – not even from a husband or from children – but from within, since it is my inherent capability to realize my vocation, which is basically a vocation to give myself.
I have no children of my own; but, indeed, even if and when I will experience the immense joy of giving birth to a baby, that baby will not be my own child. It will be the child to whom I’ll have given life, and to whom I’ll give my life, but it will not be “my” child.
Sometimes I have feelings akin to a parent’s when I give piano lessons to my students. Some of them are very young, and express their affection for me in a very touching and tender fashion; the older ones frequently gratify me by telling me their secrets or their experiences. And yet, even if I immensely enjoy such moments, I keep repeating myself that I must not usurp (or fancy myself in) the role of a parent for them. I can and possibly must channel my maternal feelings in such a way as to be a better and more loving teacher for them, but I must know (for their and for my own sake) that I’m “just” their piano teacher. In a year or two they will go, and they’ll probably just send me Christmas greetings if they feel inclined to.
Indeed, this happens also to many parents, whose children flee the nest and never look back; and while this is cruel and unfair, this is the ultimate test of true parental love: to give one’s self without asking for anything, not even for love. So, the very special quality which is found in parental love is not restricted to “true” parents; it is a particular form of our calling to be a gift for other human beings.
Even married people cannot always see the fruit of their giving
A few years ago I lived a very touching experience. I was enlisted as a potential bone-marrow donor for more than ten years, when suddenly I was called by the hospital to verify whether I could actually donate to a person in need. I was a bit worried, but also immensely happy to be able to “give life”. Unexpectedly, however, the doctor decided I could not donate, and eventually deleted my name from the list, due to a benign heart condition which I’ve practically always had and has never given me any problems. When I went out from the hospital, I unashamedly burst into tears, and I felt very saddened for several days. I tried to understand why that had affected me so much, and then I understood that I had lived it as a denial of a possibility of “giving life”. It was a feeling not so dissimilar, probably, from that experienced by mothers and fathers who live a miscarriage.
From that experience, I learnt a new form of empathy for those couples who would like to have children but have fertility problems; I learnt how heartbreaking it can be when one’s desire to blossom and bear fruit is frustrated. But here too, even though parenthood is probably one of the most fulfilling experiences of our life, it is not a right; and when life mysteriously denies us that possibility, we should try and find another path for expressing our potential to love.
So, when I am planning and organising surprise parties for my relatives, I’m not deluding myself or “settling back” on blood relations for lack of a husband to celebrate; and when I love my students, I’m not playing the parent for them. I think, instead, that there are different forms in which the particular kinds of love we are capable of (e.g. filial, parental, conjugal) can be expressed. Thus, married life and singlehood give meaning to each other; and in the measure we’ll learn to be a gift for others, we will live fulfilled and joyful lives in the particular situations we are experiencing now. And, who knows, perhaps this will be the best possible training for the surprises which life may have in store for us!
Dr. Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She is a regular contributor to MercatorNet, where this column first appeared. It is reprinted by permission. Visit her website.