My older daughter’s current favorite theory is that her father is Poseidon. She says this explains both my lack of a mortal husband and her love of the ocean. My younger daughter calls me Mom-Dad whenever we play house. I guess she is aware that most people play house with two parents, so she assigns me both roles.

My singleness seems like a daily topic of conversation. I have been single my entire life. I have, in fact, never been on more than two dates with the same guy.

In all that time as a single woman—now a single mom—I have learned some things about loneliness. There have been plenty of nights when the hurt of being alone is more powerful than sleep. Sometimes, I tried to drown out the loneliness with entertainment. Like the parlour walls in Farhenheit 451, I numbed my feelings by binging TV shows in the evenings, watching borrowed emotions so as not to be alone with my thoughts. T.S. Eliot writes that “humankind cannot bear very much reality.” I could not bear much loneliness.

Then one day, Sufjan Stevens sang a song called “From the Mouth of Gabriel” that included the line “don’t be afraid of loneliness.” Something about the sincere hopefulness of the melody, the gentle injunction spoke to me soul-deep. I built a philosophy around those six words. I knew that is how I wanted to live.

It was revolutionary to me that you could lean into loneliness without succumbing to melancholy or malaise. I felt a sense of empowerment at permitting myself to feel something real, but recognizing that I could live a productive and full life in spite of it.

In the movie Frozen, Queen Elsa says, “yes, I’m alone, but I’m alone and free.” Marriage and singleness involve a trade-off: community or freedom. When I adopted my girls, I prayed and I talked to my family and friends, but, ultimately, it was my choice. I cannot count how many women have told me, “Oh, I would love to do foster care, but my husband….” There has never been a “but my husband” in my life. When I wanted to move, apply for a job, foster children, change the channel, or say yes to a dance with a stranger, I simply did it.

Of course, the best use of this freedom is following God’s leading without hesitation. Saint Paul says, “the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband” (1 Corinthians 7:34). So far, I have not found the person for whom I want to be anxious.

While it often feels like I am being left behind as all my friends get married and have kids, I tell myself that I am not being left behind—I am not being held back. I am free to devote myself to God and to my passions single-mindedly.

Of course, a good marriage ought to support the growth and goals of both people. But until I find that, I have no intentions of surrendering my wonderfully free will simply to assuage my loneliness. I’ve seen other people take that deal, and it simply isn’t worth the trade-off.

While Sufjan Stevens taught me that loneliness needn’t be feared, Henri Nouwen taught me what to do with my loneliness.

The answer is hospitality.

Loneliness is an empty space inside your life. What do you do with that empty space? Decorate it and invite over the neighbors.

Henri Nouwen speaks in his book The Wounded Healer about how a person who wishes to minister to others must deeply understand and then share their own pain. Nouwen calls hospitality a “response to the human condition of loneliness.” He defines hospitality as “the virtue which allows us to break through the narrowness of our own fears and to open our houses to the stranger….”

Nouwen says, “the minister who has come to terms with his own loneliness and is at home in his own house is a host who offers hospitality to his guests. He gives them a friendly space, where they may feel free to come and go, to be close and distant, to rest and to play, to talk and be silent, to eat and to fast. The paradox indeed is that hospitality asks for the creation of an empty space where the guest can find his own soul.”

Loneliness is a catalyst to create honest community. It is a chance to make room and receive. If you are lonely, serve others. You may not feel less lonely, but you will feel more human.

Poet Tanya Davis writes, “loneliness is a freedom that breathes easy and weightless/and lonely is healing if you make it.” I don’t agree that lonely is weightless, but it is freedom and it is healing when loneliness calls you to an eternal perspective and fosters genuine community.

I believe loneliness is ultimately a result of separation from God, which results only secondarily in fractured community. When I look forward to meeting Jesus face to face, I look forward to a wedding feast. I look forward to ultimate unity. Marriage is a sacramental picture of this. Some people get to enjoy the grace of this image of Christ and the Church. Some of us do not have even a dark mirror. We wait for the thing itself alone. But we wait with the Church—to whom we are all ministers in our own ways—waiting and confessing our shared pain and making it into a space for dwelling fully.

I may go to bed lonely at night, but I can also allow my loneliness to wake me up in the morning and motivate me to be a better friend, a better mother, and a better teacher. Loneliness that you do not fear feels a little like hunger and a little like hope. Hunger and hope are both good motivations to get stuff done.

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