When the Good Becomes the Enemy of the Best

If you are Catholic and single, you know by sometimes painful experience that there’s a disconnect between the ideal and the reality of community. I remember when I first began to have some inkling of this fact. I was 22, a senior at one of those “good Catholic schools,” and I was about to be thrown out into the big, bad world all on my own. I had a summer-long internship lined up in D.C., a few hours from my family, and while a few of my close friends planned to remain within a reasonable driving distance, I would be going it alone. We were all that 22-year-old once, so I won’t go into the details–you get it.

The worst of it though, from my perspective as a student at a solid Catholic college, was losing my whole community in one fell swoop. Four years of solidarity built with the professors who so readily offered advice and counsel, the fellow students, the friendships, the accountability, the shared experiences and jokes, everything…gone. And what did I have to move on to?

Nothing.

At least that’s what it looked like. I can’t begin to describe the enormity of that loss. If you’ve been there, you know. As I drove away from campus the weekend of my graduation, my belongings rattling in their boxes behind me, I felt like a boat that’d been set adrift. Alone, alone, alone, alone, alone.

We Catholic singles face a tough set of options in the post-college years. We can move home and live with or near parents and siblings, but for most of us that entails moving far away from good friends and good jobs. So many of us, myself included, end up living some distance away from our families in order to advance our careers and find friends, or maintain contact with old friends. It’s a heart-breaking choice to have to make, and it can also be extremely isolating. I also know many young adults in the D.C. area who have settled here specifically for the Faith formation that’s offered in the strong Arlington diocese. This was a huge factor in my decision to leave home–my spiritual life is nourished here as it simply wasn’t down in the Richmond diocese.

But as a result we find ourselves in this awkward stage of semi-belonging, no longer kids, not yet quite considered adults, and with no families to tie us in to anything. While the various social events for young adults on the parish and diocesan level are a great venue to meet like-minded singles, to form friendships, and even get dates (or at least so I’m told…), they aren’t community. I should put that in italics: they aren’t community. Natural communities aren’t formed of people who are all in roughly the same age group, nor are they based solely on getting together to have fun. So while the social events are a wonderful opportunity to enjoy ourselves (and I’m not dissing that at all! I love having a good time, and I think that’s important), they aren’t–they can’t be–a substitute for that deep-down need we all have for real community.

The question then becomes, is there any way for the single young adult to have and experience real community life?

I think there is. But in my case, discovering that I did have community meant letting go of my hard-held ideals about community. Funny that we’re like that, isn’t it? We get what we want when stop imposing conditions of perfection on things that just can’t be perfect in a fallen world. But opening myself up to community life that was different from my expectations (and yes, my wants) has been an amazing experience. I’ve gotten to know some really beautiful families at my parish church (a tip for the seeker of community: join a parish. You will be enriched by that community, I promise) through volunteering with the CCD program and the youth group. I teach some private piano lessons on the weekends, and have been blessed to get to know two amazing families that way. (One of my students received her First Communion today, and I was very touched to be included in her big day.) Even my daily interactions with people at work are a sort of community, though I’m not particularly close to most people in the office.

So do I belong to community, even as a single young adult? Yes. By the grace of God, I do, I can honestly say that. Is it ideal? No. But God doesn’t give us ideals as a rule, does he? His greatest gifts to us tend to be imperfect, hard to recognize, and they’re almost never quite what we expected. So if you’re longing for community, don’t give up hope. Pray. Pray really hard for it and never stop…and be willing to open up your eyes and take a good hard look around. You might be surprised at what you find.

 

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“Communication”

So keeping a blog has led me also to read the blogs of others–something I never did before. Sometimes I’m edified by what others have to say, or at least entertained, and sometimes I come away just plain annoyed. Take this post which I stumbled upon today on WordPress’s “freshly pressed” page: http://techcrunch.com/2011/02/21/phones-at-dinner/

In a nutshell, the writer of the blog post argues that the use of phones shouldn’t be frowned on when going out to dinner anymore, because “that’s the way the world is going,” basically. Sadly, his argument doesn’t really become more cogent as the article goes on. His two main points are, 1) we need to follow the trend and just deal with it, and 2) some people prefer the distractions of email, texts, apps, etc. to healthy conversation with the physical people around them…unless, of course, the physical people around them want to talk about email, texts, apps, etc., at which point they can enjoy their distractions “together.”

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against technology. I think our ability to remain so connected in this communication age is (or can be) a wonderful thing. But, like anything else, it can also be a big problem. Take, for example, my weekly meeting with the teenagers at my parish church. The idea is to have fellowship, taking an hour out of everyone’s busy week to come together, drink hot cocoa or eat cookies, and chat. Occasionally we’ll play a game; over Christmas we made cards for residents at a local nursing home. I love hanging out with the kids–but I’m really only hanging out with an addled portion of each one, as they’re texting, listening to music, and playing games on their phones. Their bodies may be in the parish center, but their attention is scattered all over the place. And this saddens me: there’s an impassible block to my getting to know them any better, because “they” simply aren’t there.

The same thing happens when I visit my family; we spend a little bit of time together, but after half an hour (at most) of good conversation, out come the phones, the iPods, the iPad, the laptops…and suddenly we’re all in our own little worlds, and that’s the end. “Spending time together” does not mean “occupying the same space together.” I should say, b is an important part of a, but it’s definitely not all of a. Capiche?

Just because this is the way things seem to be going does not mean we have to stand for it. In fact, we shouldn’t stand for it. Communications devices are a great way to maintain contact with loved ones who are far away, definitely. And it’s great that we can look up the meaning of a word, the name of a celebrity, or last night’s game’s score so quickly in order to enhance our conversation. But why are we allowing these devices to take the place of the loved ones who are sitting in the same room?

And we wonder why our generation is so lonely…

A Community of Strangers

I once heard a priest say, “We are relationships,” and I was so impressed I wrote it down. And then forgot about it until just last weekend when I stumbled across it while thumbing through some old papers. (In the course of my periodic ‘deep cleans’ I almost inevitably end up spending at least half an hour just rifling through piles of loose-leaf paper, on which I’ve scribbled notes to myself, moving sayings, fragments of stories, and even–on the rare, rare occasion–smatterings of poetry. I have a drawer full of these papers, and I should probably just throw them away, but something holds me back…)

It’s a weird thought, actually, and (for me at least) an uncomfortable one. We “are” relationships. They’re not just something we have or something we do, they’re part of our very being. Being made in the image and likeness of a Triune, relational God, we share something of His relational nature. I am a rugged, stubborn individualist, and this fact about the human person is a hard one for me to swallow.

Still, growing up in a large family, I couldn’t really avoid it. You can’t help but view yourself as relationship when you’re surrounded by six younger siblings and two parents and all sorts of neighbors, friends, fellow members of co-ops and classes, co-workers, pets, etc. Solitude was rare. Really, really rare. For a little while I actually hid a lamp in my bedroom closet, and when I could steal away I’d crawl in there with a book to hide. (Fire hazard, yes. But I would spend some really blissful moments of freedom and quiet in that closet, until the family got wise to my absence and set off in pursuit.)  I was relationship: daughter, sister, friend, classmate, etc.

But now that I’m out on my own, things have gotten fuzzier. I’m still daughter, sister, and friend, of course, but the parents, siblings, and friends aren’t necessarily active parts of my daily life. Gone are the days of retreating to a closet to be alone. In fact, I spend most of my time alone, even at work, given the nature of my job (editing/publishing). And yet I am still relationship(s). Granted, some days the only relational role I play is that of customer, yet my thirty-second interaction with the bleary-eyed woman behind the Safeway counter is still part of my being relational…isn’t it?

I tend to cast off these fleeting interactions with others as inconsequential. Fear of the unknown, coupled with a blanket fear of people, makes me terrified of unknown people. But let’s face it: I’m a single person, and strangers make up the bulk of my relational life. (I mean, I spend more time with my fellow commuters on the metro each day than I do with my family members.) So instead of giving in to my own tendency to keep strangers strange, I have to buck up and reach out–maybe not effusively, but at least a little. Of course this doesn’t really fit the idyllic community model, but how often in our lives do we actually find ourselves living out the idyllic model? Ask any mother surrounded by clamoring children, mountains of laundry, and a to-do list as long as her arm and she’ll tell you even the ideal isn’t ideal. What was it Mother Theresa said? “Bloom where you’re planted.”

Right now Christ is seeking me from the depths of strangers’ eyes–the Safeway cashier, the middle-aged man in the metro seat next to me, the homeless woman on the corner. I am relationships…not just the close, loving ones that build me up and give me the stamina to keep moving forward, but the odd, fleeting ones that occur five, ten, or fifty times over the course of a single day. I may be single, but I’m no more free to charter my own ruggedly individual course now than I was as a teenager living at home. The signs may be harder to read (no more frantic mother or sister hollering my name from the foot of the stairs), and the process harder to figure out and follow (there’s a pattern to family things, no matter how seemingly disorganized; like a job, you eventually figure it out, even when out-of-the-ordinary events occur; no such pattern exists in the disconnected interactions with random strangers), but the main fact remains: I am relationships, and thus it is in relationships that I will find God. The question (and the challenge) then becomes: am I willing to seek him, to find him, and even to embrace him wherever he may be, regardless of my comfort level?

‘Busy, busy, dreadfully busy…’

Still busy. Still really, really busy. But I find it’s like walking through a bitingly cold winter wind–you appreciate the pockets of stillness and (relative) warmth so much. I may only have fifteen minutes to spend on my sofa with my feet up at the end of the day, but they’re fifteen wonderful minutes.

“Busy” seems to be the key word to describe the life of just about every person I know. I sometimes wonder with just a twinge of guilt if I should slow down a bit. It’s not as if life will get easier when I’m juggling not just my schedule, but a whole family’s. A good friend of mine pointed out recently how important it is to take time just to sit and reflect on the day. But with the demands of a full-time job, parish volunteering, some part-time work on weekends, family, keeping my hand in a few hobbies, staying on top of house work, grocery shopping, and laundry, and of course spending time with friends…where is there time for just sitting still? I don’t even mean praying, which is a different kind of sitting still. I mean just relaxing.

I almost don’t want to relax. I think I worry that it leaves me too much time to feel sorry for myself. And I have a feeling I’m not the only single young adult who feels this way. I take those fifteen minutes on my couch at the end of a busy workday now and then, but I don’t want much more than that. Who knows? Maybe that’s enough for now.

Still. On top of the helter-skelter that is my life at the moment, there have been some wonderful little blessings. One of the biggest? I celebrated a birthday this week, and friends and family have just spoiled me rotten. Thanks so much to everyone for the gifts, notes, emails, phone calls, text messages, and well-wishes…and most especially for your prayers.

And of course, in the midst of the madness, daily mass, as always. As my youngest sister often yells, with the accompanying fist-pump: “Go Jesus!”

God Is So Good

Just a quick post today. I wanted to take a moment to say that God is very, very good.

Not that we don’t know that already, but some days He just proves it in abundance. This morning I woke up literally unable to breathe because I had so much work to do. In fact, the massive “impendingness” of this particular Monday hung like a black cloud over my whole weekend. This week is going to be extremely busy, especially at work. But this morning my guardian angel took me by the ear and said two words: Mass. Pronto.

And by some extraordinary grace, I went to Mass before work, even though all I wanted to do was get to my desk and start in on the mountain of work I had to do.

Why is this always a surprise? You give God the first fruits of your day, and He gives back in abundance. I got everything done…and more than I expected to accomplish, in about half the time I thought it would take. And now I’m about to head off to dinner with some friends, a dinner which I will actually enjoy, because I don’t have to go home and wrap things up before tomorrow.

Wow.

I say it again: God is very, very good.

Thinking Platonic

Speaking of snarkiness…please forgive me my snarkiness in my latest post.I was a little appalled by the article I linked to my post, but I certainly didn’t intend to sound like I was attacking any of you fellows.

I was in conversation with an older woman I know a few months ago, and I don’t remember what we were talking about exactly, but she said something that stuck with me about modernity and male-female relationships. She said: “There’s just a lot of anger. Women are angry with men, and men are angry with women,” and it’s not over anything they’ve done to one another, it’s just the result of a lot of confusion. And while I can’t put my finger on the root cause of it (though I’m convinced the “emancipation” of women, the rise of promiscuity, and now the surge in homosexuality all have something to do with it–oh yeah, and that whole original sin thing…), I’m convinced that she’s right. I am also convinced that the solution begins with each individual. The only way to stop anger is by ceasing, first of all, to be angry. And the only way to heal wounds caused by anger is to set about that process in your own relationships. Both of which things are a lot easier said than done.

So to couch my earlier post in kinder terms: Guys, don’t be frightened off too easily by us girls. A couple of you posted comments on some earlier posts about how important it is for girls to be open, to smile, and of course you’re right. Some of us are better at that than others. But just remember, you’re not the only ones who are afraid. We’re just afraid of different things. Men (I’m told) are afraid of rejection. Women are afraid of…multiple things, but I think a good label to put on all of it is “being invaded.” So it’s a tricky field to play, and I guess it requires us both taking a deep breath and…seeing what happens. So while we girls smile and try to be open, we need you guys to come forward and say what you want. I can’t promise you won’t be rejected, but I can promise that you’ll be respected for trying. (As long as your attempt is respectful, of course.)

But beyond all that, let’s not discount good old-fashioned friendship of the “Platonic” variety. (Or, as I prefer, “Aristotelian.”) Maybe before jumping on the romance bandwagon, we should be learning to be friends. Not “just friends” (I’ve always hated that term), but actually friends. Why do we brush this off? The popular perception seems to be that we have to get from 0 to 60 in three dates. So we end up dating far too many people, getting ourselves worked up about things that don’t really matter, and feeding that cycle of anger. This goes on in our Christian/Catholic circles just as much as it does in the “secular” world, even if the hook-up culture is (thankfully) not such an issue for us. What’s wrong with friendship? Here’s a rallying cry for it–friendships between men and men, women and women, and women and men. This does not mean that I’m going to treat my guy friends the way I treat my girl friends, or even that I’ll be as close to them as I am to my closest girl friends. I’m not, and I won’t be. There have to be certain boundaries (back to that original sin thing again), but that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t be friends. The point of friendship is simply to be and grow together. What does Aristotle say about friends? That they share their lives. Then we Christians have a great, solid basis for deep friendships–we have Christ, and the life we share is His life…shared with men and women, young and old.  And I truly believe that in chaste friendships we can begin to establish the trust between men and women that can break down the anger and set to work healing, not just us as individuals, but our society–especially our generation–too.

 

Dating Seminars

Who knew picking up girls was something you could learn to do in a seminar? (Well, except in “Hitch,” but does anyone actually take rom coms seriously? Tell you what: if you do, just don’t admit it out loud…) But according to this article in yesterday’s “City Paper,” it can be done. Or at least guys are paying $1,300 in the happy assumption that it can be done.

http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk/2011/02/01/pick-up-artists-to-descend-on-dupont-this-weekend/

Hmm. Here’s a thought, guys. (Or maybe we’ll just call it a “tip.”) Girls want to be pursued. Yeah, we might smirk and and raise our eyebrows–please forgive us the snarkiness we cling to in our nervousness. (I do mean that…we can be a little petty.) Know that deep down, we like being sought out. We’re hardwired to like it. You don’t have to be tough or macho, or even all that “cool” or good-looking. A touch of kindness and a dash of humor go a long, long way.

Then again, if all you’re looking for is a quick hook-up, maybe you’d better cough up that $1,300.