“Jean-Daniel, how do I find someone to love?”
- Don’t ask probably celibate single men in their 30s for romantic advice.
- Give up.
Woah, woah there, I know, I know, that sounds bitter, jaded, and sarcastic. And I could be rightfully accused of being all three. But in my defence, I am inspired by the mid-30s presumed but not proven single sexual-orientation unclear Lord and Saviour we Christians follow. He was gentler, more pastoral, not the corrupt sinner I am, so he didn’t say “give up.” He said, “Do not worry about tomorrow,” though. Do not worry. Let it Go, as Saint Elsa of Arendelle says.
Stop trying so hard.
I find it suspect at best that Jesus of no-known-romantic-relationship would be interested in cultural Christianity’s obsession with romance and marriage. “Christian marriage” is an odd phrase to say the least. Christian baptism, Christian Communion–those make sense. Naming rituals after one historically assumed to have participated in them or instituted them. But to name one he likely never did? Odd at best, if not skewing a bit toward exegetical heresy. Yet our Christian magazines and blogosphere and pulpits are full of romantic advice. Perhaps in the Mormon and Evangelical spheres of my upbringing most common of which was, stop trying to find the perfect partner and focus on becoming one. Practically speaking, I think that is as solid as it may get, really. Be a better person, and better people will be attracted to that. Logically sound. But, not particularly Christian.
Let’s be clear, Jesus did call us to high standards. He gives the command rather directly, “Be perfect.” Christian living is a paradox of high standards and admitting limitations. It’s the end goal that doesn’t resonate with Jesus. We don’t become better people so that we’ll get love and marriage and sex and security. We become better people because the Holy Spirit works in us to transform us and empowers us to live the life God is calling us to. Which, terrifyingly, may or may not result in happy marriage.
Be better because it is better to be better, not to “get” a better partner. What if that means I stay single forever? Well, yes, that is a distinct possibility. And Jesus says, don’t worry about that.
The other flaw I have found with these standard Christian advice is anecdotal, but it is my anecdote and so I am attached to it: becoming more fully myself has so far showed no signs of being an irresistible draw to those of compatible gender identities and orientations. Frankly, it has made me dig deeper into being a more complex bundle of contradictions. As I discern each aspect of my life and work toward my clearest and best sense of what God may be calling me to do and become, I find myself more and more quirky.
Once one my relatives helpfully rhetorically asked, “You know why you don’t have a girlfriend?” and went on to explain nobody would want someone with all my contradictions. Elite education and low salary. Extreme religiosity but political liberalism. Openly bi but also a prude. Et cetera. Objectively, he may well have had a point. But mostly I think the fact I had not asked anyone on a date was the primary hurdle.
The safely bland have the most options if partnering is itself the goal is the end goal.
As a Mormon teen and young adult, this was unapologetic doctrine. We were taught a conformity of style and life goals. And sure enough, the closer my peers were to the idealised Mormon, the younger they seemed to marry. Finding a clean-cut BYU student who does summer sales for a multi-level marketing company and volunteers for the Romney campaign was no challenge. Former president of the LDS Church, Spencer Kimball said, “It is certain that almost any good man and any good woman can have happiness and a successful marriage.” Good, of course, being defined by strict obedience to his morals and lifestyle teachings!
While secular culture does smugly look askance at Mormons as eerily and Stepford-Wivesly similar bunch, unthinkingly taking their weird subculture’s morals and patterns for granted, I have learned as a fair-minded ex-Mormon, the rest of the world isn’t different. Each cultural subgroup, whether we define it by religion or politics or geography, develops its norms. Fastidious absolutist abstinence before marriage or Tinder-driven hook-up culture both run the risk of being thoughtless ethics of sexuality, for example, and thus risk being equally emotionally unsatisfying because they are simply equal but opposite extremes of not discerning carefully as a couple. (And when sincerely thought through and chosen, both paths may lead to happiness for some people.)
That is why secular magazines may vary in content, but not pattern, from the Christian world when it comes to “finding the one” advice. They teach you to conform to some norm and then hope someone who also accepts that norm will be drawn to you.
But back to Jesus. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Don’t worry about finding your next date. Don’t worry about your wedding day. (This is my weak spot. I admit it. The stereotype that little boys don’t grow up daydreaming about their wedding day can go to hell. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a wedding day in my future, but Lord knows I will have opinions about liturgy and decorations and outfits and music and above all invitation typeface and formatting.) Don’t worry about having sex ever (again).
In the last few years, I have done many things besides find true, lasting romantic love. I have continued to raise wonderful children. I have progressed in my career, building communities and programs that edify (and, indirectly, I think my work has led to a lot of great success in other people’s love lives!). I have done research I am proud of, inching closer to a doctorate. I have taken better control of my mental and physical health. In each improvement that was motivated by doing what I felt God was calling me to do, I found greater happiness and peace. Even in its singleness.
I have also occasionally, and I regret it every time to whatever extent I did it, tried to be more “attractive.” There is nothing wrong with trying to wear nice clothes or take grooming seriously or go to the gym, if intrinsically motivated. Insofar as I have done some of those things based on who I want to be, they have felt good. Insofar as I did to try to be more “normal”, they just made me sad. I don’t want to dress the way some hypothetical girlfriend would want me to. I won’t be a normal guy who goes to a pub and drinks a beer and watches a hockey game with the guys. I can’t pull it off convincingly.
In worrying about tomorrow in a way that pressured me into behaving differently today, I realised that a consequence of breaking Jesus’ command to not worry is lying. To ourselves and to others.
One of the reasons I loathe what I see of cultural dating is that first dates are so often about lies. At worst deliberate, but far more commonly that shallow charade of presenting to each other what we assume, rightly or wrongly, the other should or would find attractive. What if “not worrying” includes, who cares if this person finds me attractive? If they don’t, then I am free to find someone who does. Maybe here we too often worry about tonight.
Jean-Daniel, you can’t ruin every first date by just leading with your weirdest traits, I hear you say. Why not?
Hi. I am raising two kids. I am a priest. My favourite colour is pink. I love Broadway and dream having a pet goat. I don’t drink alcohol, but I do love Instagramming my cats on Friday nights. My office is covered in puppets and a rainbow made of tulle. That I made, and I am darn proud of it. Wanna have a good time, baby? By good time I mean some tea and nerdy conversation. I definitely won’t want us to touch until we’ve known each for quite some time.
As a youth pastor and university chaplain, I have seen it happen so much that when people play the game of being normal and attractive by the world’s standards they get sex sooner and more frequently at first, but it’s worse sex, my friends. I don’t mean this moralistically. I work with a wide range of young people, some conservatively Christian, some openly atheist but still open-minded to chat with a pastor. I mean this as an exceptionally awkward big brother figure who cares about your happiness. It is worse because insofar as we hide ourselves and fake being someone else to have a connection, there less connection, and that denigrates intimacy on every level.
So many of us force ourselves into boxes we don’t fit into and present ourselves in ways we don’t feel comfortable with because it is what we have come to believe we must do to get sex and/or love.
Sex and/or love? Admittedly, sounds fun in theory.
I am not going to pretend to be the paragon of empowered, content singleness either. I often feel lonely. Going to an overly spacious double bed every night is sometimes devastating. I have priest colleagues who find deep and abiding meaning in a life of celibacy. I am not one of them. And keeping my bitter and jaded side in check at weddings? Frankly it is for the best I am mostly invited to weddings when I am on my best professional behaviour and not often invited as a private citizen.
So sure, being in a couple, or having sex, or getting married, all sound great.
But at what costs? If I have to transform who I am to have sex, for example, then someone isn’t having sex with me, they are making love to a figment of our mutual imagination of who I am supposed to be. I have sexually objectified myself. No thanks. You didn’t need a partner for meaningless empty physical release. In fact it is exploitative. If sex between two people is about a connection–whether you think marriage is necessary or not, I hope it is not overly prudish to argue it ought to be, or at least for me must be, about connection–then it is really only meaningful if both parties are bringing their whole and quirky and odd selves.
Relationships, broadly, or sex specifically, or even marriage, between two people who were so worried about finding a partner as its own end that they sacrificed who they are and who God is calling them to be at the altar of worry are bland relationships.
My hypothesis is that it is better to be a ridiculous happy person alone than two arbitrarily dull ones. And that may actually be something about romantic love that a single person has the credibility to posit!
And if we each spend each day, asking God in our prayers and our actions, who are you calling me to be and become, what are you calling me to do, maybe someday someone will see that and recognise someone God has brought into their life.
Then again, maybe not.
Don’t worry about it. Tomorrow will take care of itself.