The twenty-first century is offering up plenty of reasons to fret about the nation, the world, and perhaps our own individual lives. There is one very significant trend, though, that has been heading in the right direction for a good, long time. More so than ever before, we can live the life that is most consistent with who we really are.
No longer does everyone have to be, or pretend to be, or pretend to want to be, heterosexual or monogamous or married or interested in having children or a detached single-family home in the suburbs or a car or a high-powered job. We get to write our own life scripts. And thanks to the internet, we can usually find other people who share our interests and maybe even understand us at a deep level. Taking the path less chosen (or less celebrated) is not as lonely as it once was.
But not everyone is happy about our expanding options. There are those who would like to cram us all back into the prescribed boxes and tape them all shut. They like the idea of the one true and worthy path through life. Those of us following a different road – especially those of us who are happy doing so – are threatening the special status of the one and only celebrated way to live. And so they offer us advice, gratis, for how to get back on track.
A particularly off-putting example is an essay in The Book of Life, “I wish I was still single.” (No authors are listed.) It begins with a recitation of some of the positive aspects of living single – not the profound benefits of single life, for the most part, but mostly just the small stuff such as getting up when you want to and eating what you want without having to justify your choices to anyone else. The unidentified authors don’t want us to think about those things, though, because remembering what we appreciated about our single lives might make us “snappy and bitter” in our romantic relationships. (Note the use of the “bitter” stereotype.)
If you are in a romantic relationship and thinking those forbidden thoughts about what you liked about your single life, the authors want to remind you of what observers of your single life would see: “They’d capture our face at 5:30 pm on a winter Sunday afternoon, as the sun begins to set and we know we’ll be alone till we reach the office on Monday morning. They’d observe us looking across the room at someone at a party and not having the courage to do more. They’d capture us spending a lot of time at our parents’ house, and growing increasingly tetchy in their company.” And so on.
The authors seem to think that all single people are truly miserable, and any objective observer would see that. In the United States alone, there are more than 109 million people who are not married, but the authors apparently cannot fathom that any of them are like me. At 5:30 on most Sunday afternoons, I revel in the hours of solitude that are still about to unfurl – or I head out to a reading at a bookstore or dinner and a movie with a friend. No one would ever find me looking longingly across the room at a party. If there is someone I want to talk to, I’ll approach them, and not because I hope they will become a romantic partner. I would not be “tetchy” in the company of my parents; I would be profoundly grateful to see them alive once again. (They both died long ago.)
The essay ends with this embarrassingly bad piece of advice: “Imagine that a documentary maker had made a film about you being single. What would some of the most distressing scenes be?”
I think it is probably true that if you typically love being coupled and you find yourself wishing you were single only occasionally, then you probably would do best as part of a couple. When your yearnings to be single are the exceptions, then maybe you are just in the wrong relationship or there is something off about it at the moment.
But that’s not what these authors are talking about. They are simply assuming that everyone should be coupled, and that anyone in a romantic relationship who is thinking fondly about what they loved about living single should stop it immediately. Instead, they should try to imagine “the most distressing scenes” from single life.
The essay is not an even-handed cautionary tale about romanticizing whatever life you do not currently have. There is no admonition to single people who are fantasizing about being coupled to imagine the most distressing scenes from coupled life. No, these authors want all 109 million single Americans, and the zillions more all around the globe, to realize that our lives are inferior. We should all be romantically coupled. And perish the thought that single life might actually be the very best life for some of us – our most authentic, fulfilling, and meaningful way to live.
Don’t listen to them. They don’t know you. You know you. You have a greater opportunity to live the life that is right for you than any cohort in history – not just with regard to relationship status, but other big, important parts of your life, too. Don’t let the Book of (a very, very narrow) Life take that away from you.