It’s an amazing thing, the variety of reactions you get when you tell someone that you are 30 years old and don’t have a spouse or children. There’s a range of responses, which can quickly be categorized into two groups: Pity and Envy. Both reside under the umbrella of Surprise, but the logistics of each vary widely. First, Pity.
Pity 1: “What happened?” — Implies the assumed inevitability that a) I’m divorced, or b) I at one point was really close to getting married but something went dramatically wrong.
Pity 2: “Oh, I’m sorry.” — Insinuation that I’m missing out, or that my life has less meaning that it would if I was, in fact, married with children.
Pity 3: “It’s never too late!” — This response usually happens in one of two contexts: a) The person is immediately put off by this knowledge that I’m single and is ready to transition the conversation to another topic or to another person, or b) He/she is trying to set me up with someone.
Envy 1: “In another life…” — Hinting towards the person’s own questioning of his/her life choices. He/she is currently in the middle of a life that didn’t turn out the way he/she thought it would, and sees my life some sort of hypothetical, vicarious example of what life could have been like if certain life-altering decisions hadn’t been made.
Envy 2: “Must be nice.” — Revealing a) Life with a spouse and children is hard; b) The speaker has no respect for certain realities and doesn’t appreciate what he/she has; or c) Flippant comments to give a person the excuse to complain about his/her own life are so much easier than listening to someone else.
Envy 3: “Lucky bastard.” — See c) from “Envy 2.”
The Pity and Envy responses make sense to me in various ways, and I am at a point where I’m not surprised by any of them. The problem is that both of them are on the same side of the ledger in terms of Surprise: whether they are based in pity or envy, all of these response are based on a premise of disbelief that someone could be 30 years old and not have a spouse and/or children. “How is that possible? How does that happen? Why hasn’t he grown up? When is he going to settle down and start his life?” These responses of surprise also come loaded with condescension, as if there’s some sort of rule book for what makes a life worthwhile. That rule book exists, but its criteria aren’t about spouses or children, nor are they about career choices, or savings accounts, or zip codes.
Some of the happiest people I know are married. They have spouses that support them, kids that look up to them, and families that create daily meaning and motivation for the work that they do. Some of the most miserable people I know are married, too. They have spouses that belittle them and constrain them from being who they want to be. They treat their kids as burdens instead of blessings. They go to work and happy hours in order to be away from home. I know miserable people that are single, that simply cannot find meaning without other people being immediate parts of their daily lives. And I know single people that could not be happier with their lives, that wake up everyday feeling lucky to have the opportunity to interact with the people they know and to be part of this inherently strange and confusing world. The rule book for making life worthwhile is different for everyone. That might be the most cliche and trite statement I’ve ever written, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
I’m not out to tell someone what is going to make his/her life meaningful. I don’t claim to know the solution, nor do I want to be responsible for defining a fulfilling life for someone else. I don’t know what fulfills you, and it wouldn’t be fair or productive to claim that I do. I can hope for that for everyone, and that is sincerely my hope. Finding meaning in what we do on a daily basis is a crucial part of the human experience; without that meaning, nihilism slowly–or maybe quickly–creeps in and takes over. I’ve seen nihilism, and I choose to do what I can to avoid it, and I hope that if you’re reading this you have found a better option than the postmodern bottom line of meaninglessness. But labeling certain life choices (such as marriage) as necessarily pointing to certain points on the spectrum of meaningfulness doesn’t work, and I wish we were better at acknowledging that.
Some of the statements above resonate perfectly with me. I agree: it’s never too late to meet someone. Of course I have an answer to the question “What happened?” And I don’t blame some of my friends for calling me a “lucky bastard” and being jealous of parts of my life. But when we ask people these questions or make these types of remarks, we are saying more about ourselves than we are about that person. If we are jealous of those around us, what does that say about the degree to which we appreciate–or don’t–the amazing opportunities we have in our own lives every single day? When we question the life choices of the people we meet, which of our own decisions–that we might regret–are we purposefully overlooking or brushing over? And while we remind our friends that it’s never too late to meet someone, what dreams of our own do we still have time to achieve?
Our culture is plagued with a lack of self-awareness. We are really good at seeing other people’s lives, figuring out what they should do differently, and then moving on to someone else and making the same sort of judgments. I am guilty of this as much as anyone. Maybe it’s time to stop picking up on what people don’t have, or only noticing what could be better for them, and instead start trying to be empathetic to who they are and why their life is what it is, and to use that empathy to better recognize ourselves and, in turn, appreciate what we have and why we have it. “Not like mine” is not a valid reason to feel sorry for or to be judgmental of other people’s lives. We all do this, all the time. I think all parties would be better off if we didn’t.
Yes, I’m 30. No, I don’t have a wife. Yes, I play golf more than 98% of the general public. No, I don’t want to be single forever. Yes, I do get to eat Chinese take-out twice a week, sometimes as I watch television. I’m jealous of you and your awesome marriage, and I’m not jealous at all of your crappy one. Sure, I’d be happy to meet your single coworker, or to talk in more detail about arranged marriages…Now, let’s talk about something else.