Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Single & Seeking Adventure: Inner Observations from a Year Alone

I'm wrapping up this first post of 2017 (which has been a work in progress in my draft files for weeks now) after a return home from a spontaneous girls trip to Washington state with my friend to visit our best friend. As is maybe indicative by the art I've made over the past 365 days, spontaneous trips (and all kinds of adventures) were the theme of my 2016.

Just a year ago I was packing up to head to Colorado, where I lived from January to September- and in a span of just those few months I hiked hundreds of miles, summitted multiple mountains, and visited 13 national parks outside of Rocky Mountain, where I was living. Among so many other things, inner and outer, it's been a year of so much beauty, growth, and change.

And I've noticed when I recount my stories to all different people- strangers on the road, friends back here at home- there's a recurring string of questions that comes up much of the time, surrounding the theme of being a single female who travels- and does much of life- alone. (As if just being single wasn't weird enough).

Who travels alone, camps alone, goes hiking alone, moves out of state alone... has a business alone and changes jobs alone... no, I'm not married; no, I'm not engaged; no I haven't met anyone... yes I live alone and sleep alone and eat alone... yes. Yes, yes, yes.

It might just seem amplified by being temporarily back in the suburbs where marriage and family-centric life is the norm and many of the people in my graduating class have five year olds already, but while this year has done a lot of things for me, one of those has been to remind me continually of the the fact that I'm in my twenties, and because I'm not in a relationship, I do a lot of life alone. Singleness is something it's sometimes cool and independent to relish in publicly, and sometimes kind of pathetic. 

But whatever. It is what it is, and it's something I've had to confront a lot lately, so I thought sharing these thoughts might be relatable and hopefully encouraging. (Spoiler alert: while it's not totally without its occasional struggles, my vote is that singleness is a very beautiful, character-building thing).
To be honest, I never think about singleness. (Unless, like now, I'm thinking about it: because I've been reminded of it a lot or it's a topic that keeps coming up in my world.) Or rather, I'm not the type who- although I actually value relationship and companionship a lot- is looking to make them in contrived or 'inorganic' ways, I suppose. I'm content doing things alone (I actually really like it), and I really think relationships (friendships included) work best when they're between two people people who have each done their own living proudly, authentically, and out of love, not neediness, or dependency, or boredom.

But you meet people on the road, and they learn that you're alone. (On the road, or on a trail, or in a hotel, or at a restaurant, or on a mountain...) You come back from your travels, they learn that you did it alone. You are moving yet again soon (Asheville, here I come...), and you tell people about that, and you must clarify that, yes, you are doing that alone too. The more you tell your story, I guess, the more the details come up. And as you climb nearly out of your twenties, a 'someone else' seems to often be one of them.

But I want to be genuine about it. For me personally, the reiteration isn't frustrating insofar as it it makes me insecure or sad to say I'm not with someone. I'm neither empowered nor discouraged by singleness, which I think might be good: I think relationships are wonderful, but I also absolutely think ultimately being happy with your relationship with yourself is the best foundation to build that on. 

Not that we're ever perfectly self-loving beings, or are always elated to be who we are. We all struggle with all kinds of the same kinds of doubts, fears, uncertainties; that's beautifully human. But a sense of wholeness and completeness beyond just outward confidence or mood is a helpful, attractive, and rewarding thing.

So sure, vulnerably human as it is to say, there are times I can think about it- maybe in a low mood, or in situations where everyone else seems coupled up, or sometimes just randomly when I'm taking any kind of inventory of my life (which, as a reflective, intentional person, I do often). 
My guess would be that most people do, but for me it's generally more of a mature kind of wistfulness, I'd like to think: not 'it'd be nice to share life with someone because I'm lonely or missing something or need someone to reinforce who I am,' but because 'I'm content with what I'm building, with who I am overall, and it would be nice to have authentic companionship with another to keep going forward in that way.' It's immature to look for a saving grace in others that we can't find by ourselves, and I think good relationships serve a higher purpose than that anyway.

As someone who sees a sense of design in the world and in being human, a sense of intentionality about the way I feel made to live, I also believe in creating: cultivating, growing, building, designing, working to make something last on a firm foundation. Relationship is folded into that overall worldview that non-complacency is of the essence, that if a thing itself is not being nurtured- seeing growth, bearing fruit, creating positive output- it is not really being kept optimally (and you'll know, more or less, because it eventually won't really feel very good, whatever it is: relationships, friendships, jobs, day-to-day life. Hence my bent toward change, adventure, and challenging myself, I guess). 

I love the idea- because I think it really is the only workable reality, in the long run- of not minding at all dirty hands and clumsy stumbling and messy but unending grace: not perfection with another person (because that's not even present in myself), but growth, compassionate encouragement, and expansion (because that is). Think about it: we live in a culture where pretty much everything is quick, easy, disposable, and replaceable- and I think the sacredness of relationship is largely lost in that smokescreen too. Our unstable, ever-changing culture teaches us to want everything, but to value very little; we idolize perfection, but can't even imagine the sacrifice required to achieve even what is consistently good

Which is sort of a shame, because life is so much richer when relationships are not shrouded under that illusion, but rather things to be deeply invested in, and grown and cultivated. It's the privilege of a lifetime to love and be loved, see and be seen, and we become who we're supposed to be when we're invested in: when someone else pays a cost, gives something of themselves, to see who we really are even if it's not totally safe, convenient, or immediately rewarding.
It's hard to swim against a cultural current that says the opposite- that love doesn't really 'cost' anything, that it should serve us rather than that we should serve it- and to truly see relationships (and I even mean that on a level of friendship) as investments for our soul rather than just as one of many easy things here to make us 'happy,' or to instantly replace when lost. There's a lot of selflessness and humility that has to occur as single people before relationships of depth and longevity (and reward) can enter our picture, and as I get older I see that as I observe more and more of them- and patiently wait for specific ones of my own.

This perspective also means something a little counter-cultural: that the primary purpose of relationship is not about my comfort, my happiness, or what I can necessarily get. It is about something much bigger, more beautiful than that. So is life. About being able to pour out from a personhood which is already being filled. It's not an image of mere companionship, but a reality of teamwork. Of working for the cause of another person's growth and well being, while they also work for yours, and while the two of you are building something that reaches even higher. It's a pretty beautiful thing.

And as a woman, sure: it's nice to feel desirable and be pursued (for the right things); just like as men, it's natural to want to desire and pursue something (for the right reasons). That too is a beautiful thing. I've never been the type of woman to find empowerment in relation to my position against men, or in the fact that I'm that breed called 'female' while they are the other one: we are beautifully different creatures, and that's it. 

I think the tension between the groups is largely cultural (societal, political, etc.), but I try to see the ways (which really are there) in which we 1.) are differently and independently created, and 2.) naturally compliment and can serve one another with our own unique attributes, versus fight for dominance or even equalness. 

Any real seeing of one soul to another, especially between men and women, happens in surrender and vulnerability, acceptance of our uniqueness of being, and not in pride or the fight for individuality. Really beautiful, exclusive kinds of growth come from that kind of comradery too.
So yeah, like many women who are pursuing a more elevated concept of life, themselves, and the opposite sex than what they could read in Cosmo or find on Tinder or hear from their peers, that probably has a lot to do with my singleness to. But at the end of the day, what can you do about it but know what you value, have patience, and keep moving. You have to live your life, be happy with your choices, be compassionate to everyone, and be patient, not rushed. Sometimes that's so easy. Sometimes it's so not.

But yes, the moral of this story is going to be that I think being alone is fantastic- just like being in a relationship will be fantastic, when that time comes. Because what makes anything about life fantastic is that you choose it when it's put before you. You can only choose the next best right thing, and if what's in front of you is a big move, yourself, a roadtrip, and the next leg of your journey alone, well, then that's the journey you must go on. 

There has become this way of forcing things in our culture, of sort of thinking we can (and should) get 'what we want, when we want,' and it leads to many people trying so hard to get what they think will make them happy- all the while maybe missing the wonderful things that have been placed organically right in front of them. When we chase what we think we should have rather than invest in what we do, we start off missing the point. If you observe, many chase forever the ideal when it comes to relationships, when it could be that all they have to do is decide, and commit, to cultivating and working on what's been gracefully placed in their life, or patiently continue to wait.

I've more or less always believed these things, though more confidently and self-awarely now than in youth. As evidenced by my not-very-extensive dating record, I've never been a girl who's felt pressured to have a boyfriend or be in a relationship. I think from grade school through high school, that was probably for a number of reasons: painfully shy, not good at (or willing to) fight for attention; a fixation on things like school performance and playing sports, a high emotional intelligence that made teenage boys seem gross, being introverted, being kind of an old soul, I guess.

In college and after, I was more focused on finding and making myself, I think, not that I didn't date at all. But the intentionality, passion, and anchored confidence present in my overall worldview then was the same as was showcased in my relationships: not a whole lot. I think like lots of people I learned that stuff as I got older, more mature, and deeper into my faith and my purpose.
The past few years- my mid-twenties until now (at 29), have been about digging deep and cultivating the the things on which I think life (and anything in it, of it, or after it) will last: that substance, drive, adherence to virtues, maturity, decisiveness, conviction- from my life and others'.

These years have been about finding myself, yes, but also about finding more than my self. Living for higher ideals and principles. Our culture has a tendency to have us (especially- but, I've learned, not exclusively- young people) believe two really dangerous lies: one, that your life is all about you- your independence, your self-reliance, who you believe you are; and two, that a relationship will solve all your problems and make you a complete person. That once you have another person, the void will be filled.

I've learned in my twenties, as I suspected with my younger heart, that neither are totally true, and I feel like examining the deeper truth about both misconceptions has really been a large part of being okay- and thriving- alone.

Life, I think, is about a lot more than happiness as we commonly think about it, and certainly about a lot more than how I feel at any given time. Happiness is a byproduct of a well-lived life, but every life needs purpose, and that purpose has to come from more (much more) than what you do, how you feel, what you make, even what you think; it has to come from more than the experiences you have, and it definitely has to come from more than what earthly person loves or approves of you. 

I think knowing that purpose sets you apart, in a way- but in a good way.

Going on a roadtrip alone, moving out of state alone, (doing anything alone, really) isn't and wasn't about 'finding myself,' figuring out who I am. Your young life, your twenties- but even any time really; any time you choose- are a great time to find yourself, yes, but they're also a great time to decide. You could look for yourself, go deeper into yourself, forever, I suppose: but there comes a time of maturity where you find out more than just who you think you are and what you are becoming. 

Your real identity rests more on what you stand for. What your voice is, what your values are, not just what you think; what your worldview is, what your character looks like, what you want from life, and what you're willing to give up to get it. Not what you say you believe, or think you believe, but what you believe. There are differences. Carl Jung puts it wonderfully: "until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate."
Part of maturity is getting to the point where you're not deceived by your own thoughts about your nature. Being so real and self-aware of your layered and complex self and behavior that the idea that there's a Creator who must know you better than you know you becomes sort of psychologically inevitable, if not at first entirely believable. And that's where you have to place your ultimate dependency, your ultimate sense of who you are. (Of course those few sentences say nothing about the actual depth and process of getting there). 

There are things, good and bad, inside of all of us that we have to acknowledge drive our behavior. It's beautiful to live from a place of beliving you have not just a fate, but a personal destiny. You're not just alive, but you're living for some very good reason. (Which, like anything, can only be true if you believe it.) We all need a purpose to existence that's bigger than our self, or anything we do will ring, well, as temporary and fleeting as we are. Nothing is as relevant as what's eternal.

We find it out by asking big questions: what convicts you? What do you bring into the world? What's your voice? What do you need to refuse compromising to use it and maintain it? How do you feel about life and yourself (and your worth) when conditions aren't perfect? Why do you do anything you do? What does God want from you (and maybe, who is God to you?)

Yeah, I guess they sound like heavy contemplations. And I guess they are. But they're important. Much more important than just your individuality. Ultimately, no matter what you do, the answers to those questions decide everything. And I think ultimately, the confidence to go off into the world and see it- live in it, be honest and authentic in it- solo, making the way that is my own designated way, at least for me, comes from understanding myself more deeply than the popular cultural assignment, and less deeply than God. 

The mission is not just about going, it's about becoming. I think I think more about what I am becoming than where I am going, and that's how I've gone anywhere at all.
And then there's that second lie: 'everything (or anything) will be better when you're in a relationship.' Which, luckily, the more you learn to like who you are, seems more and more misleading. The idea prays on our vulnerability and under-confidence, but I get it. You can be wildly confident in your singleness and your personhood, and still very aware that it's an undeniable human need to belong. And of course, to be loved. That might not be on your radar in middle school, but as you mature, as you grow up, it's there. As is, hopefully, an expanded, deepened definition of love.

Some people are rampant with those desires, perhaps in a misplaced way, to the degree of insecurity in being alone; and if that's the case there's probably some self-examination that needs to take place as to why. But at the heart of everyone, most purely speaking, is a need to be seen, known, forgiven, and loved. In totality. Recognition of those desires, too, is something that also leads us back to God, to finding our wholeness in Him meeting those needs before people. 

Again, I think filling the human need in the right way goes back to a level of developed maturity, a level of knowing human nature well enough to know why you desire companionship or relationship. Loneliness, shame, under-confidence, unaddressed wounds, the need for validation; those are all reasons, sure, but not necessarily healthy ones that will bring you any peace or spawn relationships that feel right. Aloneness is sometimes so good because it gives you the chance to be honest about that kind of stuff with yourself, and makes you better able to love someone else by way of accepting and learning who you are.

The culture doesn't really tell you that- and many of the people who are closest to you (friends, relatives, acquaintances) don't set the example either, maybe because they haven't really thought about it themselves. In many ways, popular thinking reduces femininity and masculinity to roles in relation to each other, versus well-developed, distinctly valuable identities of their own. 

But both men and women are a lot more than 'someone's other half,' objects of desire, or wholly responsible for someone else's happiness. And it actually takes a lot more virtue, intelligence, and selflessness than just self-confidence to believe that. There's nothing wrong with being more concerned with turning hearts (starting with your own) than turning heads, and being single in the meantime. 
Or at least those are some things I tell myself. But really, I believe them. Find yourself first- while also realizing there are some things in you and about you that go too deep even for you to ever 'know.'  The inner journey springs from there, from that place of mystery and seeking. 

We're always evolving and changing, but that's what a value system and a belief system are for. They replace mere feelings, social pressures, and opinions (of our selves, and anything else) as the place from which our ultimate decisions come- which is actually what frees us by improving the consistency of our behavior and the depth of our conviction about what we want in life.  

That's really important: freedom isn't just doing whatever you want to do, or whatever you believe is a rebellion against what you think is expected of you- it's being in tune with (and loyal to) the voice that keeps your character integrated, one, whole. As women we're told a lot of the time, even when the intention isn't bad, that we're responsible for playing several roles, however subliminally, and particularly in relation to men. 

But in the end you always wind up finding that you can't pick and choose if you want a really authentic life. It's easy to buy into cultural voices that suggest we need to be what other people want versus just be who we know we are and respect ourselves enough to find others who appreciate us, not a constructed idea of us. A higher definition of who you are- one that doesn't yield, pretend, act, calculate, or manipulate- is necessary to make it through anything, literally, in one, whole piece. That's what makes authentic people authentic. Experiences end, but you go on living with you. 

Sleeping with you, eating with you, being with you; dreaming, traveling, planning, goal-setting, adventuring with you. And before you find a 'someone else,' it's important to realize that the first person you need to love, and respect, has been with you all along.

xoxo

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