Missing the Boat

During a rather fun conversation yesterday with Vision radio, I was asked by the co-host Alex about how to respond to single people who feel they have “missed the boat.” Alex told me of a single friend in her 40s who had given up hope of finding someone. This friend felt she had missed the boat.

We had quite an interesting discussion about what missing the boat looks like, why the boat seems so important and who invented this boat anyway. Yes, I believe the metaphorical boat is an invention. I think it might be useful to examine this mythical boat further in considering how we respond to single people.

There are many things we could say to a single friend like that. I’ve got three ideas to kick us off:

  1. Compassion. A single person who says they’ve “missed the boat” could be grieving. They probably have hopes and dreams for a relationship, maybe a family, perhaps a whole lifestyle. They might have spent their whole life planning for it. They might only now be realising that they are losing all of this. Such an intangible grief is invisible but it is oh so real.
  2. The sociology of boats. It seems to me that our society spends an awful lot of energy and time convincing us that being in a relationship is the single greatest indicator of success in life. We idealise romance – think Valentine’s Day – and congratulate those who settle into lasting relationships. Singleness is often viewed as a temporary state from which people will mature and outgrow into marriage. More and more, however, we are seeing the reality of marriage breakdown and enduring singledom. I think this myth is busted.
  3. Resist the fix-it fixation. We don’t like seeing our friends in pain and we like to solve problems. This can mean we jump the gun in trying to help our friends. We might rush in to help a single friend with such comments as, “God’s got someone for you” or “You have the gift of singleness”. We might as well be saying, “Chin up! That biting loneliness and despair you feel is God’s plan for your life.”

It is only natural that Alex’s 40-something friend felt like she had missed something. Society teaches that we’ve gotta have someone to be someone. As discussed in my book Surviving Singledom, marriage is often sold as a litmus test of our spirituality, maturity, lovability and worthiness. Prolonged singleness can hence have a profound impact on our sense of worth and identity.

The church can unwittingly reinforce these ideas as well. Most church-goers are couples and families. Christmas services and special events are “family-friendly.” I wonder what it would be like to design a “single-friendly” service and to honour the vital contributions made by the singles in our midst.

I know of many single people who are redefining themselves. They are taking hold of opportunities in life that they might have otherwise not had. They are preaching, mentoring, travelling, speaking, volunteering, risking, missionising, businessing and working consistently at their jobs. They are living for Christ as best as they can.

It’s just possible that to “miss the boat” as a single person is to break society’s conventions of success. In some ways, to remain single is to challenge the norm. It’s time we reframed the single person as living courageously or being a pioneer, rather than as being somehow lesser or as “missing the boat.”

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