Single in the Borderlands (from the series: Single and Married in the LDS Church)
Note: Kristine gave this talk first at a Single Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City and again at a Conference on Singles in New York City, May 2015. I post these excerpts with her permission.
As a single woman, Kristine’s word made a powerful impact when I heard them – and I continue to reflect on them. My two favorites thought are:
- “We, as singles, can stop being limited by [false] theories ourselves. Clean from every corner of your psyche the cobwebs of “not enough,” “broken,” “cursed,” “unworthy,” “defective,” and “incomplete.” Do the work it takes to tell yourself a different story. And then really believe it.”
- “[Singles] are also in a unique position to both practice and teach patience and endurance [to all members of the church]. Simply by existing within the body of Christ, unmarried Saints open space for a richer and deeper understanding of God and the nature of God’s gifts to their children. [Singles often live in the borderlands – the places where we can feel loneliest. And these places are exactly the places where we learn to be whole.”
I’m Mormon enough that my first impulse in preparing a talk of almost any kind is to look up key terms in the scriptures’ Topical Guide. The word “border” occurs mostly, as one would expect, in the context of territorial boundaries and disputes. “And the border went out toward the sea to Michmethah on the north side; and the border went about eastward unto Taanath-shiloh, and passed by it on the east to Janohah . . .”—the Old Testament in particular is full of names and geography that tell us, in our far-away, belated arrival to the text, only that drawing lines seems to be an eternal human preoccupation. In the Book of Mormon, this mania for line-drawing is shown in its violent and ultimately apocalyptic form. The borderlands can be dangerous places where human greed and violence fester.
There are, however, also some mentions of borders in the scriptures that present a very different perspective. In Isaiah and in the Doctrine and Covenants, there are injunctions that “Zion must increase in beauty, and in holiness; her borders must be enlarged” and promises that God will enlarge the borders of Israel. Borders, then, though wild and contested, are also the places where growth occurs, where God’s blessing finds place.
So how can we who find ourselves in the borderlands of a married church—in the strange wilderness that is singleness—welcome others out? What can we offer? What can we teach?
First, we can (and will, by our mere existence) embody the knowledge that a great deal of Mormon theologizing about families is too tidy to be useful. The theology may be pretty, but in the way that a ballroom chandelier is pretty: it requires a complicated apparatus and a whole lot of luck to light it up and bask in its splendor. Most of us, most of the time, are not at a ball, we’re wandering through the woods in the dark, so we’re completely justified if we tell the person who is rhapsodizing about the chandelier they once saw to shut up and hand us a flashlight! It is good and right to articulate the ideals that we want to illuminate our lives, but it’s important to learn to recognize them in unexpected forms and places. We who live in the borderlands can teach our sisters and brothers about the especial loveliness of unexpected flashes of brilliance that appear, like Hopkins’ “shining from shook foil,” in relationships and experiences that don’t fit the expected familial template.
Besides merely existing, how can we communicate this idea that love is richer and more complex than the theoretical frameworks in which we try to contain it?
We can stop being limited by those theories ourselves. Clean from every corner of your psyche the cobwebs of “not enough,” “broken,” “cursed,” “unworthy,” “defective,” and “incomplete.” Evict the ugly shards of brittle stories about what should be. Get out the flashlight! Do the work it takes to tell yourself a different story. And then really believe it. Then we can tell other people the story. Fracturing [the traditional] script helps those around us think more productively about the other people in their lives who are also different.
We are also in a unique position to both practice and teach patience and endurance. Mormons really like to get things done; we like to solve problems. Sometimes, in our discourse about single members, it’s possible to hear a note of impatience: why haven’t you solved your singleness problem yet? And sometimes the analyses are hurtful or insulting: single men are slackers who won’t do the responsible thing and get married; single women are too picky/smart/focused-on-marriage/focused-on-career/ugly (the last is usually euphemized). … God is not a vending machine. The possibility that an unmarried adult Saint might be obedient is an affront to this falsely comforting folk theology. The fact is, unmarried Saints have a share in God’s blessings, too, but some of those blessing don’t look like the ones married Saints receive.
Simply by existing within the body of Christ, unmarried Saints open space for a richer and deeper understanding of God and the nature of God’s gifts to their children. Our lives convey something that is true for everyone, but perhaps not always so obviously: grace is abundant and free, but also wild; we must persist and endure with the desperate patience of hope rather than in comfortable certainty.
Finally, I believe that single people know a lot about loneliness. And I think that’s a good thing—there is wisdom and sweetness to be found in being alone, and even in being truly lonely. If you have put in some time being lonely, you know that the opposite of loneliness is wholeness, and that you have to be whole before you can belong.
Singleness and borderlandishness are gifts that amplify this self-consciousness so that we can’t ignore it, forcing us to find a way to make peace in ourselves. It turns out that borderlands and in-between spaces—the places where we can feel loneliest—are exactly the places where we learn to be whole.
The borders are lonely but they are also the holy places where we touch each other and God. The terror of aloneness is conquered only at the edges—where the press of the crowd gives way to tiny, fragile moments of connection. We who live in borderlands are no more alone than those in the center, but we can “see that [we are] not hid” in the crowd. We have the chance to know and tell that we are made whole by faith and hope and longing. We can welcome our sisters and brothers out into the places where we have been made whole, where we touched the edge of God’s love.