If you saw Pixar’s “Inside Out,” you may remember the charming short cartoon that played before the film. “Lava” features a shaggy old volcano in the middle of the ocean. He’s surrounded by happy couples: Two gulls arc overhead, two fish leap in the water. But he sings miserably all day about how he longs for “someone to lava.”
In despair he sinks to the ocean floor — but lo! A lady volcano (a much younger and more attractive peak than he is, I’m just saying) bursts forth and rescues him. They cuddle and sing together. At last, he has someone to love.
The short captures something real in contemporary American life. We are terrified of being alone with nobody to help us. And the only, or at least the ideal and normative, escape from loneliness is romantic love. There are no children in this cartoon and no community. The gulls have no chicks, and the fish have no school.
[Other perspectives: Single or married: Does it really matter anymore?]
This vision that exalts and even idolizes couplehood should feel alien to most cultures and should feel especially wrong for Christians. Jesus died a virgin, so romance and marriage could never be the “one best way” in the Christian tradition. In earlier eras, Christianity saw freedom in unmarried life: The unmarried were set apart for God, undistracted by the needs of dependents. They could risk martyrdom without worrying about their children, devote themselves to those who were hardest to serve and spend hours rapt in prayer rather than knocking off a few harried Hail Marys in between diaper changes.
The fascination with romantic love also forgets forms of love that were once common in society. Devoted friendships that functioned like kinship used to be normal. Friends would share homes and finances, and pledge to care for one another’s children; often godparenthood cemented these bonds. “Spiritual Friendship,” St. Aelred’s beautiful medieval work, depicts friendship as an arena for utter honesty and sacrificial love — a place where we can be known, shepherded, cared for and forgiven. Most people don’t want every friendship to be like this, and it’s certainly fine to just want to socialize. But many single people, married couples and single parents suffer without the kind of friends they can pour their hearts out to and share burdens with.
The Bible’s New Testament depicts churches that truly became family for their members — often replacing the family they lost when they converted — but it’s rare for Americans to have anything like that familial church today. Even if we do find a church or other community where our brethren are like kin and even if we forge devoted friendships, our economy makes it hard to plant roots in a community and sustain these networks of love. We can bring a spouse or child with us when we move for work, but we often feel that it would be unfair to try to bring our friends. Stability can be costly when you’re just trying to make it.
Remaining unmarried — for religious reasons, in my case — leaves you intensely vulnerable. I didn’t have health insurance until Obamacare; I worry about who will take me to the hospital, who will care for me when I’m old or if I become disabled. For these reasons, I’m thinking seriously about making a home with friends.
If we want a culture where unmarried people are not isolated, and where older forms of love like friendship, service and extended family are honored, many of us will have to rethink how a good adult life is shaped. We’ll have to make economic sacrifices to stay close to church, community or friends.
There are practical changes that can help — employers could allow their unmarried employees to designate a friend as family, so they can take time off if their friend needs care. (Many have noted the centrality of friendship for veterans, and the barriers they face in getting non-vet employers to understand that their comrades were their family.) Changing zoning laws that make it harder to share housing would also help friends make a home and a life together. Churches can help by blessing friendships, by marshaling the casserole brigades for people exhausted by care-giving for close friends, by acknowledging from the pulpit the love and sacrifice shown by unmarried people. I was deeply moved when my sister included my best friend in our family photo, showing that she was truly a part of our family.
Such shifts will usually arise as responses to changes in the way people are already living. As more people deepen their commitments to friends and church family, they will ask that their care-giving be supported and their sacrifices honored; and those around them will find ways to accommodate their needs.
[Why it’s time to stop glorifying marriage]
We often think of “singles” as footloose and fancy-free. But all people, including the unmarried, are called to pour ourselves out in sacrificial love for something greater than ourselves: for God, for neighbor, for stranger in need, for friends, for children, for community. Today, too many of us feel free to do whatever we can afford — and so too many of us feel like the sad volcano, alone and adrift.
I don’t think the lonely old peak would be consoled if you told him, “You won’t get married, but you can volunteer for Greenpeace!” But he might find peace and fruitfulness in pouring out his “lava” for God, or for the suffering gulls around him or for another shaggy old volcano like himself.
Explore these other perspectives:
Bella DePaulo: Everything you think you know about single people is wrong
Sarah Wright: Why it’s time to stop glorifying marriage
Stephanie Coontz: Single or married: Does it really matter anymore?
Michael Cobb: Advertisers want you to hate being single. Don’t buy in.
Naomi Schaefer Riley: The dangers of celebrating single motherhood