I finally started listening to podcasts in 2020. On my now-frequent walks around my neighborhood, I’ve tuned in to conversations about books, theology, and current issues. When I’m feeling particularly weary or frustrated, however, I like to listen to episodes on singleness. Perhaps that sounds sad. But it helps me feel like I’m not alone.
Stories of people different from us can expand our understanding, deepen our compassion, and invite us to imagine a different perspective on the world. But sometimes my ability to sympathize is depleted. Sometimes I just want to hear a story I can relate to, to feel validated in my experience and struggles.
On the Sidelines
As a thirty-something woman who has never been married, I have often felt that my story is not told or validated by the church. Week after week I listen to male pastors who have been married most of their adult lives speak to other married people. They try to be inclusive, but I can tell what is at the top of their concerns.
I remember walking into one service when the sermon series was on family, complete with photos of smiling parents and children. I was overcome with a sudden weariness. I was tired of doing extra work to make the messages apply to my life. I was tired of the word family being so exclusive. In many contexts, I find that “family” means “not for me.”
I work in Christian publishing, and I’m proud that my company works hard to elevate underrepresented voices. But it saddens me, however, that in the volumes of evangelical Christian content being constantly produced, singleness still seems to get no more than a sidebar.
I’m not the only one.
Some of the secular podcasts I’ve discovered make assertions about singleness that I have not heard in church but that have poured life into my soul: There is nothing wrong with you that needs to be fixed. You are not selfish for being single (or childless). It would be more selfish to force an unhealthy relationship because of societal pressure. I love the candor and confidence of these discussions. Yet without the higher authority or purpose found in Christ, there is a self-centeredness to the secular perspective that still leaves me unsatisfied.
One moment of resonance came in an episode of the podcast Where Do We Go from Here?, hosted by Christians. The interviewee, author Katelyn Beaty, mentioned how she felt out of place as a single woman living in the western Chicago suburbs, a region often seen as a kind of evangelical heartland. She was more comfortable, Beaty said, after moving to New York City and being surrounded by people of many different life states. I currently live in the western Chicago suburbs, and when I heard this story I thought, I’m not crazy. I’m not the only one. It doesn’t sound very uplifting, but at least I know there really is a reason I often feel unhappy here.
Of course, I understand that people in all contexts have their own struggles. I know that the pandemic season has been incredibly challenging for parents and children. I know this because I hear about it all the time. Stories about disruptions to education and families are all over the media. And I sympathize with my friends facing those challenges.
But I also sympathize more personally with my friends who live alone or with unrelated roommates, or who have been cut off from loved ones at every milestone this year. I’ve gotten so tired of sermons, articles, even news stories assuming that people are sheltering at home with people they love. Not feeling seen, not having your story told, makes an isolating experience even more lonely.
That’s why I seek out stories of people who are more like me. Knowing I’m not the only one provides a little reassurance, a little jolt to keep going.
Every story is a gift.
Yet the danger, I’m discovering, of looking for stories I relate to is that I can easily objectify the people telling them. I might use them to prove a point or feel justified instead of opening to the full, complex reality of another person.
Every person’s story—even in a social media post or news clip—is a gift, coming from a mysterious, unique being who can’t be defined by the boxes or labels we sort ourselves into. Each single person’s experience and perspective is unique, and I can’t just pick out the pieces I agree with or relate to. It’s just good interpretive practice to try to understand the context and aim of any communicator before grabbing at what I want to take away.
Especially in times of loneliness and loss, we need both affinity and empathy. I want others to hear my story and stories similar to mine. But how much am I really willing to listen? Listening can help me stay healthier as I get through this pandemic. If we all listen to stories different from our own, it can help us become more attentive, understanding, inclusive—a better neighbor.
Cover image by Icons8 Team.