The Experiment: Two Months in

Via Public Domain Pictures

Via Public Domain Pictures

It’s two months into the experiment in living intentionally single, so I wanted to give an update on how the experiment has been going so far. It’s been surprisingly easy to let go of the idea I need to be with someone, and, as last week’s post suggests, I’m beginning to think that this is my default mode of being. I still feel lonely on occasion, but I’m realizing there’s not a whole lot of emotional needs that friends can’t fulfill. In fact, I’m quite enjoying the extra mental energy I have back from not focusing it on potential relationships.

I don’t know if this will last. I do wonder, if the right person or people came along, would I be interested in a relationship? I’m beginning to think I would be happiest living with a few beagles in a nice quiet house. I like my alone time, and the few times in my life when I’ve been in roommate situations have tended to be pretty miserable for me. After all, I may not keep the cleanest house in the world, but at least it’s my house, and that’s a comforting feeling.

I know I’m only two months in and, with ten months ahead of me, I might have a drastically different picture at the end. For now, though, I’m quite happy and content and enjoying the experience. It makes me wonder why I’ve put so much energy into all this in the past.

The other thing I’ve notice is I’ve become very aware of singlism when it rears its head. The discovery that Prince Charming is a victim of singlism was quite unexpected, and I continue to notice bias towards single people in the media as well as in the attitudes of people. It’s kind of disturbing how much I haven’t seen in the past.

To give an example, I’m a huge fan of The Walking Dead. On the show, breakout character Daryl Dixon has shown an almost asexual disinterest in sex and romance since he was introduced in the first season. Yet so many people have been intent on “shipping” him with various characters, especially fellow survivor Carol. The implication has been that Daryl would be happier in his post-apocalyptic life if he were in a relationship with someone, anyone, and that being in a relationship makes one inherently more happy. By extension, we need to be in a relationship to be happy.

Never is it considered that maybe a person might have different priorities from finding a life partner in a post-apocalyptic world. In a world where survival is not guaranteed and one must be vigilant on a daily basis, it’s refreshing to see that those who are happier alone may be more likely to survive.

The real reason, of course, is that people are projecting their own insecurities about being single onto Daryl, believing that he needs to find true love in the midst of flesh-eating zombies. This brings me to my third lesson from the past two months: when it comes to relationships, there are a whole lot more insecure people in the world than I ever imagined, and one coping method people use is to put their unhealthy expectations onto everyone else. That’s not a judgment, merely an observation: people spend so much time looking for a relationship they miss their lives passing by them. Like me, there are a lot of people who have absorbed the “supposed to”‘s from western culture with nothing to counter these unrealistic expectations.

As the experiment goes on, I’m hoping to explore ways of countering these narratives and communicating to people that it’s time to create a new cultural paradigm that recognizes and values a variety of relationship status and structures.

On Believing Kids

Via Pixabay

Via Pixabay

When I was a kid, I was adamant: I did not want to get married when I grew up. In fact, I didn’t quite see the point in it. I was happy being single, having a few close friends that I cared about, but really just doing the things I wanted to do. I now believe I’m probably what is referred to as a grey-ace (short for grey-asexual) and a grey-aro (short for grey-aromantic), meaning that, while I do experience sexual and romantic attraction, it is only under certain circumstances and does not take up a large portion of my life.

Yet I was never believed as a kid. It was assumed that I would grow out of such a phase, and adults even gave me condescending and knowing laughs, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt how I would feel about women (there was a definite hetero-normative assumption in their judgments) just a few years down the road. Very few adults supported this decision, assuming, as a kid, I could not possibly know what I really wanted out o my romantic and sexual lives.

Things came to a head when my father announced, prior to a visitation when I was in fifth or sixth grade, that I should dress up because he was setting me up on a date with a cute girl. I was furious. I felt like my wishes were being disrespected, and, out of spite, wore sweat pants and a t-shirt, because I was determined he was not going to force me to go on a date if I didn’t want to.

A step-aunt picked me up to take me up to my father’s house, which was quite unusual since he lived about an hour away, and was astonished at my state of dress. She said we would stop at her house so I could put on nicer clothes. At first, I refused, telling her that I was not going to be bullied into going on a date. She was taken aback at my reasoning and, after I told her the story, told me the truth: my stepmother was graduating from nursing school that night and, rather than just tell me the truth, my father thought it would be funny to make one of my wishes into an object of ridicule.

Yes, it wasn’t that he was disrespecting my wishes; he was merely making fun of them, and that was almost worse for me than the singlistic assumption that I needed to be in a relationship. I now realize that such incidents were slowly chipping away at my sense of self-esteem around the person I knew myself to be. This was the beginning of internalized singlism, because I was receiving the message loud and clear: the world was not okay with who I am so there must be something wrong with me.

This set me on the path for many years of dysfunctional relationship seeking that always ended in disaster. I have only recently been able to recover a sense that who I am is okay, and that has only been since I’ve endeavored on this project over the last couple of months.

As I look back on this story, I’m absolutely astonished by how determined the adults in my life were to belittle what I felt so deep down inside. Why was it so necessary for them to make such light of my declarations that I wanted to be single? After all, if it truly was a childhood phase, I would have grown out of it without any help from them. What I learned, instead, is that it wasn’t safe to be me, and that’s something I carry with me to this day.

Navigating the queer and trans worlds, I have heard so many such stories, people telling those they love deep truths about themselves and being laughed at, told it’s a phase, and that they’ll grow out of it. The gay or bisexual kid who admits to liking other people of the same gender. The trans kid who doesn’t feel like they’re living in the right gender. The asexual kid who doesn’t want much to do with sex and relationships at all. They can tell similar stories to mine about not being believed. Many have developed similar internalized oppression to my own because they, too, learned that their identities were not right.

Why is it so hard for adults to just believe kids? It would be easy to pin it all on shame and social control, and there are certainly elements of that in my story, but I think it’s deeper than that. Many of the adults in my life had failed relationships and marriages. I think there was a degree of insecurity because of this that required them to project their desires onto me and other kids like me. It was a coping mechanism on their part: in order to normalize their own lives.

I say this not to blame them, but to make an appeal: it’s time to start taking kids seriously. If a kid goes, “EEW! GIRLS!” or “YUCKY! BOYS!”, that is not the time to correct them and assure them they will change their minds in a few years. You don’t know how that kid will turn out. They may be gay or bi. They may end up asexual or aromantic. Yes, they may even turn out to be straight. It is not our place, as adults, to work through our own internalized singlism and hetero-normative values at the expense of their self-esteem.

And, if a queer, ace, or aro teen finds my blog, it is my hope they will realize that they are okay as they are, giving them permission to wear sweatpants on their imposed blind date.  There are so many different and awesome permutations of what it means to be human. What is needed isn’t more conformity; it is more diversity and appreciation for the wonderful prism of differences that make our world so interesting to live in.

Living Single on Valentine’s Day

 

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Via Pixabay

The following is a sermon originally delivered by me to Keweenaw Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Houghton, Michigan on February 5, 2017.

The quintessential western myth about relationships has to be Cinderella. It’s such a popular story that it’s appeared in multiple societies at different times throughout history, the earliest being an Egyptian version that was penned around 7 BCE. Its story has become so synonymous with the way love is supposed to be that it is difficult even for liberated feminist and queer thinkers to escape the clutches of its siren call. As a Disney film, it’s one of the most beloved classic achievements of animated filmmaking. And its message, taken literally, is dangerous to the self-esteem of young people.

The story is so familiar that it barely needs repeating. The titular character is living a pretty drab and abusive life and, by chance, encounters supernatural forces known as a fairy godmother, who transforms her from the appearance of a pauper into a beautifully dressed woman fit to attend the Royal Ball her evil stepsisters are attending without her. There, she meets Prince Charming, an attractive monarch who is instantly smitten with her. Before he can find out who she is, though, the fairy godmother’s magic wears off, but not before Cinderella loses one of her glass slippers, leaving a clue as to who she is.

The prince searches all over his kingdom for the maiden that lost the shoe and, lucky for him, in all the land, there is only one woman who has the same shoe size as Cinderella. Prince Charming eventually finds his love and rescues her from her pained existence into royalty. We’re told that Cinderella lived happily ever after which means they lived a long, happy life into old age and died the perfect romantic pair, probably surrounded by adoring children and grandchildren who wanted nothing more than to follow in the couple’s shoes as they sought their own fulfillment.

I know I bought into this cultural story completely, as do most people in our society. I remember I started to date not because I necessarily wanted to date (I was quite happy as a sort of eccentric kid with a few close friends who wanted nothing more out of life than to read their books, watch TV, and enjoy life); I did it rather because I thought I was supposed to. Everyone else at school seemed to be getting into romances that they claimed were making them so happy and complete, so I jumped in the fray and looked for one of my own

Over the years, my search has been less than successful. I’ve never really been very good at being a Prince Charming, and I didn’t particularly want to play the Cinderella role either. I’ve lived a good life so far, experienced so many things that some people never do, and achieved so many dreams. Yet, there’s a part of me, the part that bought into the whole Cinderella mythos that believes something is wrong with me because I haven’t found someone to settle down with. This feeling has been especially potent as I watch more and more friends and former classmates get married and start families.

It can be a lonely feeling to believe that there’s something so wrong with you fundamentally that you’re single well into your thirties and have been for most of your life. That’s the problem with this cultural myth: being single is equated with being alone. I’ve heard about so many people who said they got into relationships out of fear of dying alone, and so this is the basis for their committed coupling: fear that there’s a drab, lifeless existence out there waiting for all single people.

This is an interesting phenomenon to me, especially considering that being single is an identity we are all guaranteed to have at some time in our lives. We are all born into the world single, and many of us will find ourselves without a partner at some point in our lives, whether due to divorce or death, choice or circumstance. I should briefly say what I mean by single, and that is anyone who, for whatever reason, finds themselves without a committed romantic partner. Legally, this means the person is not married. There are millions of happy, single people in the world right now, many of them very accomplished, such as Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, actress Diane Keaton, and media personality Oprah Winfrey. If all these people are happy and successful singles, why does not being in relationship?

Even television shows showing defiantly single people such as One Day at a Time showed their protagonists eventually getting married, as if being single was a temporary roadblock to the way things are supposed to be. The Cinderella myth is even supported by a whole host of societal privileges available to married people but not single people, such as tax breaks, family medical leave, and a generally more understanding view towards free time. Single people are pitied and assumed to be horribly unhappy in the life that has been thrust upon them. Even perpetually single Mary Tyler Moore, otherwise a role model for women and single people, was always thinking about dating people.

Social psychologist Bella Depaulo calls the cultural prejudice and discrimination against single people “singlism,” and she would know. She’s been purposely single all sixty years of her life, and wouldn’t have it any other way. But she’s seen the ugly side of singlism and chronicled the many ways singles are discriminated against in her books. To put it mildly, single people in our society are believed to be lonely, miserable, immature, promiscuous, and lonely. Yet, Depaulo herself is proof that this need not be so, and she has helped create community and hope for people who are single.

There are, in reality, very few people in this world who are truly alone, so it’s a mystery why being single is automatically equated with being alone. I am blessed with so many friends, colleagues, and family members who care about me. I am not alone by any measure of the word. I refuse to accept for a minute that I should feel like that, despite having these loving relationships in my life, I’m somehow lacking because I am single. I am single and I am happy, living a fulfilling life that inspires me to greater purpose.

This was a huge revelation for me. What was even more of a shock was to find out I’m kind of happy with this state of affairs. I like living alone and having some autonomy over my life I would have to give up in a committed relationship. I like being able to drop everything and take a road trip or have a drink with friends. I like knowing I could move hundreds of miles from my home to become a minister in the UP without upsetting my family life too much. When I stopped listening to the societal judgement that being single means I’m defective, I actually started enjoying a lot of things about my life.

Now none of this is to disparage people who are coupled or want to be. As with other prejudices, creating understanding for single people does not take away from those who are coupled, and having a partner can be a very rewarding and life-enriching experience. But that does not mean that being single can’t be an equally amazing. It’s also not to put you down if you are single and lonely. I completely get it. There are days I wish I had someone to hold. But whether being single is short- or long-term, by choice or by circumstance, I believe we can learn to cultivate the love we already have in our lives.

Being single can be especially difficult this time of year, and my own experience with realizing how surrounded by love I am has encouraged me to rethink the whole enterprise. I was broken up with on the one Valentine’s Day I had a relationship, and I know it’s a sore point for many single people. Whenever Valentine’s Day comes around, we’re bombarded with messages reaffirming how important it is to be in a relationship. Everyone seems to want a piece of the financial action that the holiday brings, encouraging us to get plenty of gifts to show the One (with a big “O”) we love how much we really care. In fact, once we’re out of school and passed the stage where we pass out Valentines to all our classmates, I never hear any acknowledgement at all of gifts for those in our lives outside the romantic.

It would be easy to advocate scrapping the holiday all together, but when I look at other holidays I celebrate, from Christmas to Easter to Thanksgiving, I know that’s a counter-productive move. No, what I want to propose we do with Valentine’s Day what we’ve done with these other holidays: shape them into expressions of our deepest values as Unitarian Universalists, and I think the answer to how to do this can be found in the origin of the holiday itself.

Traditionally, it has been asserted that, like many of our contemporary holidays, Valentine’s Day was appropriated from a previous Pagan holiday. Lupercalia was an ancient fertility celebration commemorated annually on February 15. The legend says that, around 496 CE, Pope Gelasius I recast this pagan festival as a Christian feast day, declaring February 14 to be St. Valentine’s Day, turning a common cultural holiday into a Christian one. There’s some doubt, though, as to whether this was the actual origin of Valentine’s Day, and I think we have to dig deeper to discover its actual beginning.

There were actually three early Christians named Valentine, each of whom was martyred. J.C. Cooper, in The Dictionary of Christianity, believes the namesake of Valentine’s Day was a priest from Rome named Valentine who was imprisoned, and later killed, for succoring persecuted Christians. Valentine’s act was one of mercy, assisting those who were being unjustly persecuted at great risk than himself. If this legend is true, then it would be a fair induction to believe Valentine’s kindness probably brought him to the attention of the emperor faster than if he had merely held back and minded his own business.

So Valentine’s love was not just that of romantic love, but love for his fellow human beings in general. Other legends around the saint assert that he restored the sight and hearing of the daughter of his jailer. His mercy extended even to those who were persecuting him, and it would appear that he was able to see the humanity in everyone whose path he crossed. He was a friend of the oppressed, wherever that oppression may be found, and his example is one we can learn a lot from in this day of political strife and turmoil.

How powerful would it be if Valentine’s Day were a holiday reminding us to remember all types of love! What if we could recapture those Valentine’s Days of old when we gave cards not just to those we were romantically attracted to, but to everyone we care about, as a reminder just how surrounded we are constantly by the loving arms of those in our lives? What if, just like Valentine was a loving friend to those who are oppressed, Valentine’s Day reminded us to live a more compassionate, loving life, one that recognizes the humanity of all those around us?

More than this, I’m celebrating Valentine’s Day this year as a reminder to love myself. So often, we direct so much love outward that the one person we forget to love is the person we’re with every moment of our lives from birth to death. Why shouldn’t you indulge yourself just a bit? I do believe love starts with the care we show towards ourselves. So, as you’re reminding yourself to be a more loving, caring, and compassionate person, don’t forget to show some of that love to yourself.

None of this excludes using Valentine’s Day to remind ourselves how thankful we are for the romantic love in our lives; by all means, celebrate those in your lives who are such an important part of your celebrations. My modest proposal this morning means a Valentine’s Day that’s inclusive to the millions of people who are single this Valentine’s Day, one that reminds us how much love we have in our lives rather than makes us yearn for what we feel is lacking. We see that our lives are abundantly blessed with people who care so much.

In this sermon I’ve said a lot about my own stance on being single. I realize there are plenty of people who see their lack of a romantic relationship as a curse. For those people, I want you to know that I and so many people around you are there for you, not because we want to convince you not to feel the way you do, but because we love you. A church can be a place of Beloved Community where those who feel broken and weary can find home. So, for those who are brokenhearted this Valentine’s Day, let us hold you as long as you need it, for isn’t that the meaning of the revised holiday I’m proposing: to be a place of refuge for those who need it?

May it be so.

Prince Charming: A Victim of Singleism in Disney’s Cinderella

Copyright Disney. Used under fair use.

Copyright Disney. Used under fair use.

I recently decided to watch Disney’s 1950 classic Cinderella  as research for a possible post on the way in which the film has influenced attitudes about people needing a relationship to be happy and fulfilled, and the way in which the titular character is wished away from a drab and abusive existence to royalty merely for happening to strike the fancy of a prince. This interpretation definitely has some merit, and I may yet do a post in which I expound upon it.

I’m almost counting on it that someone will say I’m overthinking a fairy tale and a movie from a period where this sort of thing was the norm. Isn’t that the point, though? By examining the messages through our pop culture, both historic and present, we can better understand the prejudices and expectations people have towards single people. I dare say these expectations are still the norm in our society. Disney films are one medium through which such expectations can be communicated early in life, so much so they’re internalized before we even realize what is happening.

When I was watching the movie, I couldn’t help but be struck by something I’d never noticed before: how much outright singlism is expressed towards Prince Charming.This surprised me because, for being such a major part of the plot, Prince Charming really has little to do with the film. In fact, he only has a couple of lines.  He’s really a prop set up for the rescue of Cinderella, and all we really have to know to buy the climax is that he’s in love, or is he? I’m not so sure anymore, and I think we have to look at what’s going on around the prince to really decide for ourselves.

The King: My son has been avoiding his responsibilities long enough. It’s high time he married and settled down.

Grand Duke: Of course, your Majesty, but we must be patient…

The King: I AM PATIENT!

[throws an inkwell]

It turns out the King is determined to see his son be married. He doesn’t give the impression he’s truly concerned about royal succession, but tell the Grand Duke he wants to have a chance to play with his grandchildren before he dies, and he’s later found dreaming about such an occurrence after he believes Cinderella and the prince have fallen in love.

We don’t find out for sure why the Prince hasn’t gotten married; he’s provided so little character development that your guess is as good as mine. The King alludes to the fact that he has eccentric opinions about life and love. We never get to find out what those are, but the King rejects them, and sees the Prince getting married as much more important than any opinions which would prevent grandchildren from being born.

Throughout this, no one cares about what the prince wants. They only care about how his falling in love could change their lives. The King wants grandchildren. Cinderella wants his love to find happiness. The Wicked Stepmother and her daughters want the status that comes from being royalty. The Grand Duke wants the praise of the King for helping find a romantic match for his son. No one once asks what the Prince wants, and the film never bothers to show us anything from his point of view, though we’re privy to the thoughts of almost every other character, even the mice.

The entire Royal Ball is a ruse so Prince Charming can meet every single woman in the kingdom and hopefully fall in love with at least one of them; he’s not even aware this is the purpose. The event looks pretty grim, with the prince summarily rejecting every woman until Cinderella enters, having been transformed by her Fairy Godmother. He’s instantly smitten with her, and things look to be going the King’s way until Cinderella runs off, suddenly realizing the Fairy Godmother’s magic will soon wear off. She leaves only a glass slipper as a clue, and you’re probably familiar with the rest.

The message inherent in Prince Charming’s characterization couldn’t be any clearer: there is something inherently wrong with the prince wanting to be single, and he must be cured at the earliest opportunity.

Now some might argue that the prince really did want to couple in the end. Consider, though, that he vowed to marry no other woman after Cinderella vanished into thin air as the Grand Duke was pursuing her. What if we were to read Prince Charming as having picked an unavailable woman in the hopes of getting his father to quit nagging him about marriage and grandchildren? He doesn’t personally go house to house with the Grand Duke looking for Cinderella, and it’s a stretch to believe the two of them fell irrevocably in love following a sing dance at the Royal Ball (lust maybe, but probably not love). What if he was secretly hoping she wouldn’t be found, and it was his bad luck that she did appear?

I know there’s a lot of conjecture here, but this story does fit with the very few things we’re told about the prince: he was single by choice; he apparently did not respond well to his father’s nagging and had to be tricked into even meeting women; he was in no hurry to produce a successor to the throne; and he had quite a few ideas about coupling that weren’t very popular with those around him. Prince Charming could very easily be interpretation as an archetypal victim of singlism and the pressure to couple, not receiving support from anyone around him and, in the end, having to get married after the person he said he loved actually appeared.

It’s an interesting interpretation for a character who’s long been considered to be a rescuer, the symbol of true love, fulfillment, and a fairy tale wedding. Yet, I don’t have to add details to the story to make this reading of the film work. I’m actually quite surprised no one’s written about it before as it sticks out like a sore thumb after you’ve read enough about singlism and its influence on western culture. In any case, I’m curious now to watch the two sequels to the 1950 film to see if there are any more clues present there, or if it writes the prince’s reluctance out of existence.

In any case, I’m now convinced those of us advocating against singlism should reclaim Prince Charming as a symbol of all that is wrong with coupling in in western society. When the wishes and happiness of the person being pressures to get into a relationship are not taken into account, it can lead to unhappiness, bitterness, and a miserable life instead. If Prince Charming were to fall in love, he should have been allowed to do so through his own devices. The wishes of everyone else are completely irrelevant in evaluating how he should live his life.