It’s Saturday, I’m single, and I’m calling into question beliefs I didn’t even know I had until they were revealed by the events of my Labor Day weekend.
Perhaps you’ve heard the following words coming out of the mouth of a self-righteous office manager, or your ex. Maybe you’ve said it yourself. “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” It’s a snarky, judgmental thing to say, isn’t it? I don’t think I’ve ever said it, but I’ve certainly thought it, especially in my past professional life working at a stressful magazine advertising job.
I didn’t realize until last weekend that I’ve attributed this very common human attitude to my divine Higher Power.
Last Sunday afternoon I headed to the mountains to join a backpacking Meetup group from Washington, DC. I thought I knew where I was going. I didn’t read the directions, much less print them out. We would be camping and hiking in Shenandoah National Park, and I knew how to get there. I felt totally confident winging it. I even left early.
Unfortunately, what I didn’t realize is the parking lot for our camp site was NOT in the park. It was about a 45 minute drive from any park entrance. And I didn’t discover this critical detail until 6:30 pm, the time I was supposed to be joining them.
I could have tried to find the lot on my own in the setting sun and hike in the dark for a mile to the campsite, but that didn’t seem like a very safe choice. The park ranger who was helping me with the map suggested I just stay there at the campground in the park; after all, there were plenty of open sites, and it would be dark in an hour. I’ve never camped solo, but I didn’t really want to drive all the way home, either; after all, I’d come ready for sleeping outside in a tent. So I decided to stay, do a little writing, go to sleep early, and drive to my group at dawn.
I was pretty humbled by a hard lesson in preparation and thinking I know more than I do. Being solo was my divine punishment, I reasoned. I’ve never truly believed in a “punishing” God in the traditional sense, but rather a God who doesn’t stand in the way of the natural consequences of my mistakes. Clearly, I had made some this time, and I believed I deserved to be alone, “sent to my room” as it were, to think about what I’d done.
I did not believe in a God that blesses someone who makes a mistake in judgement. The God I believed in would have said, “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” The God I believed in would have left me to reap what I’d sown. And this was the God who, until this past weekend, I was attempting to trust? No wonder I had difficulty!
The God I believed in would never “reward” me with a serendipitous invitation to an bluegrass concert in the nearest college town with two interesting strangers who showed me the best night I’ve had in years.
Fortunately, the God I believed in is not the God who showed up at that camp site Sunday night. And because the God who DID show up did indeed bless me with a serendipitous adventure the likes of which I’ve never had, I’ve decided that’s the God I’m going to believe in from now on.
But buried within my distorted belief about God were some even more distorted beliefs unconsciously operating for some time.
1. Being alone is punishment, or at the very least, a natural consequence.
I’m not sure where this belief originated, but it’s an old one, and it has been reinforced by countless experiences where isolation and rejection were the natural consequences of being my awkward, imaginative, open hearted, genuine self. Over time I’ve developed some skills to avoid this consequence – becoming a chameleon, intuiting other people’s desires, giving them what they want, being someone they are comfortable around. These tools have served me well professionally, but at the cost of remembering how to be myself.
2. If I’m alone, obviously it’s my own fault and I’ve done something wrong to deserve it.
I’m an introvert and I do like some solitude now and then. I definitely prefer working independently rather than as part of a group. But I crave regular social connection. Introverts get lonely, too.
Prolonged loneliness has done its share of damage to my sense of self-worth. There’s nothing more human than to ask, “What have I done to deserve this?” when I’m in pain, and loneliness is painful. But that kind of self-pity is just a subtle attempt to control the uncontrollable. The truth is, I may not have done anything wrong. Rejection is not always about me; sometimes, it’s about the other person or group, and sometimes it’s God’s way of protecting me. Obsessively trying to find fault in myself, and then twisting myself into a pretzel to change, is about the most self-centered approach I could take to loneliness, and it has definitely added more pain to my life.
3. I deserve to be alone.
Obsessive fault-finding naturally leads to this ridiculous belief. This is resignation, not acceptance, and it is patently false. What I deserve is healthy relationships and a balanced approach to solitude and sociability.
4. Being alone is unsafe, or at the very least, difficult.
The people who invited me to the bluegrass concert were both Shenandoah National Park employees in their twenties. They were seasonal workers living there in the park. And when I told them I was nervous about camping there by myself, they both brushed it off. Melissa, age 23, said, “I love camping by myself. There’s always lots of other people and families around who will get to know you and include you.” Matt, age 27, said, “You’re never really alone in the park.”
It is true. When I had been there with hiking groups, everyone walked at their own pace, and I ended up walking by myself a lot, which was lovely. I passed other people on the trail, and made brief connections with other hikers who were not part of the group. The trails are well marked, and there are frequent sign posts to direct you. So I decided I didn’t need meet up with my D.C. group on Monday morning. I picked a nearby loop trail, got myself a paper map at the visitor’s center, and set out on my own.
I rediscovered solitude. I didn’t worry about keeping up with people who hike faster than me, and I didn’t feel the need to slow my pace to keep an eye on the stragglers behind. If I wanted to climb down a rocky ledge to get a better view of the waterfall, I did it. If I wanted to take pictures of the valley or return the calls of a crow flying overhead, no one was around making fun of my bird noises.
For three years of being a single parent, I’ve been focused almost entirely on the limitations of flying solo. I can’t just go to the grocery store when I need milk. I can’t keep my house as clean as I could when I had someone else to mow the grass. I run late a lot, and family outings are a lot harder with only two hands instead of four.
One Saturday this summer I took the kids to see fireworks with another single parent who has two kids. Five kids between us, but the extra set of hands to carry drinks and snacks, those shoulders to carry my little one when the walk got too long, the second set of eyes when the girls had strayed from the picnic blanket too far, and mostly having someone else to enjoy watching our kids be kids was like a cold glass of water after being in a desert.
I found myself feeling deeply depressed that it was only a temporary relief from the limitations of being single. Single on Sunday sucked. But two months later I can see it is my long-term aloneness that gives me such deep appreciation and gratitude for a simple moment of togetherness. I never had that gratitude when I was married and had partnership every day. And as difficult as being a single parent can be, being a married parent was even more difficult in some ways.
Life is hard, single or not. It’s my experiences of isolation and fear of rejection that have made me capable of unconditional love and acceptance of the people who do cross my path now. Some of them are quite different from me, but they have become the truest friends I’ve ever had. I may not share my home or my bed with any of them, but I do share my emotional life, by burdens and joys, and my stories of adventure and lessons learned.
Being single, whether as a parent or on the trail, may have its limitations, but nothing is more limiting than operating under old beliefs that do me more harm than good. It’s my attitude that is my greatest limitation. I’m so grateful for my mistake last weekend. It forced me to face some of those old attitudes and try out some new ones.