They have Snapchat and YikYak. I’m part of the generation that hijacked Facebook from them. They are 18 to 21 years old. I’m… well, a decade or two older than that. In my role as the RN in the student health center at a Christian university, our lives intersect, giving me an interesting vantage point. We’re very different—in more ways than just our age gap or our social media preferences. But there is something we do share in common, something that challenges us and at times frustrates us. They have angst about a Ring by Spring. I have angst about a Ring by the Next Time I Have to Go to Another Family Christmas Alone.
Like them, I am single. Like me, most of them want to be married someday. It’s an odd thing to be a grown-up single person working with and surrounded by young people who are so very unlike me, and yet so very similar.
They live in a much different world than when I attended college in the 80s. The term “hook-up” didn’t exist, which, of course doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. People were merely discrete enough to not label the activity. We didn’t have social media to tell us what everyone was doing every moment that they were doing it. We heard about the occasional couple living together, but it certainly wasn’t the norm. It was actually pretty scandalous. Internet dating? Well, let’s just say most of us didn’t have our own computers until much later, so the idea of meeting someone online was unheard of. Literally.We’re both bombarded with the idea that life will be perfect if we just find the right beautiful person. And if we can’t, then at least we should have some fun in the meantime.
We were supposed to meet the loves of our lives the old-fashioned way. Boy meets girl, then there would be the traditional dating, engagement, wedding, first home, kids. But for some of us, that didn’t happen how we imagined it would. For some of us, it didn’t happen at all. So we find ourselves in a different world now, trying to navigate new waters and new ways of doing things, with the same ache in our hearts. We want to be in a great relationship. And for those of us who are believers, we want to be in a great relationship with someone who shares our faith and our values and our priorities.
It’s exactly what most of the college students whom I know want too. They’ll come to the health center with their colds and coughs, longboard vs. pavement consequences, and certainly sometimes more difficult medical and personal issues. Because it’s a safe place where they can talk about anything, invariably, they do. We talk about their questions and desires and heartaches and dreams. And surprisingly, it’s not so weird that I’m old enough to be their mother. We understand each other. I may at times be their worst nightmare, however, as I’m sure some think it would truly be the end of their lives if they were still single at my age. But we get each other. And they’re able to see how someone like me has learned to trust God in the waiting that has lasted longer than planned. It doesn’t matter if you’re a college student, or old enough to be the mother of one. If you’re single and don’t want to be, the ache is the same.
Social media doesn’t help the ache. Each time we check in, we’re hit with what others have and what we don’t. Especially when you’re young, friends are posting pictures of great parties and new boyfriends. And then there are the engagement photos on the beach or in a sunflower field, with the flawless young couple, wearing matching cowboy boots, embracing in a sunset haze. Then, when you’re my age, social media informs you about the married life you don’t have. There are the endless pics of your friends’ adorable kids at sporting events and accomplished kids at graduations and (gasp) now-grown kids getting married (ahead of you, no less!). And then, of course, there are breathtaking images of the romantic 25th wedding anniversary trips to Europe or Hawaii. Sigh. And since half of my friends on Facebook are still in college, I get the blessing (uh-hem) of seeing both kinds of posts on a continual basis.
Oh sure—we try to remind ourselves that Instagram and Facebook photos only seem to portray perfectly timed lives and hopelessly happy family celebrations, and that in reality, we just never see the more challenging aspects of dating and being married. While our heads tell us that’s true, our hearts know that sense of being left behind after wasting too much time scrolling through the endless posts of other people’s happiness. And the angst about being single in a world where everyone else is finding the loves of their lives begins to rise.
I may watch different TV and Netflix programs than college students, but we’re both bombarded with the idea that life will be perfect if we can just find the right beautiful person. And if we can’t, then at least we should have some fun in the meantime.
The students I know are streaming episodes and seasons of comedic shows like New Girl and edgy ones like Game of Thrones. I hadn’t even realized that so many college students are addicted to Grey’s Anatomy until I saw a recent Facebook post from a freshman identifying Meredith Grey and Christina Yang as her “favorite duo.” The show has been around for a while. I guess it’s got staying power with a broad range of age groups. I’ve watched my share of that drama—enough to know that the messaging in it falls far short of what I need to be hearing at this point in my life.
I can’t exactly give myself a pass with the shows I watch, however. Downton Abbey‘s main characters are still dealing with the antics of previous seasons, from scandalous trysts in hotel rooms to flings with married men. Lady Mary thought her rendezvous with Lord Gillingham was a well-kept secret until a scheming hotel housemaid tried to blackmail her with it. And poor Edith (because she’s always referred to as poor Edith) is still trying to keep the real story of her illegitimate daughter Marigold concealed. Not exactly uplifting plots. But even if I try to get away from the popular dramas and watch a somewhat more mature home-and-garden network, I’ll still get the world’s messages about relationships. Even the house-hunting shows frequently highlight happily unmarried couples seeking the perfect abode together. For the single struggling with loneliness, temptation is everywhere.
So here we are. Young adults feeling the tug to be in lasting relationships, dreaming of engagements and weddings and the expected life. Older singles feeling the same tug, with dreams that are starting to look a little different as the expected life hasn’t unfolded the way we planned. And the world is telling us both the same message: God has nothing to do with it. Don’t wait around for divine intervention. There’s plenty of fun to be had out there without trying to make everything so spiritual. Besides, everyone is “doing it,” and they haven’t been struck by lightning. Don’t be such a prude.
I have a lot in common with my young counterparts. But there is something I have that they don’t. Experience. I’ve had a few more years of walking with God, of learning to trust when I cannot see the plan. I know these messages that come from the world and how the lives of others seem to reinforce and affirm them. I know what it feels like to see the happy posts of others and feel like I’ve been left behind. I know the ache of seeing friends get married, have babies and homes and anniversaries, celebrating with them, while inwardly fighting back silent grief. I’ve felt the temptation to run ahead of God, to fix things for myself. I know I could easily be in a relationship if that’s all I wanted. I could find a guy on dating websites or apps and be done with it. It works on TV all the time, doesn’t it? I didn’t expect to still be single at my age. I thought I’d find him during my college years. When that deadline passed, I thought surely, it wouldn’t be long after that. I was wrong. Satan has whispered, “God has forgotten you.” But as the years ticked by, I realized I wanted more than just being in a relationship, and God had not forgotten me. He was very much still in the picture.
It hasn’t been an easy road. The challenges of living the single life while longing for a different one are very real. But the rewards of waiting on God for His best are very real as well. And that’s what I share with the students I talk to. This moment in time, this college experience, is a blip on the radar. I know it doesn’t seem that way to them. I know it seems like these are the best, carefree days of their lives and each moment must be lived to the hilt. It would be easy to throw every moral caution to the wind and have the fling, have the hook-up, date the guy who doesn’t walk with God, get the Ring by Spring by doing whatever it takes. It would be easy to think we can have the life portrayed in the crazy things we watch and listen to, where there are no consequences to the actions and choices, where folks can go from one relationship to another without much of a problem and still seem blissfully happy. But in reality, choices made during this “blip” will have far reaching implications that will impact their lives for years to come. (Just think of poor Edith, for example.) The poor choices will impact us later, and the good ones will as well. For the students willing to listen, I relate examples of both the good and not-so-good choices from my own life. And I let them know that even at my age, I’m still faced with choices related to my singleness every day. Oddly enough, we’re in this together.
In the end, it’s not all about marriage. It’s not all about being in a relationship. It seems that way when we’re saturated with messages to the contrary. But it is about life. And we only get one chance at that, the last time I checked. The series of blips on the radar of my life have added up to a few more years than my students. I look back and see a life well-lived. I didn’t die because I didn’t get married when I thought I should have. I didn’t give up hope when extended singleness marched on and the clock kept ticking. I’ve been able to travel and meet great people. I’ve been able to own a home and change jobs without worrying about another person. I attend a great church that has become the family I need so much when I’m living far from my own. I sometimes wonder if God has allowed me to be single for this long so that I’d have credibility with the younger ones. I’m not a married person telling them how they should wait and what a blessing singleness is. I’m not a mother telling them that the ticking clock doesn’t matter and that if they’ll just volunteer in the church nursery they’ll feel better.
The truth is, the single life is hard, whether you’re in senior year panic or considering senior citizen discounts. I don’t think people give us enough credit for that. Sometimes owning a home and changing jobs by myself with no one to share those big moments with has been tough. Sometimes walking into church alone is still hard. Sometimes Facebook makes me mad and TV makes me wistful. And then I’m reminded that I’m not here on this earth to get married. I’ll still pray for that, and I’ll still ask others to pray for that, because it’s the desire of my heart. Until God tells me otherwise, I’ll keep praying. But in the meantime, God has a job for me to do that’s totally unrelated to my marital status. I’m here to glorify Him in whatever state I find myself. If I keep that out in front, the world’s messages will have a harder time getting in. The angst of worrying about what the future looks like will settle down, because I know that He’s got it all under control.
Everyone is longing for something. We all have places in our hearts that feel empty. The empty places can leave us feeling untethered, wandering, looking for the fulfillment we need in improbable places. I long for marriage, and many of the young people I’m in contact with are starting to feel the same thing. We’re in totally different life stages. Our experiences and circumstances are widely varied. Yet, we’re so much alike. Our deepest longings won’t be met in a person. They’ll be met in our relationship with Jesus Christ. I know that because I’ve experienced it.
And so I’ll continue to listen to the hearts of the young singles I meet. I’ll share with them, pray with them, and sometimes even cry with them when the desires are strong and the choices are hard. I’ll tell them how I’ve been able to fight against the world’s wacky messaging over the years with God’s help. And I’ll tell them that I still believe He can provide. He has blessed me beyond measure in so many other ways while I’ve been waiting. Our single lives may look different, but really, we’re the same.