by Kristine Haglund
Kristine Haglund is a former editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and a blogger at By Common Consent.
The topic of being single and Mormon seems huge and difficult, probably because “single” is in no way a unitary category; my experience may not provide much that is useful to say about yours. The notion of being “in the borderlands” is similarly complex and daunting. So I thought I’d start by talking about something I do know something about—grammar and usage.
Mormons have a lot of linguistic tics. For example, we often begin a gathering by saying “We’d like to welcome you out to _____.” Since “welcome” suggests ingathering, “out” seems like the wrong preposition. However, for those of us who find ourselves in “the borderlands” it may be particularly appropriate. What could it mean to welcome someone out from the center to the periphery? What is in the borderlands that could make someone want to venture out from the comfort of the middle?
I’m Mormon enough that my first impulse in preparing a talk of almost any kind is to look up key terms in the scriptures’ Topical Guide. The word “border” occurs mostly, as one would expect, in the context of territorial boundaries and disputes. “And the border went out toward the sea to Mich-meh-thath on the north side; and the border went about eastward unto Teh-anath-sheelow, and passed by it on the east to Jan-o-hah . . .”—the Old Testament in particular is full of names and geography that tell us, in our far-away, belated arrival to the text, only that drawing lines seems to be an eternal human preoccupation. In the Book of Mormon, this mania for line-drawing is shown in its violent and ultimately apocalyptic form. The borderlands can be dangerous places where human greed and violence fester.
There are, however, also some mentions of borders in the scriptures that present a very different perspective. In Isaiah and in the Doctrine & Covenants, there are injunctions that “Zion must increase in beauty, and in holiness; her borders must be enlarged” (D&C 82:14) and promises that God will enlarge the borders of Israel. Borders, then, though wild and contested, are also the places where growth occurs, where God’s blessing finds place.
So how can we who find ourselves in the borderlands of a married church—in the strange wilderness that is singleness—welcome others out? What can we offer? What can we teach?
First, we can (and will, by our mere existence) embody the knowledge that a great deal of Mormon theologizing about families is too tidy to be useful. The theology may be pretty, but in the way that a ballroom chandelier is pretty: it requires a complicated apparatus and a whole lot of luck to light it up and bask in its splendor. Most of us, most of the time, are not at a ball, we’re wandering through the woods in the dark, so we’re completely justified if we tell the person who is rhapsodizing about the chandelier they once saw to shut up and hand us a flashlight! It is good and right to articulate the ideals that we want to illuminate our lives, but it’s important to learn to recognize them in unexpected forms and places. We who live in the borderlands can teach our sisters and brothers about the especial loveliness of unexpected flashes of brilliance that appear, like Hopkins’ “shining from shook foil,” in relationships and experiences that don’t fit the expected familial template.
Besides merely existing, how can we communicate this idea that love is richer and more complex than the theoretical frameworks in which we try to contain it?
We can stop being limited by those theories ourselves. Clean from every corner of your psyche the cobwebs of “not enough,” “broken,” “cursed,” “unworthy,” “defective,” and “incomplete.” Evict the ugly shards of brittle stories about what should be. Get out the flashlight! Do the work it takes to tell yourself a different story. And then really believe it.
Then we can tell other people the story. Human beings have to deal with a world that’s far too complex to manage all at once, so we oversimplify the parts that we’re not wrestling with at the moment. That’s useful for large game hunting, but less so for dealing with people who are different than we are. It’s our job to not fit into people’s scripts for single people (which, when you think about it, is pretty easy). Fracturing that script helps those around us think more productively about the other people in their lives who are also different.
Not fitting into the script sometimes means showing up when it makes people (or even ourselves) uncomfortable, like staying for Relief Society even if the topic is eternal marriage. And other times it means not showing up and not being offended about it, like when the ward has a Valentine’s Day dance and you’re the only uncoupled person in the ward. Sometimes it means simply speaking as though you hadn’t noticed the fact of your singleness, as though it were not the defining feature of your existence. Because of course it isn’t, except on your church records. Unless you’re the ward clerk, you never even need to mention it!
We are also in a unique position to both practice and teach patience and endurance. Mormons really like to get things done; we like to solve problems. Sometimes, in our discourse about single members, it’s possible to hear a note of impatience: Why haven’t you solved your singleness problem yet? And sometimes the analyses are hurtful or insulting: single men are slackers who won’t do the responsible thing and get married; single women are too picky/smart/focused-on-marriage/focused-on-career/ugly (the last is usually euphemized). Confronting the simple demographic fact that some people will spend at least a portion of their adult lives unpartnered is frustrating for people who like to believe that since “when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated,” it must be true that each act of obedience calls forth its perfectly matched and predestined blessing as a reward. But, of course, the correspondence between blessings and obedience is not neat and predictable; God is not a vending machine.1 The possibility that an unmarried adult Saint might be obedient is an affront to this falsely comforting folk theology. The fact is, unmarried Saints have a share in God’s blessings, too, but some of those blessings don’t look like the ones married Saints receive. Simply by existing within the body of Christ, unmarried Saints open space for a richer and deeper understanding of God and the nature of God’s gifts to their children. Our lives convey something that is true for everyone, but perhaps not always so obviously: grace is abundant and free, but also wild; we must persist and endure with the desperate patience of hope rather than in comfortable certainty.
Finally, I believe that single people know a lot about loneliness. And I think that’s a good thing—there is wisdom and sweetness to be found in being alone, and even in being truly lonely. If you have put in some time being lonely, you know that the opposite of loneliness is wholeness, and that you have to be whole before you can belong.
When I was a little girl, I had a book called The Springs of Joy. It was a collection of sweet aphorisms and poems about pretty things, with pretty pastel pictures. But there was one page that was all dark grays and indigos—a picture of a little girl, tiny and forlorn, standing alone at the edge of a dark lake. The text on this page was a single line: “We live as we dream—alone.”2 I remember the shock of recognition, knowing instantly that this was the truest thing in that sweet little book. Being herd animals with an overdeveloped frontal cortex, we want the safety of belonging, but we can’t escape our self-consciousness constantly reminding us that we are alone in our minds. Singleness and borderlandishness are gifts that amplify this self-consciousness so that we can’t ignore it, forcing us to find a way to make peace in ourselves. It turns out that borderlands and in-between spaces—the places where we can feel loneliest—are exactly the places where we learn to be whole.
All good Mormon talks return to the scriptures at the end. First we turn to the gospel according to e.e. cummings:
no time ago
or else a life
walking in the dark
i met christ
Jesus) my heart
and lay still
while He passed (as
close as i’m to you
made of nothing
Then, in Matthew 23:5, “But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments.” Here Jesus is condemning the Pharisees’ practice of demonstrating their superior piety by making the fringes of their garments longer than required by the Mosaic Law. For our purposes, the interesting thing about this verse is that the edge of the garment—the border—is considered the holiest part.
Mark 6:56 affirms that there is indeed power at the edges of Jesus’s garments. “And whithersoever he entered, into villages, or cities, or country, they laid the sick in the streets, and besought him that they might touch if it were but the border of his garment: and as many as touched him were made whole.” The most famous of these episodes, of course, is in Luke, chapter 8, where a woman who had been forced to live at the margins of society by an illness that made her ritually unclean (literally untouchable in the eyes of her co-religionists) dares to reach for the hem of Jesus’ robe.
And a woman having an issue of blood twelve years, which had spent all her living upon physicians, neither could be healed of any,
Came behind him, and touched the border of his garment: and immediately her issue of blood stanched.
And Jesus said, Who touched me? When all denied, Peter and they that were with him said, Master, the multitude throng thee and press thee, and sayest thou, Who touched me?
And Jesus said, Somebody hath touched me: for I perceive that virtue is gone out of me.
And when the woman saw that she was not hid, she came trembling, and falling down before him, she declared unto him before all the people for what cause she had touched him, and how she was healed immediately.
And he said unto her, Daughter, be of good comfort: thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace.3
Though Jesus calls it “faith,” I’d say she also has hope and yearning—an urgent wish to belong that propels her forward. Note that she is breaking the taboo of her illness by going with the multitude—her faith is not just in Jesus, but in her own wholeness. She can disregard the judgment of others because she has discovered, in her loneliness, that she is alive and can know love. And Jesus, out of his own abundant loneliness, responds with healing, omnipotent love.
The borders are lonely but they are also the holy places where we touch each other and God. The terror of aloneness is conquered only at the edges—where the press of the crowd gives way to tiny, fragile moments of connection. We who live in the borderlands are no more alone than those in the center, but we can “see that [we are] not hid” in the crowd. We have the chance to know and tell that we are made whole by faith and hope and longing. We can welcome our sisters and brothers out into the places where we have been made whole, where we have touched the edge of God’s love.