The other day, a married friend asked if this weekend would be hard for me.
“Why?” I said. “Because it’s Valentine’s Day?”
“Oh.” I waved a hand. “I stopped paying attention to that holiday a long time ago.”
But I lied. I lie all the time. I lie because I have been single for the vast majority of my life, and of the few relationships I’ve managed to hold onto, however briefly, none has overlapped with Valentine’s Day. My lying is never intentional—the words just come tumbling out, honed after years of acting tough about the fact that I’m alone, hating the thought that anyone might feel sorry for me. So I joke, and I pretend I don’t care, and I bet few people know I’m lying through my smiling teeth. That’s the thing about learned behavior: at a certain point, it stops being difficult to appear to be someone you’re not.
A few years ago, I wrote an essay called “Waiting (Gracefully) for Love.” It was inspired by these lines from Li-young Lee’s poem, “The Waiting”: “Love, these lines / accompany our want, nameless / or otherwise, and our waiting. / And since we’ve not learned / how not to want, / we’ve had to learn, / by waiting, how to wait.” I’ve heard it said that we are always waiting for something: a job, a house, a lover, a child. I have spent my entire cognitive life waiting for the man I’ll marry. It’s the backbone of every decision I make, the reason I always have one foot out the door, my days spinning their wheels in a perpetual state of pause, never letting myself settle in, not yet, because this isn’t where I’m going to remain.
But in the ironic way these things tend to work, I have always had trouble believing that I will, in fact, get married. I remember the way other girls would talk when we were young: “When I get married,” they’d say. “When I have children.” For them, it was a foregone conclusion. For me, it never was. Even before I started watching men boomerang away from me faster than they’d arrived, even before I began donning taffeta ballgowns and kitten heels and bridesmaiding at wedding after wedding, I never felt like I could say “when.” For me, it was always “if,” and that hasn’t changed, despite the fact that my desire grows deeper with each passing day, even despite the fact that I know and love God far better now than I ever have before.
Jesus and I have spent much time and effort trying to dig up the root of my unbelief, only to unearth twigs and scraps that probe at but never fully explain why this is the Achilles heel of my faith. Maybe it’s because I never had a particularly close relationship with my father. Maybe it’s because I was a strange, precocious child who knew from an early age that I was different from my peers, and so, could not expect to live a “normal” life. Maybe it’s because, as the years rumbled by, I became acutely aware of all the ways it was possible for things to go wrong. I learned that dreams do not always come true, even when you work and fight and pray for them with everything you have. Some things are just not meant to be.
C.S. Lewis speaks, in The Screwtape Letters, of “the law of undulation,” explaining that humans’ “bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation—the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks.” Every few months, I repeat this pattern: I get fed up with the duel between my belief and unbelief and tell myself to stop waiting for a relationship, to accept the life I’ve been given—which, all things considered, is a good little life—and to let the appearance of a partner surprise me, if and when the time is right. But this posture never lasts. No matter how much it hurts to cling to the possibility of love, I can never seem to let go of the tether.
Other Christians often tell me, “God wouldn’t plant a desire in your heart if He didn’t intend to fulfill it.” And I know that. Somewhere within me, I do, and it might be the only thing that keeps me hanging on, when I also know—far more deeply than I would like to—how much easier it would be to drop it and get on with my life. Lately, I’ve been creeping up to the edge of that precipice, knowing I could ask God to remove my desire for marriage, or just make me numb to the want of it, and turn me into the person I’ve long pretended to be—a woman who is perfectly fine being single. He would do this if I asked Him to. I believe that with an unprecedented certainty, and that’s why, time and again, I stop myself from asking it.
It hurts to be alone. It does. We weren’t meant for it, and while we can and should be grateful for all the other love that is in our lives, that intimate romantic relationship exists in a different dimension, and I have found nothing in all my years of searching that can bandage the lack of it. But there is something important to be learned from this hurt. If I turn away, and if I don’t allow Jesus to work in my wounds and show me where He can be found, even in my deepest ache, I will lose the chance to hear what, perhaps, these circumstances alone can allow Him to say. In Acedia & Me, Kathleen Norris writes, “Only when we admit that we have ‘no way’ do we have any hope of finding one. Out of what seems desolate a newly vigorous faith can arise, a certainty that is not subject to changes in moods or feelings, or the vicissitudes of life.”
I keep coming back to this phrase: faith in the in-between. What does belief look like when life hasn’t turned out the way you wanted, and when you also set down all the lying and sidestepping that lets you pretend you’re okay with that? I don’t know, but I’m working on it, and I’m failing at every turn. I don’t know how to live without being in constant want. I don’t know how to believe, but I think that’s the point. In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis takes on the voice of a demon tasked with leading souls to damnation and writes, “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do [God’s] will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”