Everyone Dies Alone

I seem to have had my first semi-viral Tweet with a response to the wonderful funny lady Leslie Jones, who is one of my Twitter (s)heroes after dealing with a universe of unbelievable hatred and abuse for daring to be a black woman starring in a remake of “Ghostbusters.” The spewing to which she was subjected was incredibly disturbing, and she left Twitter for a time. She’s back — she didn’t owe anyone that, but I’m glad she returned — and recently posted  a gym selfie with the caption,

Ok back to cardio. But confession I feel like I’m doing it for nothing. I know it not I’m healthy and look good but I really feel like “what’s it all for” if the people you want to notice don’t. I just feel like I might die alone. Sorry that’s pretty heavy today!!

That gave my heart a pang when I read it and I Tweeted back to her,

Leslie. I’m a minister + I can tell you that everyone dies alone. Be healthy for you. Don’t give so much power to men or objects of desire. Be your own romance. Get your own power back. I’m rooting for you.

BuzzFeed picked up the outpouring of support for the indomitable, delightful Miss Jones and featured my tweet at the top of the article, and right now my tweet has been “liked” around 1,400 times.

I’m glad. If anything I’ve ever said was going to get that much attention, I’m glad it’s my for one of my signature beliefs and messages:  being alone is the human condition and it’s not a punishment or a failure. Embrace it.

I speak as a convert. All the adult years I spent in the quest for a significant other were characterized by frustration, insecurity, fear and a sense of being untrue to my authentic self. I have always had a melancholic temperament but debilitating depression went away when I stopped seeking a mate.

This does not mean that I am without male companionship and it does not mean that I have chosen a celibate life. It means that my esssential assumptions and expectations have changed. Men, dating and relationships have a tiny portion of the power in my life to distract or distress me that they once did. My orientation has almost completely flipped: I very rarely care if men approve of me. I  care to know whether or not I am interested in them, if I approve of them, if I am attracted to them, and whether or not I want to remain in relationships with them.

Why this should be so radical well into the 21st century (and especially for a fat woman– we are assumed to have no self-esteem) is a sad mystery, but patirarchy is tenacious.

Many Tweeteurs liked and affirmed my message to Leslie Jones, but I became fascinated by one negative response by an odd stranger who accused me of “preying on” Jones with “religious talk” when she was down.  Apparently my cheerleading seemed to this person to be peddling of some kind of salvation scheme. I can’t for the life of me imagine what. But this weird accusation led me to consider the question of how much my religious commitments and experiences inform my positive perspective about solo life?

A lot, as it turns out.

First, community. My experience of church life has been interesting, exciting, fulfilling, emotionally challenging and satisfying, spiritually deep, and characterized by loyalty, collaboration, and creative problem-solving. It has been encouraging and outward-focused in a way that I always craved feeling with an intimate partner.

Although the mainline Protestant church has declined in numbers and availabiity of volunteer commitment in recent decades, it is now a truly voluntary community of those who really want to be there. This is a cultural shift from the days when affiliation with a house of worship was fairly de rigeur, just part of respectable citizenship. Church-going and religious participation were rote. I love that the people who are now part of church life are almost outlaw, especially in secular, liberal New England where I live and serve. They want to be in community. They take relationship seriously. They mostly really want to learn and grow.

The sense of vitality, energy, and intensity I feel in the religious communities is something I have almost never felt in a romantic relationship. I am glad that many people have, but it hasn’t been my experience. My experience has always been that partnered life constricted me. Community life makes my horizons larger, not smaller.

There is also the matter of Jesus, who is a moral exemplar and more to me. Jesus was not partnered to one person and explicitly challenged kinship models of family, expanding its definition to include all those who are in fellowship in a common spiritual purpose and ministry.

Kinship loyalty for the sake of contrived familial loyalty is  tribal and often harmful. I remember years of trying to drum up affection for a boyfriend’s parents, whom I found to be vapid at best and close-minded bigots at worst.  Free from trying to make myself appealing to a man’s parents or siblings, I prefer to make my family among a wider circle of intimates: friends, church folk, the theatre community. I gravitated at a young age to the LGBTQ community for its “We Are Family” ethos, and I still feel far more at home in the queer community than in heterosexist spaces where I am disapproved of or looked at with pity or suspicion for being solo, never married and intentionally and gratefully childless (I remain forever grateful to both of my parents for never assuming that married life and motherhood was my destiny).

So it turns out that my advice really did have a bit of a proseletyizing in it, just not the way that person accusing me of that assumed!

In 2018, the #MeToo movement is not only about the endless daily harassment to which women have been subjected, it is a take-down of a phony partnered love salvation scheme that breaks just as many spirits as does bad, excluding, judging theology.

I have my days like Leslie Jones does, but not often and the feeling of being bereft of love passes quickly. It doesn’t last because I have overcome the impoverished definition of love that I inherited from our sad, lonely society.  Erotic, romantic energy has been defined solely as something that two people experience that leads them into the bedroom.  I’m not knocking that kind of erotic energy — it’s fun while it lasts! But I want to promote a broader appreciation of the erotic that has to do with energy, intensity, full engagement of body, mind and soul that occurs whenever we connect with others in ways that fosters trust, happy memories, shared goals, and emotional closeness.

Americans are over-fed on stories, shows, songs and movies about the lover who makes a gargantuan and sometimes foolish effort to convince the one perfect love interest that he is worthy — think John Cusack as Lloyd Dobler holding the boombox over his head in “Say Anything.” Please see me! Please love me! Please complete me!  Why give so much power to one person? How do you know for sure they’re worthy of that trust?

Also, Lloyd, if you wake me up playing Peter Gabriel outside my window I’m going to be hella mad. I have work in the morning and it matters to me that I get a good night’s sleep. You want to be make a grand gesture? Offer to walk my dog while I officiate at a funeral for a young man. Make me dinner. Listen while I vent. Don’t harass me and irritate the neighbors.

Seriously, though? Everyone: take your metaphorical boombox everyplace and play your songs wherever you are.  Just play your song and see who shows up to dance. It might be a stray cat. It might be an elderly woman who has the time to chat, and needs to.  I know this sounds corny but I promise you that it is eminently worth the effort to dismantle the romance myth that the culture installed in all of us like software at our birth. Not all of us were meant to live out that story.  There are thousands of other ways to live fully and with plenty of love and sexiness, if you don’t define sexiness as sleeping with the same partner every night (and reports from the front lines of that aspect of partnered relationships aren’t great!).

Ultimately, as I said to Miss Jones, we go into our caskets one at a time. Even the rare birds who mate for life (and I have known many in my years of ministry) wind up with one at bedside and one taking their last breath, and one is left to rely on their own strength and community relationships to see them through what comes next.  The fact of this matter is why I always bristle when I hear the expression, “You’re going to die alone,” as a kind of threat or insult. It’s no insult. It’s no threat. It is just reality.

We die alone. We may have a spouse at our sides when we do, or that person may be in a nursing home lost to Alzheimer’s. That person may have predeceased us. We may be divorced  and have children by our side. We may be divorced and be estranged from children, or have children who are busy with their own children and in-laws across the country, or have jobs that prevent them from being with us. I have seen all of these things in my ministry. They are exceedingly common, not unusual or tragic. They are the way life works out.

There is no need to keep relying on the appearance of a hypothetical Wonderful Significant Other on our life stage to get on with a thrilling, fulfilling production.

 In Terrence McNally’s play, “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” one woman character, who is a mother, tells another woman, who is not a mother but wants to be, how to deal with children.  Chloe says, “Don’t be intimidated by them, like they were something special. They’re just little people. That’s all you have to remember about them.”

It’s the same thing about objects of desire: they’re just people. Whether an actual person you’re fantasizing about or an idea partner you’ve concocted in your imagination, we are all  just people.  No one can — or should want to — save anyone else from what John Keats called “the vale of soul-making,” or the path of individuation that, done well and with an openness to many sources of love, leads to no regrets at the end of life or bitterness in the midst of it.

There are many significant others for all of us. Some of them drop into our lives for one beautiful hour, some for decades. Please don’t miss the beauty and romance of this experience by pining for that one fantasy partner who may or may not ever manifest in your life.

Much love to you, Leslie, and everyone else.

 

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