Valentine’s Day: isn’t it ironic?

Quick-Easy-Valentine-Day-Treats

I noticed Valentine’s Day this year more than usual. It’s not that I was scouting out gifts and ideas for the perfect date to indulge the girl I am head over heals in love with. Nor was it the pining for affection that comes in the wake of realising I didn’t have a Valentine when so many others did.

I walked through central London yesterday and saw the men hurrying home from work clutching bouquets for their loved ones, the less organised queueing round the shop only to end up with the last wilted bunch of daffodils on sale. I spotted the women carrying theirs, one with at least 4 sets of flowers – either one very besotted partner or she was a lady in much demand.

And on the internet I saw the mix of cute and kitsch, couples stating their love for each other on Facebook as though a wife telling her husband she loved him was a performance piece. There were complaints at extortion from purveyors of roses, photos of candles and dinners, declarations of thanks for their wonderful wife/husband/ boyfriend/girlfriend/date/crush/secret admirer, and the attention they had shown.

There was also the backlash. Those who were sick of the romance and the sugar coated affectations. Some of it came from thinly veiled anger and frustration, for others there was peace and contentment. There were single people going for dinner on their own, or just happy to enjoy an evening in watching season 2 of House of Cards.

But more than either the participants or the left out, this was the Valentine’s Day of the analysers. Never before have I seen so many people commenting on Valentine’s Day, what it means, where it came from, who it might offend, who might be left out. A tweet about V-Day, as it had apparently been contracted to, required an obligatory nod toward those who might find it difficult. Everyone (except Theos) seemed to have specially themed content for the day. Marketing departments went into overdrive. Unsurprisingly the action film on TV last night was stuffed full of dating sites advertising their wares during the breaks. From tenuous discount offers to comical tweets. And many of those comical tweets were really not very funny. There are only so many times you can read ‘Roses are red’ with it cumulating in a marketing tangent on a humorous final line before you want to block all tweets with the word roses.

The obvious.

The understandable.

And the bizarre.

The internet loves irony, so there were posts about awkward Valentine’s cards, emotionally repressed British Valentine’s cards, tweets of slightly dubious Christian alternatives, and a host of other ironic gestures aimed at poking fun at the institution.

Except the poking and the prodding and the analysing and the advertising had become bigger than the day itself. A friend hunting for a card for her boyfriend recounted the trauma of trying to find a suitable card. The umpteenth layer of irony is that the ironic alternatives were a lot better than what was readily available in the shops.

And yes, I am analysing the analysers.

For couples taking a moment to enjoy and celebrate their relationship, Valentine’s Day is great. And for some people it will be hard, to see people celebrating what you have lost, have not got, or fear you never will, is going to be hard, especially when it is something that tugs so intrinsically to our emotions and our personhood. But booking every other seat in the cinema to stop couples sitting together is taking things a bit too far.

I’ve written before on singleness and how I just am single, I don’t not like it, or particularly thrive on it, it’s just what I am. I therefore don’t find Valentine’s day a difficult day. But having someone to watch Newsnight with would be nice, and I hear and agree with all who say the marriage does not solve the problems and that singleness is not a prelude. And yet I sometimes want what others have and I do not.

That we celebrate something with the passion we do each 14th February demonstrates the longing in our hearts for relationship. And that it is hard because for many relationships are scarred with hurt and brokenness, shows that there is much about these relationships not to celebrate but to mourn.

When I commented on the masses of roses I saw on the underground someone suggested it was because people had lost their weekend retreats to the floods. And in a way it is about lose. When they took their vows and committed to another they set themselves aside. And they choose relationship over self.

While there are wounds that still seer, and memories that will not leave, while there is loneliness and longing, and dreams left behind. There is also the glimpse of beauty. And maybe, that is why we talk about it so much, analyse it to allow ourselves to keep out distance, choose irony to disguise the truth, which actually often communicates a greater truth than the honed words we could never find ourselves.

Because whether we had a Valentine or not, relationships matter. And the analysis and the irony we put into it just reinforces the point. 

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On being single

Kweku and Fi wedding cake detailWind wisps through the air, leaves shiver on their stems. People bustle past the forlorn store fronts hurrying to find their way to some indistinct place. Their speed suggests purposes, urgency, a thing to be done before any other. But they carry on, moving fast but arriving nowhere. A perpetual asymmetry of intent and achievement.

A perpetual asymmetry of intent and achievement.

A lot of movement but not a lot of action.

A lot of words but not enough openness. Frankness as shade to protect the fragile soul. Saying things we don’t mean to mask the heart. Leaving places too painful so we don’t have to wear our scars before those who know their cause.

The temptation to move on. The idea that some different place will be a better place. The hope that dreams might come true. The figment of our imagination we think might switch to reality if we loiter in its midst for long enough.

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Seven fears that stop me asking girls out

© April Killingsworth

Two years ago I wrote a post “why guys don’t ask girls out”. This is a different post, it’s what stops me from asking girls out. Not why guys don’t, but why I don’t.

It is simple to slip into the abstract when writing about relationships, find the generalisation, the concept; the easy way out. It is also tempting to use other people’s stories, to aggregate examples and form a trend that is straightforward to talk about and respond to.

If you look at most of what is written about relationships that’s how it works. What is the problem, and what is the solution? It’s the mentality of glossy magazines and trendy bloggers, and we look for solutions because we think that if we have a list of things to do to solve the problem that’s the same as having it sorted.

… we look for solutions because we think that if we …

The other day Emily Maynard tweeted that if she were to write a book it would be called “I Have No Idea How To Fix Your Life And It’s Weird That You’re Looking In Books For That.” Continue reading

Why I write about relationships, and why I hesitate

good-relationshipsTwo years ago I started this blog with a series of four posts one day after the next on relationships in the church. For better or worse it established the foundations of what I would write a lot about, and more to the point, what I would be known to write about. I go through phases of leaving the subject to one side, letting it have a breather, but the issues do not go away and my opinions don’t always want to keep to themselves.

One of those four posts, “Why guys don’t ask girls out” gets hits every single day, and a few weeks ago I read it and winced not only at typos that continue to be read but what I said and the way I said it.

Many of the things I wrote on four consecutive days stand the test of time. There are some concepts and ideas that I articulated for the first time which had been percolating through my mind for many years, others that slipped off the fingers onto the keyboard without sufficient thought.

There are ideas I have rethought as I have written and reflected on a topic that is tender to many people. I have had to change what I do because of what I wrote, but what I write should also be affected by what I do – and too often I have written in a vacuum. Continue reading

A portrait of pain: words from before the blog

This morning I remembered something I wrote about two years ago about friendships, relationships, and isolation. It was before I started writing in this space. The style is different, it’s really a journal entry, not something written for publication. It is also rather maudlin in places. For that I don’t apologise but ask that you understand it is a portrait of a moment in time. Is it true? No, in that it contains a lot of lies I told myself. Yes, in that it is how I felt. I was interested in a girl and she was not in me, I had had some struggles with my friends. And I was alone for a day in Spain. I have not edited it apart from grammar and spelling, it is what it is, it is a portrait of pain.

The words that would soothe this troubled mind, The ones I hunt for, search for, long for. The words I think will take away the pain, all the hurt. The words that will bring clarity out of confusion. The form of letters brought together in phrases and fragments and rarely, carefully, composed sentences that stop short of extended prose but lacks the beauty and grace to be poetry.

But it’s not the words that require attention. But the troubled mind. Torn between dreams of grandeur and doubts of inconsequence. A mind that won’t stand still. Not for a moment. That will not settle, that refuses to be stilled. A torment of thoughts and emotions meshed together. Thoughts that refuse to leave and emotions that I am not sure are there.

Dangling in my mind. Taunting my solitude. Tempering my calm, peaceful, afternoon. Beneath the trees in Girona’s historic quarter. As I ponder why do I need both isolation from people and affirmation from them of my worth? If, in fact, it is their approval I want. Because I am not certain that I am able to receive it. I am not sure that I have the capacity to believe that anyone would recognise anything of worth in me at all.

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Is finding a wife like shopping for shoes?

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Are you looking for a wife? Or, are you happy being single?

That wasn’t quite the question put to me but it sums up the sentiment. That it is a choice. And that either I am happy being single or I should start shopping.

Because that seems to be the mentality. Looking for a spouse attracting the same approach as I might take to hunting down a new pair of shoes, or maybe to give it a little more seriousness, similar to buying a flat.

Maybe I should confess that I’m not very good at buying shoes. I don’t find the process difficult, it is not a particularly complex task to complete. I just don’t do it. I have a smart pair and a casual pair and wear them until their resemblance to footwear is solely a historic recollection. I also have sandals for the summer, slippers for the winter and climbing shoes for, well, climbing.

But last year I bought a flat and that was a big decision, it was a task I gave myself to. There were things to do, some time consuming but mundane, others swift but significant. Putting in an offer, signing for a mortgage, collecting keys. There were words spoken and written, the handover of a set of metallic objects. Yet it was much more than that, the simple acts were imbued with significance, they meant something because of what linked them together, where they came from and what that signalled.

So I wonder, is finding someone to spend the rest of your life with like buying a house, and stripping the complexities away to push the point, is it like shopping for any other item?

When I go shoe shopping it’s not for a luxury, but for something I urgently need. Therefore I refuse to let myself come home empty handed. And when I bought my flat I had decided I was going to do so, I took some time but eventually made a decision. It was a big decision but it was not an irrevocable one. I can sell, I can let. It is a material possession.

When we buy something we choose to get something over nothing. We decide that while there are better or worse options, having something is better than having nothing at all.

I don’t believe that getting married is more important than getting married to the right person.

I don’t think getting married is like buying shoes, or a flat. Finding someone to spend your life with is not a consumer experience. It is a dance of emotions and expectations and hopes and dreams. It is prospect that absence may take the place of something.

Maybe it is like Schrödinger’s cat. Until you open the box you don’t know if the cat is dead or alive, so by some ridiculous chain of logic which I cannot begin to fathom, the cat is both dead and alive. Maybe you can be both living life to the full as a single person and want to get married. And until something happens you are both.

If I’m in a relationship it’s not much good living life to the full in my singleness, I don’t think that relationship would last very long. But until that point I am living in a contested reality, there are alternative routes that my life can take and I need to be open to pursuing either while acknowledge one would close off the other.

And that can sometimes stop you from opening the box. Not wanting to close down options can prevent you from making a choice. Sometimes I can be paralysed by indecision, and the multitude of options, and potential future options can cast me in formaldehyde and root me to the spot. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t a choice.

But the choice is what gives it meaning. The choice to take a risk and do something you don’t essentially have to do. Doing something you could live without, doing something that will limit your further choices, doing something that will stop you from always thinking that something better could come along.

Because getting married isn’t a step in life improvement, it isn’t a way of becoming more complete. It isn’t an accessory to make you more glamorous, or an investment to make you more secure.

And it is neither mail order nor magic. It is not a formulaic process or the result of an abracadabra. Relationships do not just happen and we cannot script them.

But we live them and we love them, and in them we find life and we find love. And if that’s how you think about your shoes I recommend some therapy.

What do single Christians want their church leaders to do?

SinglenessTonight I went along to a Christian Connection event reporting back on a survey of 3000 people, mostly users of their dating site, about singleness and the church. David Pullinger analysed the data and presented results focusing on what single Christians appreciated about church, and what they found difficult.

The results are still being finalised, and more formalised reporting will come in due course, and some of the results have already been reported. But a couple of comments immediately stood out.

  • Only 1/3 of single men aged 30-44 socialise with their friends at least once a week. This is a significant drop from those younger than this and is not matched by a similar decline among women.
  • Single women often find married couples reticent to offer hospitality, and this seems to be related to a perceived threat to their marriage. Single women often work, don’t care for children and as a result often find they have more in common with the husband than the wife. I’m fascinated to look into this more and eagerly await seeing the data.
  • And there was a list of twelve things single Christians would like their church leaders to do, in order of importance…
  1. Give talks about singleness
  2. Organise or enable social and fun activities
  3. Hospitality
  4. Provide models of singleness
  5. Pray personally or in the church
  6. Be inclusive in all church activities
  7. Organise or enable single groups
  8. Be in contact, through phone, email or text
  9. Provide or facilitate practical help
  10. Provide practical help in finding a partner
  11. Knowing and recommending singles events
  12. Seeking the single person’s viewpoint

It’s an interesting list, and some I certainly agree with. But in all of this I had a recurring question, is there a danger of entrenching an identity of singleness, and possibly as a result seeing identity defined by the absence of a partner, rather than the many other things which make up the individual’s character.

Is singleness something which should be seen as an identity? If you’re single is it a label you use or appreciate? Or do you think it can do more damage than good?

We need to talk about singleness

singleFirst up, a confession: I was once a junior chess champion. I even got a medal for it. So there’s nothing wrong with joining a chess club to find a date.

I don’t think we talk too much about relationships. But I do think we’re not very good at talking about relationships.

The conversation might vary depending on who it is with, it is different with married friend to those who are also single. But there are some people who I know I will pretty much have the same conversation with whenever I see them, especially if I don’t see them very often. Miriam Skinner’s comments about ‘Martin in the blue jumper’ hit a little close to home. I’ll mention someone in a slightly off-the-cuff but almost obligatory response who I have taken a fancy to, who will then be brought up when I next see someone even if it’s a year later.

Miriam’s article is amusing and clever and filled with plenty of wisdom. But I think I disagree with its core message – that we talk about relationships too much. I don’t think we do, I think we easily slip into stale formulaic conversations that you could record in advance and hit play when the questions arise, and that needs to change. I also think we need to match our words with action, so that frustration is not left to fester.

We waste a lot of breathe and emotional agony on shooting the breeze, feigning sincerity when we speak barely masked gossip. Discussing the relative merits of courting over dating, contemplating whether to use an internet dating site, analysing the minutia of the actions of the opposite sex. Looking for clues about where romance lies and where it leads. Asking each other for advice which more often simply serves as affirmation for our intransigence.

I have a rule that I’ve developed over the past few years: most people who are single would rather not be. Rocket science, I know. Some people are happy – or content, to use the phrase de jour – in their present singleness, and a few think that is how things will always be. But for most people I know, even if they don’t see a relationship as important at the moment envisage themselves at some point with someone, or might like that to happen. I can say I am content being single and would yet might not want that to be the end of the story.

And I do not think that is a problem.

The Church should value and affirm singleness. And not just as a stage of life to exercise patience in. The Church should be aware of the ways its structures, processes and events can sometimes become hard to access for those without families or a husband or wife. I’ve heard of dinner parties that suddenly open up when the first ring goes on the finger: ‘my fiancé and I’ is the password to a new social circle.

Being in a relationship does not remove our need for God, it does not lessen out dependence on him, but I don’t think it needs to be a trade off. I think you can want a lot from romance and get even more from God. In some way the closeness of our human relationships with someone else reflect the way God makes himself known to us, and wants to know us more. We get to have both.

Here’s a hunch I have no way of verifying: if you get married the conversations don’t go away. The same sort of inquisition the Spanish would be proud of probes into new areas, and probably the banality of formulaic conversations won’t go away either. It might be a children, or buying a house. It might be about your sex life, or lack thereof. It might be about lust. Because that doesn’t go away either.

How do we talk about relationships in a way that is not formulaic and does not suggest that the shift from single to married is somehow answering a problem? I don’t know. It is hard.

But not talking about it won’t make the longing many people have go away. But it might, and I absolutely do not consider this to be what Miriam was saying, make people less willing to say words that are hard to say. To admit frailty in knowing who they like and whether they do. To say the person who caught their fancy last week is not in the picture any more. To speak of fears and hopes. To verbalise feelings and emotions that might get lost in a vacuum of solitude.

We probably need to cut out a lot of the crap from our conversations. The flip side is that we do just need to get on with stuff. Relationships, and I don’t just mean the romantic sort, are best built when we do something. As much as I like a relaxing evening in the pub there is something productive about activity, even if it’s playing games or cooking food. Much more if it is some sort of quest, some daring adventure, overcoming foes and reaching for the prize. Sorry, got carried away there.

I don’t mean just guys man-ing up and asking girls out, I mean helping each other, being the go between like we did at school discos when we were twelve. We could even set up our own dating service, I’m thinking ‘Church’ would be a great name for a place to meet and introduce people.

And when talking about relationships…

  • Accept that Sarah, the short brunette mentioned last week might not be someone’s eternal destiny
  • Talk about specifics, don’t let conversations become generic and repetitive, ‘oh there’s someone I like but I’m not sure whether they like me, or if I like them enough’.
  • Talk about beauty and attraction more than lust. Attraction is a good thing.
  • Talk about faith and where our identity and security is coming from (see I agree with Miriam there too).

Christian Connection has carried out research into the views of single Christians in the UK and are presenting the findings at an event in London next Tuesday (23rd April). I’ll be there and having seen a sneak peek of a few of the findings I can assure you it will be fascinating.

Affection, ambiguity and Anna Karenina

I had planned to read much of Anna Karenina over Christmas. That didn’t happen: between being ill, cooking food, playing with my nieces and defending the ending to Downton Abbey’s Christmas special, I managed a scant 60 pages. However in those early pages of this Russian masterpiece I came across a line that struck me with considerable force.

“But Levin was in love, and therefore Kitty seemed to him so perfect in every respect, so transcending everything earthly, and he seemed to himself so very earthly and insignificant a creature, that the possibility of his being considered worthy of her by others or by herself was to him unimaginable.”

Anna-Karenina-Poster-–-Pure-Love-460x650Two things immediately strike me from this passage, firstly, the early throws of affection limit our ability to think clearly. And secondly, sometimes when we like someone so much we find it hard to conceive that they might feel the same way.

It’s that moment when you meet someone and suddenly they become everything that matters. All else fades away. Except it doesn’t, it just retreats into a corner of your self which you allow to go untended for a while. They capture your imagination with an unreal sense of importance, you are for a short period of time infatuated. You see only their positives, only the things about them you want to be true. As Levin did with Kitty you see them as perfect. If you know the story of Anna Karenina you’ll know it’s not quite as simple as this, in fact, if you know anything about the interaction between any two people you will know it is never as simple as this.

No person is ever perfect, and no infatuation is ever pure. There comes a moment when you realise things about the person who has so exclusively dominated your attention which draws your attraction away from them.

Doubt sets in. Maybe it wasn’t to be. Maybe the infatuation was an illusion. Maybe, echoing Levin, you think they could never reciprocate the emotions you feel for them.

Sometimes things just don’t work out, the affection you felt at first fades and there isn’t the substance beneath, substance which would hold something more long lasting together. And that’s okay, at least, I’m starting to learn that it is okay. For too long I’ve lived in a halcyon state where I think the right relationship starts in a certain way and if it doesn’t carry on then I must have got something wrong at the outset. I’m less sure about that, I think part of working out how the intricate jigsaw puzzle fits together involves the messiness of agonised, attempted and aborted efforts at getting to know someone and whether there is a future for you and them.

When I’ve written about relationships I often keep it incredibly abstract, not wishing to involve myself or anyone else in the thoughts and ideas I set out. But time for some honesty. This messy state, where you are trying to work out if there is the beginning of a relationship emerging, is where I’ve been these past few months, and it’s largely why I’ve avoided writing about relationships. And I look back and I don’t have any regrets. I’m surprised by that, if I had thought at the start that it was going nowhere I probably would never have set out along this particular path. Yet that’s exactly what I’m learning: we do not know where we are going to end up, and if we live in the fear that a vague proto-relationship may fizzle out, then we are better off not even getting out of bed.

The other thing from Levin’s thought process, that of feeling unworthy of another’s affection, also resonated as I reflected on my situation over Christmas. I had doubts about parts of me I never usually thought about. I worried about how I looked, whether I was sufficiently articulate, funny, insightful, whether I was showing enough compassion and attention – or maybe too much attention. I found it hard to believe that me as me would ever be enough.

Strangely, in a line being drawn beneath the situation and agreeing it wasn’t going to go anywhere I did not feel vindicated in my doubts. The fact that a potential something turned out to be nothing did not persuade me of my lack of worth but encouraged me to be confident in who I am.

Funny how the messy stuff sometimes works out. I’ve learnt that dealing in ambiguity is okay, it requires honesty and openness, but sometimes accepting things aren’t clear is the quickest way of casting light on a confused and complex situation. Sometimes clarity doesn’t come, sometimes it is elusive, sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

 

Quarter life crisis – a community called love

One of the things that I’ve highlighted as a defining feature for the lives of plenty of people in their twenties is a lack of commitments. This can take the form of getting married and having families later, changing jobs frequently, and being unable, or unwilling, to buy a house. The composite effect of these trends is a generation that is transient and is always open to change. But moreover, change is championed as a good in and of itself, decisions that could tie you down are delayed in order to be able to change at a moment’s notice.

I don’t think this is all bad, I think there are in fact very good things to be said for an attitude that is willing to experiment, and a flexibility to change when that is necessary. But it can also have a corrosive effect. It can shun stability as boring or constricting, it can limit the depth of relationships, and it stands in the way of developing community.

We’re so open to change that we no longer know what holds us together.

In the absence of married and family life, not only is permanence a luxury, but community is harder to form. I may have plenty of friends, I may have a diary full of social activities, and facebook notifications inviting me to more, but am I part of a community that invests in each other and cares and grows.

There is something about being part of a family unit that makes the development of community easier. And as you grow older and more people shift into that camp the remaining options become sparser. This is on top of the life in a city such as London where people frequently work long hours, commute considerable distances, live far apart and have hectic social lives. Where in this space does the energy and capacity for community?

A contradiction is at work here, I want to be a part of something, I want to know people and I want to be known. But I don’t always make the sacrifices necessary to make that happen. I tick the box to say that I want it but my priorities tell a different tale. We turn creating community into a purpose that we can reduce to defined functions and complete. We will spend time with people, we will eat together, we will be accountable to one another. We will do so much while still failing to build a community of love.

There are two things that mimic community but in my experience tend to fall short. The first is friendship groups and social activity and the second are church small groups. I think they come at the need from two different directions, friendships are built on time and communal activity, small groups based on defined purpose and structured meeting.

And we avoid intentionality, whether it’s in friendships or in church small groups. We like things to go with the flow, intentionality in friendship seems forced, and our church groups are too often simply a secondary reprise of the Sunday before. We can do a lot of stuff, whether it’s social or spiritual activity, but that doesn’t by itself translate to community.

I’m beginning to think that the starting point for developing an authentic community is a willingness to prioritise, so that while other things will make their calls on our life, the community to which we commit does not suffer. The social dimension of the gospel means that we cannot live out our faith alone, or in narrow silos unconcerned with each other. It needs an integrated space where we may live different lives, and work out our own stories but we can come together, and in doing that the stories of our life will always be changed.