Have you ever read something that gave you words for something you didn’t know you needed to say?
Last Thursday, I sat at my desk with my morning smoothie and cold brew coffee with a splash of oat milk in a Mason jar. Basic? You betcha. I opened my journal, devotional book, and Bible and began to move through my morning spiritual routine. Some mornings are unspectacular or even downright boring, mornings when it’s as rote as flossing my teeth. Then there are days when a piece of text lands and wriggles its way into my brain. Much like a cow eats and regurgitates and eats, it’ll keep coming back to me as I move through my day. But in a less gross way than the cow thing.
The book I use provides some “reading for reflection” based on the week’s theme. That day, I read these words taken from The Active Life by Parker Palmer.
“To suffer with another person means to be there in whatever way possible, to share the circumstances of the other’s life as much as one can—not to add to the world’s pool of suffering, but to gain intimate understanding of what the other requires… Once there, we learn that being there is the best we can do, being there not as a cure but as a companion to the person who suffers on his or her slow journey.”
When I read that phrase, “…being there not as a cure but as a companion…,” I felt an internal nudge. It’s the feeling that tells me I need to pay attention. I mulled it over, considering its implications. And, as I am wont to do, I considered what it might mean for single Christians.
The context is more in line with gut-wrenching, acute suffering, which is hopefully not the constant state of anyone who is single. Like any human, there are slices of time that are more difficult than others, some that are hard and great at the same time, and some that are just plain swell. But I think, no matter the complexity of our current challenge, this idea of cure vs. companionship has a lot to say to us.
Perhaps one reason this quote stood out to me is because I’m a compulsive fixer. As the philosopher, Vanilla Ice, has said, “If there was a problem, yo, I’ll solve it.” But sometimes, companionship can take us into the space between people’s words where advice giving erects a barrier. A simple “Tell me more about that” can open the door to a with-ness that is far more helpful than our hot takes and have-you-tried’s.
I wonder if I have the cure or solution to as many things as I think I do. I wonder if my desire to lay out the plan of action comes from both a genuine desire to help and a genuine desire to remain distant from the other person’s experience.
One of the things I noticed early on in this work is the tendency some have to see singleness as a problem to be solved—generally through marriage or being content with the “gift of singleness.” I felt it in myself as I began writing in this genre. But I quickly realized that I don’t think that’s what we need—not from each other and not from the church at large. I don’t think we need to be saved from our singleness, and certainly not cured of it.
I think we need companions. Not necessarily romantic companions, just people willing to practice with-ness as we move through the hard and celebrate the great.
This is not to say that constructive advice isn’t ever helpful. And it’s certainly not to say that we don’t have fountains of wisdom to share with each other. But sometimes, maybe even most of the time, believing we are not alone is the first hurdle. And once we’ve cleared that hurdle, the people who we know are with us and for us are the ones whose advice we seek.
I wonder sometimes if God sees us more as problems to solve or people to be with. Much to my chagrin, following Jesus hasn’t made all of my problems vanish, nor has it magically made me into my idea of a perfect person. I have this picture of God sometimes as a frustrated supervisor who, upon seeing that I’ve yet again fallen into the same self-sabotaging patterns, shakes his head, glowering, and takes my life plan back to the drawing board. As if every time I don’t get it “right,” I’ve disappointed God. I wonder, however, if that is even remotely accurate. I wonder if God is more interested in companionship than I imagine.
As Jesus healed people in numerous ways in the stories we see in the New Testament, we cannot deny that the “cure” part of the equation is there for him. But sometimes I wonder how much I minimize the fact that he chose with-ness too. He wept with his friends (John 11). He listened and engaged with the hurting (Luke 8:45, John 4, and many others).
As we engage with each other, how can we learn to be a companion first? What would it mean to “gain an intimate understanding” of what is hard and great about each other’s lives? How can we listen with curiosity and compassion before we try to fix or cure?