The other day I was at a café with one of my good friends (the best kind of café: round 1 after-dinner cappuccino, round 2 locally brewed IPA or wheat beer). We were talking through some of the issues she’s currently having with her boyfriend. During the conversation, a strange thing happened. I wasn’t jealous of her for having a partner–I was relieved to be single.
It was the first time it really hit me how great my life as a “single lady” really was. First there’s the obvious: no drama. No worrying about someone else’s feelings, no worrying that I’m satisfying them. Second, the freedom. I live alone. I don’t have to worry about coming home too late, too early, what to eat for dinner, who should clean the house, where my stuff belongs. I can leave dirty dishes in the sink as long as I please. I don’t have to worry about how I spend my evenings. It’s all only up to me. Third comes the less obvious: other relationships. One of my favourite blogs, Brain Pickings, posted a review of Andrew Sullivan’s book, Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival. It sheds light on the concept of friendship and how while absolutely integral, it is often overlooked in our daily lives. As a single person, I can cherish my friendships and family bonds with greater focus than if I was wrapped up in a world of two. Finally, and this point goes beyond simply being single all the way to pure independence: on my own, I am protected. I am protected emotionally because I am not pouring my heart, soul and expectations into the body of another. You leave yourself very vulnerable when you are in love, and a heart’s an easy thing to break. I am protected physically because I am not entrusting my possessions or affairs to another. My business is my business, and as we say in Chinese, 后果自负 houguo zi fu: “(do this thing) at your own risk”, or more literally “you are responsible for the consequences of your own actions”.
My friend, when I confessed to her how glad I was to be single, sighed, and we spoke a bit about the merits of independence. She agreed that nothing compares to the freedom to come and go as you please. Both of us have studied abroad, so we understand how important your friends become when you’re out in a foreign country away from your familiar network. We talked about how modern people embody this concept of one (hu)man against the world. Not everyone remains in their hometown, surrounded by family and friends, business contacts and schoolmates. They leave, they uproot, and have to rely on their own mettle to get them where they want to go. There is an increasing number of people living that life. And I think it teaches us how to be kind (and if it doesn’t, if it makes you defensive and bitter, rethink your life a little).
In a world where everyone may or may not be on their own, we learn to deal out random acts of kindness, like this stranger buying a bike lock for another. In China, this kind of thing is still rare, because random acts of kindness might cost you more than you bargained. Here, people don’t assume everyone could use a little help; they assume everyone is out for their own gain. The lion sees the lion: people have learned since the decline of communism (or there is the argument that they’ve always been like this) that if you don’t look out for yourself and your own, you’ll get left behind. So don’t try to help a stranger, they just might swindle you. There are cases where elderly have fallen off their bikes in front of others, and the unsuspecting Good Samaritan is quickly blamed for the fall and made to pay compensation.
But I also see more and more “modern people” arising, especially where I live now compared to where I used to live in the city centre. There, I was an intruder in an old neighbourhood where everyone knew everyone. Here in my apartment complex in Huayang, most of us are new. And new people move in all the time. Somehow this makes people kinder, more helpful, less rude. I might be on my own, but that doesn’t mean I’m in a void. If I reach out, if I ask, help will come, if it can. This is what independence has taught me.
This post is not just about learning independence, but also a defense of singleness. Why is life so good without a lover? To return to the point I introduced above about being more able to focus on my other relationships, I think Sullivan puts it interestingly:
The great modern enemy of friendship has turned out to be love…[eros] the romantic love that obliterates all other goods, the love to which every life must apparently lead, the love that is consummated in sex and celebrated in every particle of our popular culture, the love that is institutionalized in marriage and instilled as a primary and ultimate good in every Western child.
We are conditioned all our lives to exalt the “happily ever after”: two people united in bliss, living out their days. It dominates media and has done for centuries. I think some of the best movies are ruined because they are actually secretly about romantic love, like Inception, or classic superhero movies. Why does the hero have to save the world and get the girl? I want to start a revolution–just say “no” to romance. It’s not the be-all-end-all of a satisfying life! Falling in love, winning his heart… there is more to life than that. I’m not saying don’t fall in love. You can’t really help it. Sullivan describes romantic love as:
union with another being, the sense that such a union resolves the essential quandary of human existence, the belief that only such a union can abate the loneliness that seems to come with being human, and deter the march of time that threatens to trivialize our very existence….It can eclipse every other emotion and transport us to levels of bliss and communion we have never felt before.
What’s not appealing about that? And how can one rationally say “no” to love when one is in it? As he says “the impossibility of love is partly its attraction. It is an irrational act, a concession to the passions, a willing renunciation of reason and moderation — and that’s why we believe in it.” Yet this is exactly why we can’t trust it. We must trust instead in friendship, for friendship is love born from time spent together and experiences shared with the other person:
friendship can only really be experienced when both friends are fully used to each other. For friendship is based on knowledge, and love can be based on mere hope… You can love someone more than you know him, and he can be perfectly loved without being perfectly known. But the more you know a friend, the more a friend he is.
So I say look not to romance, but instead to friendships. Those are the kinds of partnerships we should exalt. Those are the kinds of relationships we should focus on. Stop telling the girls to find their knights in shining armour and the boys to rescue their damsels in distress. If the metaphor I’m using is a medieval fantasy adventure, let them instead look forward to the journey and the companions they will meet on their quests. Being single, I am free to do just that. Free to love and be loved. And also to walk around my apartment without any clothes on.
I’m interested in hearing your thoughts. What’s your take on this angle? People in relationships, don’t be shy about sharing your two cents! Also, please do click the link for the whole Brain Pickings article, and also on a slightly different tangent, the link to Amanda Palmer’s TED talk, “The Art of Asking”. She’s talking about people paying for her music, but on the level of “I’m on my own, I’m asking you to help, will you?” “Yes, if I can and want to”, it’s exactly what I’m saying.