"Mind if I sit at the other end of your table?" a voice interrupted my tap-tap-tapping on my laptop computer at my neighborhood coffee shop yesterday. I was at the Big Table in the corner, using the only unoccupied outlet (my battery's currently dead) and working furiously on a freelance project due first thing the next morning. It being a big table and me being a relatively small person, I replied a polite, "Sure."
The woman, a law student I deduced by glancing at the titles of the big books she plunked down, smiled and took up residency near my work space. A little too near my work space, in my opinion. I briskly moved my empty plate and book out of her way. Then a friend of hers from across the coffee shop came over to ask a question about some sort of legal matter. After she explained the legalese and the quiet resumed, she answered her cell phone and proceeded to have a nice little chat with a long-lost friend named Lucy.
Despite my hey-I'm-trying-to-work-here glances (read: menacing glares), the law student didn't get it—or didn't care that she was interrupting my precious productivity. Finally I harrumphed, packed up my laptop, and headed home. Okay, so I needed to leave anyway, but the heavy sigh was for effect. To communicate that I was Not Happy and that I did in fact mind—I minded very much her sitting at the other end of my table and interrupting my little self-ordered world.
I realize now how petty this all sounds. I also realize that it's just the latest in a string of instances that has forced me to face my newest singleness side-effect: It's-all-about-me syndrome. In the past year of living on my own for the first time, I've discovered there's a down side to being able to listen to loud music whenever I want to, wash (or not wash) the dishes however I want to, sing and dance spontaneously, eat off my coffee table while seated on the floor watching Friends reruns on TV, and decorate, entertain, clean, and pretty much run my home in any way that suits me—and me alone. Somewhere in all this singleness freedom, I've lost some of my capacity to Play Well With Others.
I recognize this lost skill when I'm on a plane and have to switch seats to accommodate a far-flung family wanting to sit together. At home I can sit wherever I want and there's no one there to make me move. When I go home to visit my family, it takes five adults 20 minutes to figure out where to eat dinner. When it's just me, dinner plans usually require only a quick glance in my fridge, peek in my wallet, or check of my current food mood. When I'm out with friends who have small children at home, they often have to get home early so their babysitter can go home. In stark contrast, I could stay out all night (if I had that kind of energy) and no one would notice.
Don't get me wrong, it's not like I'm some sort of barbarian living life completely willy-nilly. I still have to consult my conscience, my faith, and often my checkbook balance when making decisions. But it's that little word "my" in front of each of those things that shows how selfish I'm usually allowed to be. And while some selfishness is healthy—someone has to look after my best interests, and if not me then who?—in excess it can make us singles greedy, impatient, and unsympathetic to the needs of those around us.
My married friends practice sacrificial love and the fine art of compromise daily. When I was on the phone recently with a work contact who just got married for the first time at 41, I laughed when she talked about trying to blend her antiques with her new husband's southwestern décor. When the hybrid approach ended up looking "hideous," she decided to get rid of her antiques—a thought that made me, a fellow antiques lover, gasp. What was sweet was that she was glad to give up some of her things for her new hubby. And what was sad was the possibility that I hold some "prize possessions" in higher esteem than people.
I've often heard people say you have no idea how selfish you are until you have children. Watching my friend Tim become a dad to twin girls a year ago and seeing the change that's brought about in his life has been all the proof I've needed of this statement. This friend, who used to tell me when to switch to the "faster lane" when driving him to pick up his car at the mechanic's, now carefully puts little pink-and-white shoes on four little feet countless times a day. Becoming a dad has mellowed him some, and made him more caring—attributes I could definitely use in my life in greater measure.
But how do we singles gain some of the benefits of accommodating the needs of others and fight off It's-All-About-Me syndrome? I found the start of an answer in the most unlikely place—at a recent church committee meeting. During the usual exchange-of-prayer-requests section of the meeting, Christy, a fellow single woman, meekly began a story about an interaction with one of her neighbors. Apparently the single mother next door to her—the one Christy had mentioned a time or two before, requesting wise words when sharing her faith with this spiritual seeker—had just that morning asked her to watch her daughter for a half hour each morning after she went to work and before the little girl caught the bus for school. Christy's initial response—hemming and hawing at this inconvenience—seemed perfectly logical to me. I nodded my head as I pictured myself—in my self-ordered world—doing the same.
Which is probably why I cringed at Christy's next words. She said she had a nagging feeling all day that this was a perfect opportunity to show Christ's love and compassion in a practical way. What a tangible way to "love thy neighbor"! Christy mentioned how easy it is as a single person to get caught up in our own little world, where we have all the control, but I loved the glow on her face when she said she couldn't wait to get home and tell her neighbor that she'd be thrilled to watch her daughter. I knew she'd never have that glow by hoarding her time, money, possessions, and talents all to herself. And neither would I.
This conversation and revelation flitted through my mind when I spied my own single-mother neighbor pushing her daughter in her stroller near our apartment building, waving a tired hello and looking altogether worn out. I prayed right then and there for God to open my eyes to any way I could serve her with some of the singleness freedoms I often take for granted or guard too selfishly. I have a feeling giving up some of my precious time, money, or personal space to accommodate someone else's needs won't be an inconvenience, as I've erroneously viewed such dynamics of late. I think they'll probably be wonderful growing opportunities that give me the chance to show sacrificial love, to practice the patience fruit of the spirit, and to allow God to use some of my singleness freedoms to bless someone other than myself. And maybe, just maybe, they'll give me a bit of a glow.
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