My friend Sarah is in a hard marriage.
Each day it takes tons of energy for her to be a mom to her four children. To be a wife. To be a person.
Some days it’s hard for me to be a person too.
I’m no longer married, but as Sarah and I journey together and navigate holidays, friendships, and parenting, we experience a similar sting of absence. Some of our single friends do too.
We feel lonely. And we’d love to be loved.
Blossoming amid Pain
A few months ago Sarah told me about some vulnerable children who were on her radar. She was seeking discernment and resources in order to advocate for them. As she engaged on behalf of these little ones, I saw my friend—who daily had every reason to feel angry, sad, and afraid, and no doubt did feel those feelings most days—vivified as she cared for others. As Sarah took action on behalf of these kiddos, she came to life. I saw, with my eyes, the woman God had made her to be, the woman she was before her life got really messy.
And while her life was messy.
Sarah didn’t find life because she received exactly what she needed from a loving partner. It’s been a long time since she has. In the midst of her precarious circumstances, Sarah experienced joy and satisfaction when she offered others exactly what they needed.
The Surprise of Joy
I know, I know. At first blush it sounds horrible and codependent, but hear me out.
The invitation to love others—the way God has loved us and the way we love ourselves, both notably generous ways—is woven throughout Scripture. But too often, we hear it as an order rather than a gift: “Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other” (1 John 4:11). We get tangled up with the ought.
Admittedly, a lot of “oughts” are a big drag. But not this one! This one is for our good. This one is for our welfare. This one is a blessing to us and a blessing to others. This one is a win for us, a win for others, and a win for the world.
True for Me
I think I recognized the ways Sarah was thriving by advocating for kids in need because I’d experienced something similar. As I anticipated a recent holiday, I knew my kids would be away with their dad and that I would be alone. I’d enjoy time with friends and neighbors, but I dreaded being without the family I’d built my life around. My only plan for the holiday was to be miserable.
But something else happened.
God began to open my eyes to others who weren’t going to have a picture-perfect Norman Rockwell holiday. (Spoiler alert: No one does. Perfect is fictitious.) I thought about Sarah, who would be juggling trying to be authentic with family members in a larger gathering and still be the mom her kids needed her to be—especially as those two things tugged against one another. I remembered a friend who’d recently lost a baby. I held in my heart an acquaintance whose adult daughter had died three years ago. I called to mind a single friend who, like me, would have loved to share the holiday with a spouse and children.
Though I’m not the neighbor-loving superhero I want to believe I am, I did reach out as I was able. I sent a text. I prayed. I showed up with a decadent dessert. And, predictably, the encounters in which I did make that little effort were the most satisfying moments, for me, of the whole dreaded holiday.
And therein lies the beauty. Each of us has the ability to make meaningful connections that bless us and have the potential to bless others. We don’t have to wait around to be invited on a date or to a dinner party in order to give and receive the love for which we were made.
True for You
Believe me, I hear how unrealistic that sounds, like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. But my report from the battlefield is that it really works.
It worked for me. And I wondered if it worked for others. So I checked in with Sarah: “In a season of wanting to be loved,” I typed, “I’ve found much relief and groundedness by loving others in teeny ways. You too?”
Sarah’s response confirmed my suspicions: “Oh, yes, yes, yes. It’s remarkable what it does for my soul.”
That we would benefit by using the little energy we have left in the midst of our own loneliness to reach out to others doesn’t add up. I know it doesn’t. And though it appears to be an exchange of one hard thing for another, the surprising kingdom math is that two hard things equal unlikely joy.
Editor’s Note: Sarah’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.