Table for One?

by | January 31, 2014

When I was a teenager I remember eating at a restaurant and seeing a middle-aged man who worked at our church, dining alone. All I could think of when I saw him was that his life must be horrible. He had been single for as long as anyone could remember. He was the tech guy at church who ran the lights and soundboard and I imagined that the rest of his life would consist of doing the same things, until he retired, a lonely, old man, dying forgotten in a depressing retirement home somewhere with no one to care for him. He was a rather portly guy, balding, and as I saw him sitting there eating by himself, imagining what I thought his life must be like I felt great sorrow for him. At the same time, I remember saying to myself, “I sure hope that’s not me some day!” I couldn’t imagine that such a man could ever be happy.

I realize now that my assumptions relied not on any objective understanding of what his life actually was. It was rather a remarkable failure of imagination. To my teenage mind, the specter of being single in middle age was the epitome of the life-not-lived. It was inconceivable to me that his life could be happy at all. In my seventeen years of living on the earth, it had been impressed upon my thinking that the only fulfilling life was a life lived with one’s soul mate.

Just like all the other teenagers in my Christian school, I was led to believe that the thing to do to be happy was first to love and follow God. After that, the path to a fulfilling life was in finding a vocation, then a spouse. Eventually kids would enter the picture, and after a life spent “growing in relationship to the Lord,” and raising children “in the way they should go,” one’s senior years could be spent enjoying the delights of grandchildren, before entering finally into our “eternal reward.”

The techie guy at work didn’t fit the bill of the “happy Christian life,” so I assumed his life must be miserable.

Table for One Fast forward 25 or more years, and here I find myself living the life that I couldn’t have imagined living: I’ve become that single, rather portly middle aged guy, who is not merely balding, but is decidedly bald. Sometimes I dine alone in restaurants too.* In the eyes of a teenaged-me, such a person must be miserable. The future, however, is rarely what we imagine it will be, especially through the lens of a 17 year old young man. The Dan of 25 years or so ago would be very surprised at the thought that popped into my head a week or so ago: I’ve never been happier in my life.

Proverbs 16:9 is a fantastic verse: The human heart plans the way, but the LORD directs the steps.

Though I had very different plans for my life when I was young, God directed my steps to this point in my life. And what I have learned on this journey of mine is that the path to peace is by allowing God to direct my steps, and to submit to his leading like a horse might submit to the bit. For most of my life, the words of Christ to St. Paul describe my experience: I kicked at the goads.

I once wrestled with the comforting words of Jeremiah 29:11, which I learned as a young Protestant in the NIV:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord. “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you; plans to give you a hope and a future.”

It’s only with the passage of time that I can look back on my two score and three years on this planet and say with no qualifications that God’s plans were always laid out in order to prosper me, and not to harm me, to give me a hope, and a future. Part of those plans, I have come to accept (and indeed embrace) is my single state, and the likelihood that I will be single the rest of my life.

And the unthinkable has happened: I am happy.

St. Paul tells us that now we look at life as through a mirror, dimly, but that in the context of eternity, we will know fully, “just as we are fully known now.” When I was younger, I had a very limited idea of what sort of life would lead to contentment and happiness. I looked through a dim mirror and couldn’t see that God really knows what He’s doing. As Blessed John Cardinal Newman wrote, “God knows what He is about,” and the best (and quickest path to peace) is to say the words of the Our Father: thy will be done. “Lead me where I will go, and I will go” is what all the saints did before us, and trusting in their example, we can follow God confidently, knowing that the path he lead us on will always be the path towards peace. That’s easy when the path he leads us on is the one we’d like to travel. Not so much when we feel we’re traveling in the wrong direction, and constantly say to God, “Hey, isn’t it this way?”

Of course, in order to trust God’s leading, and to stop “kicking at the goads,” we have to broken. That’s where suffering comes in, where loneliness enters into our lives, where disappointment and sorrow enter in. God uses that to cause us to turn to him, saying (usually with a whimper), “Uncle! I give in.” Peace comes when we reach the point where we know we’re not God, and in that awareness, we stop trying to be Him.

One of my favorite poems comes from the book A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Van Auken. It chronicles his marriage with his wife Davy, their friendship with C. S. Lewis and how he helped their conversion to Christianity. It culminates in the loss of Davy, which was was the painful and “severe mercy” that helped bring Sheldon fully into the faith.

Upon the death of Davy, their friend Dom Julian wrote a poem that has meant a great deal to me over my years of trying to make sense of living with same-sex attraction:

October Sky

If everything is lost, thanks be to God
If I must see it go, watch it go,
Watch it fade away, die
Thanks be to God that He is all I have.
And if I have Him not, I have nothing at all.
Nothing at all, only a farewell to the wind
Farewell to the grey sky
Goodbye, God be with you, evening October sky.
If all is lost, thanks be to God,
For He is He, and I, I am only I.

To the me 25 years ago, my life today would look like “all is lost.” To that young man, the dreams of a happy life “faded away, and died.” But in the death of the vision of happiness of a naive 17 year old, comes life. The happiness I have now was inconceivable to the me of 17, and the paths God directed me on were ones I certainly never would have chosen. All of my dreams of finding a wife, a soul mate and raising a family were never fulfilled, but now, I say “thanks be to God.”

For He is He, and I, I am only I.

And as to living a single life, I say to God, “OK. Let’s do this thing.”

 *Part of “doing this thing” is enjoying a darn good meal. That “table for one” is a picture of one of the most amazing meals of my life, in Assisi. Half a bottle of Umbrian wine, plus four courses, and all the time in the world to eat it (without any yahoo who doesn’t appreciate good food to interrupt me) equals bliss.

To anyone who says being single and chaste leads to a miserable life, I say, “walk a mile in my shoes!”


4 Responses to Table for One?

  1. metoo says:

    I am single and often dine alone and don’t mind it at all. I do have a rich interior life and love thinking. Even for the single it can be hard to find time to do that. Sometimes I read the newspaper or my kindle and enjoy the company of great minds who written for me instruction or entertainment. Sometimes I see spouses sitting and eating in silence. I hope it is a comfortable silence for them. I hope they are enjoying be silent together. But I must admit that sometimes they seem terribly bored. I hope they are not. Many things are not what they appear.

  2. Thanks for the comment, “metoo.” I have come to really enjoy time dining out by myself, or heading to a coffee shop by myself–most of the time, I do hang out with friends, but meals by myself are times I look forward to. Like you, I’ll often bring a book, or my Kindle, and often I linger because it becomes time to, as you say, just think. Oh, and I do know what you mean about seeing some married couples out and about. One wonders sometimes if they’d really rather be somewhere else. I want to follow this line of thinking in future posts–I’ve had remarkable adventures when I travel alone. I have great friends with whom I travel on a fairly regular basis, but I find there is a trade off when I’m not by myself too. Living a rich single life, with a rich interior life is a great adventure, and I hope to have a series of posts on that richness. Thanks for sharing your story!

  3. Mark Cato says:

    Enjoyed both wonderful meals alone. Also having the oppourtunity to enjoy it with a good friend. But, being able to sit alone with the non seen lover of your soul is a delight.

  4. Conrad Sigona says:

    Thank you for the nice article. I married at 37 and for years before had dined alone. I can’t say it was bad, but not bad is not quite the same as good. Dining together with my wife, I have come to realize my pleasure now stems not so much from the conversation or from the companionship. Instead it comes from, so to speak, imbibing her pleasure. Using your Assisi plate as an example, I would rejoice more in watching her eat the prosciutto than in eating it myself. I suspect this happens when there’s real love between the diners. I can be content to eat alone, but it’s a shame when I have to.

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