Seeing beyond Category:

By Jan Underwood

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    It’s been just a few years since I graduated from university. But already much of what I learned there has become a faint memory. When I am pressured to recall a fact, the best I can respond is: “I’m sure I studied that in college once.”

    But a handful of concepts have remained bright and distinct through constant use. One of these came from an unlikely source. As our class was struggling one day to master the finer points of research techniques, our instructor gave us a simple rule. And it has become fundamental to my way of looking at the world. “Remember,” he cautioned, “there can be as much variation within categories as between categories.” Put another way, members of two different groups may have as much in common as two members of any one group.

    As I have become a member of a category approximately defined as, “Woman, over twenty-five, single,” this concept has helped me see how I fit into the world, into the Church, and into the Lord’s plan. It has persuaded me that, in terms of my basic hopes and goals, I share many more similarities than differences with my married friends.

    It seems to me that every follower of Jesus Christ—regardless of shape or size, intelligence or native language, church calling or marital status—shares two basic goals: to love the Lord with our whole being, and to love and serve those around us. Jesus said that all other aspects of our discipleship were to be based on these two commandments. (See Matt. 22:37–40).

    Realizing that the Savior extends this call to all, regardless of our circumstances, has helped me see that my life’s work need not wait until I am married. I can live the gospel now. When my life someday includes a husband and children, my fundamental goals will remain the same even though the approach may differ.

    At the same time, though, my single situation does require that the approach I take to attaining those basic goals differ in some ways from the means my married friends use to reach those same goals. For single life presents some particular challenges, as well as opportunities, in meeting those common goals. Recognizing both has helped me focus my efforts and avoid becoming discouraged at times when I would prefer another set of circumstances.

    I have long felt that the central challenge of life as a single person is to find ways to keep the second commandment. Life within the structure of a family seems to require the gift of charity as an ever increasing attribute. From an outsider’s point of view, it seems that family life can be a great purifying and refining experience, a help in overcoming our own selfishness. Indeed, it requires that we learn to love freely and sacrifice spontaneously. A hungry baby at 2:00 a.m. simply won’t wait for a tired parent to get just one more hour of sleep. And, a troubling personality conflict between spouses can’t be resolved by simply changing roommates or living alone. A rewarding marriage and family life demands that we develop the crucial skills of forgiving, empathizing, and compromising.

    None of my married friends doubt that the Lord expects them to make substantial sacrifices for the well-being of the children who depend on them. But it is easy for me to forget that the Lord has similar expectations of me. It is easy for me to ignore the human need that exists nearby in so many forms just outside my normal field of vision. But virtually every community has children who are hungry, elderly people who are alone, people of every age who are discouraged. My challenge, then, is to surpass the demands of my single, individual life, to find my own ways to fulfill the Savior’s universal command to love and serve others.

    And we who are single can make an essential contribution to the world. Because we do not have the consuming demands of family life, we can reach out to the motherless and fatherless, to many whom our married friends cannot reach.

    I also believe that many of the rich emotional rewards that parents receive through serving each other and their children are available to every single person. They are not, perhaps, so convenient. But, whenever we reach out to love and serve another, the sweet gifts of joy and affection inevitably result.

    There are times when we single people feel that we are on a solitary road with no map and no adequate role-model to show the way. Actually, I think we can find a number of fine role-models among us—men and women of faith and compassion who are humbly seeking to serve the Lord in their own spheres.

    But I take even greater comfort from the example of the Savior, whose solitary path took him beyond the approval of all but a handful of devoted followers. Finally, his only sustenance came from his loving Father, who gave him the approval he needed to continue and finish his work.

    In my experience, the same kind of divine approval is available to all who love the Lord. And the very absence of some kinds of security offered by a more usual lifestyle can prompt us to seek this approval.

    Every person has moments of bafflement and confusion, pain and self-doubt—as well as times of joy and fulfillment. But the process of facing difficulties essentially alone can cause us to turn to the Lord in a way we might otherwise avoid. At times when we would be inclined to seek affirmation from an understanding spouse, we must turn instead to the true source of comfort and healing. In my own private trials and solitary temptations, the Lord has been to me an unfailingly merciful and generous Father, always faithful to forgive, comfort, and heal. And my love for him has resultingly grown more trusting and sure.

    At the same time I think my faith in the Lord has grown more accurate and realistic over the years. For one thing, I have come to realize that God is a person who respects human agency. He has never rushed in to make my difficult choices for me. He has been willing to let me slowly and painfully learn to exercise my own judgement and choice. And I love him for not wanting me to stay weak and dependent.

    Now I appreciate even more the principle of repentance, which allows him to give me the freedom I need to exercise my agency. I believe the discomfort we feel in struggling through the long, uncertain stretches of one life is more than counterbalanced by the strength of soul we gain in the process. As we feel our inherent powers unfolding, we can feel grateful that the Lord has not spared us the circumstances that have developed them.

    As we come to understand how surely and steadily the Lord’s love is extended, then some “dry spells,” some personal tragedies, some instances when we are not rescued by a loving Father from our own follies will not damage our faith. Experiences that can sharpen our understanding of God and exercise our faith in him surround us every day. But I have come to count these experiences as a very valuable aspect of my life as a single person.