On Having One’s Own Place

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March 3, 2013 by lucieromarin

I remember a lunch break at a vocations retreat many years ago, during which a conversation started about single people and accommodation. I can’t remember what the priest said, but I remember a friend saying, “Yes. I try to encourage unmarried people to live with a flatmate rather than living by themselves, so they don’t miss out on the benefits of community life.”

I did wonder at the time why this friend was giving ‘unmarried people’ what sounded like some pretty unsolicited advice, but what really remained with me was the assumption that living in community must necessarily and always be better than living alone. I’ve heard the same sentiment echoed in other quarters since then, and the idea is always the same: if you live alone, you risk becoming set in your ways, selfish, and eccentric, and the solution to this is, if you are single, always to flat with at least one other person.

Well, I’m certainly not saying that anyone should take a vow against flatting with other people, but over the past year or so, I’ve come to believe that there are some other thoughts to consider.

1) When introverts express unhappiness about shared accommodation, they’re talking about a real cross. A person designed with deep need for solitude and her own space suffers without that solitude and space. We don’t say to extroverts who are happy with their shared accommodation, “You know, if you never develop the capacity for solitude, you’ll never learn to pray really well. You are surrounded by people all day long, so you owe it to your spiritual life to live alone so that you can mortify your natural desire for company and learn to be alone with God.” It’s not really fair to say that introverts must live at odds with their natural inclinations but that extroverts don’t have to.

I’m not saying that people should be allowed to whinge and whine whenever their lives aren’t supposedly perfect. But we should also recognise those situations in which  compassion, rather than admonition, is the appropriate response to a feeling of unhappiness, and where change, rather than endurance, is the right action.

2) When people work in offices, catch public transport, and are involved in parish communities, they experience daily the purifying effects of community life. This should be borne in mind when advising people about learning to not be selfish or eccentric.

3) The ‘community’ of shared accommodation is not the same as the community of family life or of religious life. It’s held together by basic material necessity, not by a sacramental bond or an ancient horarium. Comparing the two is an insult to both experiences. Besides which, there are vocations which involve living in solitude, so, instead of advising all single people to inflict upon themselves a pale and unwanted imitation of vocations-based community life, why not offer them the option of imitating those vocations which embrace a solitary life?

4) Women have a nesting instinct. It’s true that living alone can make people weird. But frustrating people’s natural and normal instincts can also make them weird. A religious sister has sacrificed her nesting instinct as part of a vocation. This is not the mere supression of natural instinct that is demanded of single people who are advised against living alone.

All of which is to say, nothing is as simple as ‘single people should do this.’ Both options have their strengths and weaknesses, and I think we have the right to chose the one that suits us best!

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