Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Singleton Paradox

Are you as surprised as I am to learn, as I did from the Online Etymological Dictionary, that the first documented use of the word single, in the sense of an unmarried or unattached person, dates back to no later than 1964?

Other modern variants single-parent and singles bar are attested in 1969. Back in the time of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Evelyn Waugh, the term was singleton, attested in 1937, per the online dictionary, a serviceable electronic alternative to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology on my bookshelf.

Clearly, there's a change of attitudes involved.

In the 1930s and earlier, the people who came to be called as singletons were regarded also as spinsters and old maids if they were women and bachelor or stag if they were men. After a certain age, perhaps the late 30s (when women face what one of my favorite singing folkies, Christine Lavin, called the "biological time-bomb"), they were both regarded as odd, often deemed to be closet homosexuals, whether or not they played for the other team.

Yet here come the Boomers in the 1960s and their single years, and -- kazaam! -- it's suddenly a new state associated with the setting of seduction in Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

In search of a new word, the older one serves best. The purpose of the search is to define a concept a friend brought up, the notion of singlehood (attested here on 2007?) as a positive, as a circumstance defined by other than un-something.

My friend declares that she is a happy singleton. At middle age she confesses she never had a boyfriend. Considered entering a convent until she decided that she could be single without having someone bossing her around.

As for sex, she never felt any need for "all that." I admire what I recognize as an honest, principled stance. She said she would like to start singles clubs that weren't about meeting someone of the opposite sex.

However, as I discovered, she cheats: she lives in the bosom of an extended family, next to siblings, married and single, and nephews and nieces, all of whom apparently care for and undoubtedly express their caring in ways uniquely meaningful to one another.

The reason most singles go to dances and clubs is the absence of precisely such a community of caring, which brings on various aches and itches.

There's the obvious itch of sex; I believe she doesn't experience it, but such a situation is rare in my experience. Then there's the ache for the warmth of another human being; we are mammals, we need a touch, a hug. Lastly, and not least, there's the hankering for conversation with a peer (or a reasonable facsimile thereof).

While I earnestly appreciate my friend's view, which echoes recent comments on Thailand Gal to the effect that she is no longer interested in sexual relationships (or the other team), there remains the matter of finding the balm for what are very legitimate aches and itches.

Volunteering, for all that it does fulfill psychologically and what some call "spiritually," is not the answer. When you go out and focus on others you do forget yourself and feel exhilarated to discover that you have more to give than you imagined. Then you come home and there is no one there with whom to share your high.

The monastic communities of Christianity, the ones I know best, were -- in part -- attempts to envelop single people in the purpose of giving themselves over to others and Someone. On the whole, my experience tells me that they largely failed. In place of affection and touching, they put prayer and states of "spiritual ecstasy" -- forcefully banning "particular friendships" in the convent or monastery.

One need not read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose to know that monasteries are beehives replete with the capital vices -- lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. Hell knows little that is worse than a monk wronged.

As a modern alternative, a number of people I know have also evolved long-term relationships in which neither moves in with the other, yet each remain available to one another. This is becoming quite common.

Others have developed a family of friends. This is not my forte.

Still others claim -- note my skepticism -- that there really are such things as cybernetic "communities."

All in all, not a single satisfying one (pun intended). There needs to be a positive restatement of the singleton state as a way of living that need not be merely not something else.

Here I get stuck.

Why? Because it comes down to the essence of who we are as individuals, which is the paradox stated earlier in developing my ethics of survival: we are utterly alone, yet we cannot survive by ourselves. (See here and here, among others; or click on the "ethics" topic.)

The Irish rebels known as Sinn Fein (literally "we ourselves, often translated as "ourselves alone") are themselves now trapped in the maws of the human paradox as they engage in power sharing with the Unionists.

Perhaps that is the singleton paradox: to be alone with others. Or not.


thailandchani said...

Love this post! (Well, I like all your posts...)

Still, I do agree that singledom needs to be legitimized. In many ways, I can't complain about it. Being single gives me freedom that my married/partnered friends don't have. I do what I want, the way I want and how I want it done.

At the same time, I couldn't be without my housemates. Sometimes they are a pain in the neck but I value them greatly. Every day. Living completely alone for days on end would be depressing.

The sex thing: I believe it is a want (not "need". those terms need to be differentiated) for most people. It doesn't seem to be a part of my construct.

I like spiritual intimacy but the physical kind just doesn't float my boat.

And it doesn't feel like a lack. I never feel thirsty or hungry for it.. but sometimes I do feel that hunger for companionship.

What can I say? I will be one of those old women who has cats, living quietly in Thailand with my writing and books. :)

And it's not as pathetic as it sounds.. because it is what I choose.



bubandpie said...

It's interesting that the terms for male singleness carry such different connotations than the terms for female singleness - especially since the custom of women marrying "up" means that single men, as a group, are considerably less well-off than single women by many measures including education, income, and health.

Geneviève said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cecilieaux said...

The singleton of the 1770s is a term used in the English card game called Whist.