(Here's my latest singles column...I wrote this column before finding out about last week's Upper West Side tragedy, so any thematic similarity between Hamlet's ponderings and those of someone who's clinically depressed are strictly coincidental, and not intended as a commentary on the tragedy; still, I felt I had to address it in some way (and that's what paragraphs 4 & 5 are about. I hope that the community comforts Sarah's family and provides support for them and for all singles and marrieds in the future. EDK)
Coping with the Question by Esther D. Kustanowitz (First Person Singular, NY Jewish Week, August 4, 2006)
“To be, or not to be, that is the question,” Hamlet pondered, torturing himself with an existential query. As singles, we too grapple with an essential question: “Why are you still single?”Pose the question, even theoretically, and hordes will respond: you’re too picky, fat, short, ugly or boring; you’re not putting yourself out there; you have issues; you’re spiritually or morally bankrupt; you fear intimacy and commitment; you’re waiting for impossible perfection; or you’re so “whiny,” you should “just freakin’ wed anyone already.” (That last one? Courtesy of an anonymous blogger, complaining about my June column.)
While self-examination is already a single person’s occupational hazard, asking such a question repeatedly takes an emotional toll. When we’re alone, the question echoes, engendering a burgeoning paranoia that the purgatory may well be eternal, and because of some unrevealed and essentially unforgivable hubris. Men blame women, women blame men, everyone blames their parents and their community, and themselves.I had already completed this column when I got the news that a 25-year-old Upper West Sider, known by most as a happy young woman, had ended her life. Over the last week or so, there has been much discussion of who or what to blame for her death: named suspects include the community pressure to marry, a recent breakup, and clinical depression.
And although the community is not necessarily — as others have intimated — responsible for clinical depression, it may well have been one of many factors creating stress and hopelessness in the young woman’s life. I can only hope that the community will respond appropriately — helping her family to mourn and find comfort, and creating programs to better ensure that people of all ages feel supported and valued, socially, religiously and emotionally.But the question “Why are you still single?” or alternately, “Why aren’t you married yet?” is yet another form of community pressure and expressed expectations. When a single responds with “I guess I just haven’t found the right person yet,” the yenta-in-residence leans in, sometimes touching your arm, shoulder or leg to indicate just how sympathetic they are, and “consoles” you: “Don’t worry, we’ll find you someone. God willing, it should be soon too by you. Maybe you should try meeting some new people?” Oh. Like we hadn’t thought of that before.
When it comes to the question, everyone — especially those who aren’t single — thinks he or she has the answer. Those Rules ladies thought they knew (“never accept a Saturday night date if he calls Thursday”). Those people who told us that our potentials were “just not that into us” thought they knew, too. Shmuley Boteach thinks he knows; in a Beliefnet.com article from June, Boteach told one mother that the reason her 29-year-old daughter was (oh, the horror!) still single was because she had friends. Ask her to sever ties with her friends for a few weeks, Boteach advised — after experiencing true loneliness, she’d be ready to accept a partner into her life.Evan Marc Katz, E-Cyrano.com’s “online dating guru,” who I interviewed in one of my first columns, employs an irreverent, humorous approach to the infernal, eternal question in his new book, “Why You’re Still Single: What Your Friends Would Tell You If You Promised Not to Get Mad.” Katz and his co-author, Linda Holmes, present perspectives rather than answers, and the resultant honesty is refreshing. Against a backdrop of pop culture and humor, the duo delves into the depths of dating do’s and don’t’s, acting as the friends you really need — the funny ones who aren’t afraid to hurt your feelings if it will mean helping you out.
Struggling with one major question or many smaller ones, we understand that friends cannot take the place of our bashert. But neither should the pursuit of a significant other take the place of our already-significant friendships, the ones that provide love and support in a dating environment that — as we suffer the slings and arrows of our outrageous fortunes — can often feel like a friendless void.Shakespeare’s Hamlet is defined by his solitude; the Melancholy Dane cannot trust the people who surround him, not even his family. Most of us are luckier than Hamlet. Perhaps if he’d kept company with friends other than Ophelia, or if he’d experienced the proper support from his community, his existential dilemmas might have seemed a little less weighty.
Esther D. Kustanowitz took too many Shakespeare classes in college. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.