A single woman who is dedicated to having a positive impact on people’s lives was profiled in a book about women who are happily single. The woman sees her contributions to community service as a sort of ministry, even though her work is not religious. When the author introduced that single woman, she said that we single people “have the luxury of being able to focus – perhaps selfishly – on our own goals.”
I got out my red pen and put a giant “X” in the margin. No, no, no, no, no. We need to stop describing single people as selfish. Single people should be leading the way in pushing back against those demeaning stereotypes. The irony of this example is that the author of the book was describing single people as selfish in the same section in which she introduced a very unselfish single woman.
Another single woman in the book described herself as selfish because she likes to travel. There are probably millions of married people who like to travel and who do travel. Think of all the exuberant photos of their trips that you have seen on their social media accounts. I have never heard a single one of them refer to themselves as selfish for liking to travel. No one else calls them selfish, either.
I’ve been collecting examples like these for a long time. Here are a few more:
A woman told me about a middle-aged relative of hers who has always been single and who wants to stay that way. He has a job he loves, and he adores his nieces and nephews. In fact, he has already put two of them through college. In discussions of his status as a lifelong single person, he has told this relative that he knows he is selfish, because he likes to buy expensive clothes.
I think that’s astonishing. Uncles have no obligation to provide for nieces or nephews, and they surely have no obligation to provide something so costly as a college education. Here was a single man who had already done so twice yet thought of himself as selfish because he liked to buy nice clothes.
I know married men who like to buy nice clothes. I’ve never heard any of them describe themselves as selfish because of it, and none of them were funding the college educations of kids who were not their own.
Back when many people bought their music on CDs, one of my married male colleagues spent $80 a month on them. No one ever called him selfish for doing so. Can you imagine what would happen if he had been single?
One more story. At a professional meeting, I sat next to another woman at lunch and had a long conversation with her. She told me about a contact she has with a leader of a charitable organization. She asks him what he needs and then tries to provide it. Sometimes she buys things, such as notebooks and other classroom materials. Other times she uses her ingenuity to gather coveted products that she can get for free. For example, she travels a lot for her job, and collects the soaps and shampoos from her hotel rooms. I did not learn until later in the conversation that she has always been single, or that she likes it that way. When she mentioned her single status, she soon added that she is selfish, because after a long day at a job that requires lots of interactions with other people, she likes to come home and have her time and space to herself.
Here is a wonderfully generous single woman who devotes time and effort and money to complete strangers; typically, they are people whose lives have been shattered by natural disasters. But she sees herself as a selfish single person, because she values her own place and the opportunities to pursue her own interests, on her own.
If she were a married woman who loved coming home after work and talking to her spouse, she would never call herself selfish. Not even if her spouse would prefer a bit of quiet time, instead. Why is it that when single people do what they find relaxing after work, that’s called selfish, whereas when married people do what they enjoy, they are beyond reproach?
I think there is a double standard. We all need to forsake it and apply the same standard to everyone.
What I’ve given you so far are examples and anecdotes. But there are many systematic studies comparing single people to married people and showing that single people are, in many important ways, more giving and more caring. I described some of those findings in the Washington Post in “Think single people are selfish? The research proves otherwise.” You can also read more about research on single people’s generosity here.
What single people give to others goes beyond their time on earth. In a future post, I’ll talk about the legacies left by people who are single.