For the past nine years, my sister and her husband have served as missionaries in Papua New Guinea. They return to the U.S. every two years to raise support for the following two years of ministry. Years ago, we started a tradition of taking family photos at my parents’ house during their summer furloughs. This particular story takes place during their first return to the States seven years ago.
I’ve been the only single person in my family for more than twelve years now, and that reality has weighed on me with various amounts of intensity. On this particular day, my singleness felt like a crushing monster that threatened to destroy my hope, leaving only a sad, lonely, and empty existence.
It was a beautiful Midwestern summer day, but as the photoshoot progressed, I felt increasingly out of place and alone. Every time we moved to a different location and arranged ourselves, I was reminded that I was the only one who didn’t have “their person” who automatically stood beside them. My parents had each other, my brother had his wife, and my sister had her husband.
There were even a few joking comments made about how I was the only one there who didn’t have someone to put his arm around.
Every smile became more and more fake as an invisible hand seemed to squeeze tighter and tighter around my insides. I used every ounce of strength to fight back tears so my family wouldn’t see the pain on my face.
After many hours of picture-taking, the sun began to set on the horizon. Wide open fields surround my parents’ house, and the view can be quite spectacular. We finished the day by taking silhouette pictures with the blazing orange-and-pink sky as our backdrop.
We began with a few group photos, followed by each couple having their turn. My siblings lovingly kissed their spouses and lifted them up in the air as some of the most romantic and precious images I’d ever witnessed.
I stayed to watch for a little while, knowing that no one would ask me if I wanted any pictures by myself. That would have been absurd, right?
It didn’t take long for me to reach the end of what I could handle with my family. So, I ran away.
I don’t even know if anyone noticed my going inside, but I ran into the bathroom and locked the door behind me. Not even bothering to turn on the lights, I leaned against the wall and sank to the floor. Tears poured down my face as I sat hunched over, clutching my chest. Thoughts swirled in my head like daggers waiting to take their turn to strike at my heart.
I’ll never have “my person” to bring into this family.
I’ll never take beautiful sunset pictures with someone I love dearly.
I’ll never kiss my spouse in front of my siblings as smiles form on my parents’ faces.
I’ll always be the odd one out.
I’ll always be the one running away to cry in the bathroom.
I’ll always be alone.
Now, I share this story not as a way to garner pity but rather to testify to the amazingly redemptive work that God has done in my life and heart over the past seven years. At that point in time, my sexuality was not an open topic of conversation, and my thoughts about long-term singleness were still in their infancy.
To run the risk of sounding cliché, my family didn’t know any better, and I can promise that I harbor no anger or bitterness toward them.
Much healing has taken place since that day, and I’m more hopeful about my future as a single person than I have ever been.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus responds to Peter’s claim about giving up everything to follow him:
“Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”
At different times I’ve been tempted to angrily say to Jesus, “In order to follow you, I’ve given up the dream of marriage, sexual intimacy, and the possibility of having a family of my own which in this culture is everything!”
To which he has gently and repeatedly responded, “No, Jacob. The reality of being united with me means that you’ve been made a part of a family that’s more eternal than marriage, more fulfilling than sexual intimacy, and more intimately bonded than blood relations.”
Practically speaking, this also means that my closest brothers and sisters in Christ will fill many of the roles and functions typically found in nuclear families. And that’s one of the most beautiful realities of being a part of the Body of Christ.
Singleness does not mean that I don’t have a family of my own, even though most of these participants will not have the same last name.
Are there still certain dreams that are hard to let go of? Absolutely. But God continues to reveal to me that the path of obedience I’m choosing is not a loveless road of isolation but rather one filled with purpose, intimacy, and connection.
And who knows? Maybe one day I will even have a close enough friend who will be a part of the Baranowski family photos; even so, I thank God that He’s graciously provided me with community, belonging, and relationships that feel like home.
You may currently find yourself in a dark bathroom with tears filling your eyes, but I am here to tell you that in Christ there is hope that you will once again bask in the beauty of his sunsets.
Has singleness ever made you feel like an outsider in your own family? Are you part of a non-traditional family, and if so, what does that look like?
I feel like my life is inevitably leading this direction with one married sibling and perhaps another in the years to come. Family pictures where I’m the single one out. You painted this picture somberly but beautifully, Jacob. Grateful for a brotherhood that extends beyond last names, of which you and I share a part.
Jacob, your writing is always compelling and highly emotive. You have an outstanding and important voice; keep using it for the kingdom. I have often felt like that outsider and have had my share of those dark bathroom moments. But singleness was not a part of it. SSA sometimes. And I do have a nontraditional family, made up of various ethnic groups, homeless and relatively well off, some with mental health issues, some without, all loving Jesus in the brokenness they each bring to the table. Keep struggling with the big questions, Jacob, and writing about your struggle. You are doing great.
Great article Jacob. You summed up a lot of my fears very well. I’ve just always had that fear of the lone guy in the church photo book, or the lone creepy old guy living down the street that the neighbors on the street gossip about. But with my Side B brothers I feel like I have at long last found a family which gives me so much hope as well.
My wife recently moved out of the house, and I am adjusting to being a single parent. I wonder sometimes how I will manage being alone. Then I recall that I have been alone for six years; I was just too stupid to see it. I still had this ideal of the perfect nuclear family, all I had to do was be a father to my children and a husband to my wife. Never mind she never talked to me. Two weeks after I got out of the hospital, my wife declared she was in a ‘dark place’, went to the bedroom and did not come out for five years.
Part of my recovery was out of necessity. There were three kids that still needed to be raised, and two of them were entering the joys of puberty (one male and one female). She did not pick up my daughter when her boyfriend dumped her at the prom. She was not there to help my son pick out a tuxedo for his prom, nor met his prom date. She did not go to my youngest son’s violin concerts. She does not know he composes music.
Life did not turn out the way she wanted and so hid in her ‘dark place’. I wanted to live. I got to deal with all the arguments, the questions about sex, how to put on makeup and use feminine hygiene products, drive kids to their first jobs and pick them up late at night, teach them how to drive, how to balance a checkbook, plan sweet sixteen parties, bake Lego birthday cakes, deal with legal issues concerning death of her mother, etc.
I was always alone. How will I adjust to being single again? No change here.
Thank you Jacob for such a great post. All my siblings are married except me, so I can sure appreciate the thoughts you have expressed.
At this point, I don’t have much to add to the conversation, except to say I pray that our faithful Heavenly Father will provide those needs for you, brother. I believe a deep close friendship is one of of His choicest blessings in our lives. I don’t have such, but I do pray that for you. You are a blessing Jacob!
Jacob. I love this SO much. Thank you for sharing.
I’m sure some of my stories of feeling like the outsider / 3rd or 5th wheel / the other will come up in future blogs, but I ~resonate~ with this post. So many times have I felt like I was the only one who had to give up dreams, who had to imagine a future that nobody would speak about…. living alone, no family, no white-fenced house, yet still following Jesus.
Thank you for the reminders.
I can relate to feeling out of place with my family, too, but mine is not the ideal Christian family yours seems to be. My father is 89 and in a nursing home with dementia. My mother passed away 18 years ago. My brother died 30 years ago from complications from an HIV infection. My only living sibling is my married sister who is busy with 4 children and a stressful job as a nurse on the night shift. I have to take responsibility for my father’s care and sometimes it weighs on me.
Most of my emotional and spiritual support comes from friends rather than family. I thank God for my friends, especially my housemates and you brothers from YOB!
Thanks for writing this, Jacob.
I’ve been blessed with a family who is pretty conscientious about not putting me in a situation where my singleness is painful or rubbed in my face. For example, when booking lodging for family vacation, my mom has told me they want to make sure I have my own bedroom (“since you’re an adult”), and I don’t wind up sleeping on the living room couch like a second-class citizen. This means a lot to me.
What I connected with the most in this piece was not having that person to be documented and presented in photographs alongside as “belonging together.” Seeing couples photographed together, especially male-male couples, seeing their love captured, documented and commemorated, makes me keenly aware of the choices I’ve made. It’s hard to describe how it makes me feel. It’s not envy, per se. It’s not so simple as sadness. Maybe it’s the resigned, somber stillness on the other side of the grieving process.
That being (gloomily) said, there have been a few times this year when I thought to insist on getting pictures together with my close friends, just the two of us–nothing formal or professional, just “we were here” pictures–and I’ve been really glad I did. Those friendships are certainly worth documenting and commemorating and if I want them documented and commemorated, I just have to ask!
[…] “Singleness in a Silhouette” by Jacob […]
Hi Jacob, as I sit at work this morning “listening” to a conference call, I have just finished reading this blog. I am exactly in the spot you describe. It’s beyond crushing. I have started telling my friends and church community leaders to help me as I struggle. I am not sure why, but lately my loneliness has seemed to have intensified. No one knew about my struggle with SSA until 4 years ago when I was 26, I told one of my pastors, he was supportive and great. I didn’t tell anyone else until the last few weeks, now about 14 people know. This is because the struggle has gotten so strong, it’s like after I turned 30 this switch went off in my head and I am now hyper aware of the reality of marriage I may never know. I have been in and attended so many weddings in my 20’s. On my way home from two in the same day, I was so broken.
I had the thought one night, “You’re 30, you have resources and full autonomy, you can do whatever you want.” I had never had this thought before a few weeks ago. It was then when I realized I needed to share with my community and be supported.
I am still in this mode. It’s still hard. But God is present and active. I just found this website today and I am beyond thankful.
It’s beyond encouraging to see how faithfully God has worked in your life. Thank you for sharing.
Great encouragement, Jacob.
I can definitely relate to this, especially when I was younger. My family still has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about my personal life and sexuality. They probably think about it from time to time, but they never ask me “hey, how’s that going for you anyway?” This topic has always been an awkward elephant that follows me around to every family get together.
Now, my feelings about singleness aren’t as raw as they used to be. I no longer feel like the family weirdo. Over the years there have been other family members forced into singleness. My mom died ten years ago, which left my dad a widow. My sister has been divorced and single for a long time. I have a few aunts that are now single, not by choice. My grandpa was single the last 30 years of his life. If we were to have a family reunion today, half of us are probably single.
There was a time when my singleness stood out like a sore thumb, but now that I’m, like, 150 years old, there are almost 2 younger generations in the family. Those generations look up to us who are single. We are considered “patriarchs” and “matriarchs”, pillars of the family.
So, at one time in my life I was the weirdo, but now I’m not so weird. My singleness is not so uncommon.
The majority of the time I love my singleness, I think it’s beautiful. But there are times I hate it, and I think it’s ugly. That usually happens when I spend too much time watching movies and t.v. shows where there is some heartwarming love story, or if I spend too much time scrolling through Facebook looking at profiles of people I knew in high school that now have massive families and appear to be so happy and satisfied with their lives. I start to compare myself to the people I see on t.v. and Facebook. Comparison is a joy killer.
The reality is, there are probably times when those married FB friends scroll through my profile and think “David! You have it made! No kids or spouse to put a damper on things. You’re as free as a bird!” It’s true, praise the Lord.
There are pros and cons to both being single and married, so if I ever feel awkward about my singleness around people, I just remind myself of that fact. If I’m feeling sassy, I’ll remind them of that fact, too.
I rambled so much I forgot what the question was.