The Answer is 42

Jana Kaye Gering is an artist living in Seattle. You should snag one of her remaining two caustic pieces at her Etsy store.

Every once in a while, I listen again to a lecture given at a chapel service in 1982 at Seattle Pacific University. Madeleine L’Engle’s voice is clear and strong, speaking through my computer speakers 30 years later.

In a chapel talk titled “The Answer is 42” she talks about the unchanging nature of God, in contrast to the temporary and fluctuating human understanding of who He is over the centuries.

“I don’t really understand how there can be any honest conflict between science and religion,” she says “because whatever science can discover can only open us up more to the marvels of creation and the Creator. Of course some of these marvels can force us to change perspective.” Galileo rocked the foundations of the church when he proposed his theory that the earth was not the center of the universe.

In Madeleine’s world, it seems that God is not as mysterious as we like to pretend. The mystery comes from our changeable, temporary, timebound perspectives coming into context with the unchanging nature of the I AM.

I find this comforting, probably because I am a mass of ideas and insecurities, all of which get communicated through a filter of emotion. I am changeable; that is constant. “You remind me of Iceland,” A friend told me recently, “I think that it’s beautiful you can feel all of that.”

The volatility doesn’t feel good, though. I’ve been struggling with the same questions of purpose since childhood, and I haven’t made any headway. It gets frustrating, and like Iceland, fire and steam are close to the surface. I change my mind about how I feel on any given topic depending on the day, the mood, how I slept, and maybe what color I’m wearing that day.

Some people seem so clear on purpose; I never felt that certain. I was an undecided major in college until the last possible moment. I’ve changed careers 3 times since college; teaching, management, project management, editorial. Over a six-month stint of unemployment this summer, I battled to decide what to do next, and ended by accepting the first job offer I received. I work hard at it, and I’m glad to have it, don’t get me wrong.

I wanted to believe there was some purpose to unemployment; that it would end up being meaningful to be off work for six months, that I would magically figure out what I wanted to do and magically find a job that would pay me to do it.

The company that laid me off said “We want to help you find something you like. Choose what you want to do, and we’ll help you get there.”

And I cried and tortured myself for months, trying to “just pick something.” Should I go back to school? Should I go back to teaching? Should I focus on art, writing? Should I just try to get a day job that doesn’t require so much of my brain? How do I make a living at whatever I decide? I never did reach a conclusion. I accepted the jobs as they came along, to avoid bankruptcy and homelessness.

Some of the trouble is, I know what I think I want. There’s a deep struggle going on that has been one of the only constants of the past decade-plus: I believe that in purpose and design, my skills, talents, and heart all combine around loving and building a family and a home.

Problem: I don’t have one.

To tell the truth, I feel really lame and pathetic about this desire for family. I really don’t know what to do with it. That useless desire just sits here in the living room of my life like an uncomfortable sofa, taking up space and not being useful at all. It weighs me down. If God meant me to be single this long, why do I want something different at all?

I know many homemakers who feel trapped, isolated, and like their creative talents are going dormant and unrecognized. They struggle with irrelevancy, just like I do. Perhaps there’s something about us that always desires what we do not have, telling us, as C.S. Lewis, said that we were “made for another world.”

The world that pays me tells me that I should want a career. That I should bulk up on being thick-skinned and analytical, learn to do public speaking, get out and network with other career-oriented people, focus on ROI, KPI, budgets and quarterly market-share. That I should be happy about meeting goals and punching out to-do lists and inbox zero, that I should relish coming into an office for 8 hours a day, going home to a cold house to make my own dinner, and rest peacefully to get up and do it all again the next day.

At the same time, the people I respect most in the world acknowledge that none of that matters as much as the people they love and hold dear. Reading a book by a dear, favorite poet of mine (who also delivered Madeleine L’Engle’s eulogy, as a dear friend), in her recent book of meditations on the close of life, acknowledges how none of her career successes mattered as much as being a mother.

Many of my other favorite writers, friends, and leaders are mothers, and they would all (rightly) say similar things. That stings. Nothing in life is as important as loving and being loved, knowing and being known. They wouldn’t trade motherhood for anything.That thought breaks my heart.

There are, in fact, a lot of stings in being an older single with a heart longing for family.

When people talk about marriage and family the same way they talk about graduating from high school or college; as if it’s a given. It isn’t a given. I can talk about college and classes and professors and dorm life. I could very easily take it for granted. But I know very well that I am among the first in my family generations to have the wide advantages of a liberal arts education. I know going to a university—a private one, at that— was a deep privilege that most of the world doesn’t have. If you are in a healthy marriage and/or have healthy kids, it hurts when you denigrate those deep privileges down to banality. Acknowledge that what you have is special, and worth celebrating (which is different than bragging about it (#blessed) or hiding behind a happy mask. Of course it’s ok to talk about the heartaches and hardships of family life; but don’t forget that your life is a gift.

I’m 35. I’m now older than my mother was when she had her youngest child. My chances of being a mother reduce by the minute. At this age, all pregnancies will be classed as high-risk ( I know this through friends who have walked this road), even were I to meet the man of my dreams tomorrow, and get married the day after, and get pregnant the day after that. I hate that this gets reduced and ridiculed in popular culture to “biological clock” and “baby-crazy”. It’s one of the acceptable ways left to marginalize and ridicule women; this patronization around longing for children.

Those of us who are barren either through infertility or through singleness are sometimes battling a deep mourning, but one that feels unacceptable to acknowledge. People are either uncomfortable with it, or patronizing about it. The church, especially.

The church seems to respond to singleness and infertility like the nuns in the Sound of Music: “how do you solve a problem like Maria?” The answers are similar too: first answer is usually to throw her to the children, have her volunteer at sunday school or youth group for years on end. She’s obviously got the time, and it’s so nice to give the mothers a break. So she spends her life coaching and teaching other people’s children, isolated from acceptance into the adult community.

Other answers range from dedicated meat markets (ahem—singles groups), to dating conferences (complete with single-mingles), online dating, awkward set-ups. Basically the answer is to get Maria married off somehow, so she’s off the church’s conscience. Singleness makes things awkward. Meeting with pastors is tricky, since they don’t like to be seen with single women for obvious reasons. I feel dangerous to the church, an outsider, an unknown quantity.

Church, if you ever find out, let me know how you solve me. I’ll be here.

Madeleine says…

Our faith is that the universe is God’s, that we are God’s. Exactly how he manages that is his business.

My faith is not in how, but who.

So maybe the fact that I don’t know how or why my life is the way it is is ok. I do know who. And I know he is trustworthy. And that is, almost literally, everything I know about life right now.

8 thoughts on “The Answer is 42

  1. Jana…thank you so much for sharing your heart! I appreciate your honesty, vulnerability and grace. You are speaking the words of my heart. I completely resonate with and validate every single point you addressed – especially your questions. So many questions, so few helpful answers. I was telling a friend recently that I have explored singleness from every possible therapeutic, theological, spiritual and emotional view point and I have simply come to the following conclusion. I am single, I want to be married and it sucks. Don’t get me wrong, I love my life – it is full and rich and abounding in goodness, but none of that speaks to the ache of longing and lifelong desires that have gone unfulfilled. It’s just hard. Some days, I am so consumed with work my desire for marriage barely passes through my mind, other days I collapse into a pile of tears. But, in the end God’s grace and mercy sustains me for yet another day. I don’t always know how, but am so thankful it does. I will be praying for you and your heart. Much Love, Vanessa

  2. Thanks, Vanessa. It is that paradox, right, where your life and relationships are good and they go on, but at the same time you’re in a constant state of loss of a dream?

    The term I’ve heard applied to this process that makes the most sense is becoming an official scholarly definition in the psych/counseling field. You might have heard it already, since that’s more in your area of expertise than mine. I can’t find the article where I first ran across it, but it’s called disenfranchised grief or disenfranchised sorrow; it’s not the mourning of an actual, recognizable loss, it’s the process of mourning the loss of something that never was or may never be.

    A counselor first pointed this out to me as I tried to figure some things out a few years ago, that the way I talked about these losses and sorrows was a classic presentation of a person in mourning.

    That doesn’t mean I’m sad all the time, of course, but it is something that is always there. Again, I’m never sure how to resolve this, and I think there is no one answer to it. Mad as I get that God hasn’t set this lonely person in a family, He does promise that they who mourn will be comforted.

    Some more great posts on singleness this month are being written by Sarah, over here:

    My favorite poem by Madeleine L’Engle is a daily reminder for me. It starts with a shout and ends with a whisper:

    You Promised.
    Well, actually, you didn’t promise very much, did you?
    But that little is enough–is more than enough
    We fail you-over and over again.
    But you promised to be faithful to us.
    Not to let us fail beyond your forgiveness of our failure.
    In our common temptation, you promised we would not be tempted more than we are able
    You promised not to lead us into temptation beyond our frail strength
    and you-YOURSELF- are our refuge in temptation
    Our escape from the pit
    And THAT is enough.
    So that we can bear more than we thought we could bear of


    and other great “fors”



    is what you promised.
    It is enough.
    It is everything.

    Vanessa, I am thankful for your heart, too. be praying for you.

  3. Thank you, Jana, for this excellent post. You have captured so well the same feelings and struggles that I too have about singleness. I think there are many more women (and men) in our generation than in any that came before us who wish to be married, who want to believe God sets the lonely in families, and yet are very much alone. And the community where Christians are meant to find family and connection, within the body of Christ, can so often be, as you’ve mentioned, a place of awkwardness and isolation for singles. As someone who has a very small immediate family, the desire burns even stronger to build lifelong love and intimacy with a husband and children. This may not ever happen. So the question becomes how do we live not as orphans but as children of God? How do we engage our brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as the rest of the world? How do we be who we are, people whose “purpose … design, … skills, talents, and heart all combine around loving and building a family and a home,” while being single—for however long that may be? I understand what you mean here: “So she spends her life coaching and teaching other people’s children, isolated from acceptance into the adult community,” but I have to believe that our design and desire for family has a purpose outside of marriage—a purpose that (just like marriage) is both rewarding and painful. Thank you again. If our hearts ache, they do not ache alone. God bless.

    • HI Diane! Thanks so much for reading. I so appreciate your gentle challenge here, on not living as an orphan. That really spoke to me, thank you. This post is definitely very, very raw, and reflects a lot of the anger and injustice I feel. When I live in isolation, you’re so right, it is part sorrow, but it is also a very big part choice.

      I really struggle with going to church, and have for going on more than 3 years. It’s really really easy to go to a service, and wait for the thing that triggers the feelings of isolation (the sermon was about marriage, there is no singles group, there IS a singles group, the pastor said something that hurt, they asked me to babysit, etc. etc.) , and use that excuse to not come back. And I know better, but it’s still a big battlefield at the moment :-).

      The isolation isn’t always inflicted, sometimes it’s chosen. I really like how you said that these very unfulfilled desires have a place in the family. I’ll be thinking about that.

      Again, thanks so much, and I so appreciate your words.


      • Aww, thanks for your sweet reply. Yes, I completely understand that—100 percent! Sunday mornings are—in a word—hard. Giving in to self-pity is easy. So the challenge is for my benefit too. 🙂


  4. Hi Jana – i’m new to your blog, but was touched by your post. Much older than you (& single!) & having served overseas for a faith-based relief & development organization for many years i struggled with a few of your challenges (altho too busy to bother with men for awhile – i gave them up for Lent one year & forgot to add them back into the mix! : ) I guess the best prayer that has helped me over the years is to ask God for the grace to be content in all situations – fat or skinny, health-challenged or healthy, single vs. dating (or married, altho methinks married folks have it tough always having to think of the ‘other’ before themselves, egads!).. exciting work vs. filing cabinets.. Grace is a Biggie.
    Big blessings to you! – grace, peace & contentment challenges – Virginia

    • Hi Virginia!

      Thanks so much for reaching out, I really appreciate the challenge there. Like most folks, I vary between contentment and disaster :-). I really do have many good things in life.

      It is really hard to be in life alone; I ran into a college professor of mine a few years ago, who always advised all of her students that no one should get married before 30. When we chatted for a while, though, she talked about the trials she went through, just trying to get, transport, and install a new shower curtain rod.

      The thing is, it’s not so much the things you’re doing alone, or that you’re not compentent to do them, is that there’s no one to laugh at the hilarity of trying to fit a shower curtain rod into your smart car. No one to hold up one end of the tension rod while you secure the other, laugh when the whole contraption comes down on your head.

      I went to Ikea alone once, after I’d moved to a new neighborhood. I bought a desk, a bookshelf, and a number of other items. The desk was a display model, so I had to disassemble the whole thing, by myself, in front of the store, pack it onto 2 carts, somehow get the carts over to the parking garage, into the elevator, up 3 floors, (halfway up, the basket where I’d stashed the eleventy-thirteen bolts from the desk fell off the cart and I scrambled around the elevator floor to retrieve them.) and pack it all into my Honda Accord. Last straw: the desk was just about 2 inches too wide to fit in my trunk. I finally slid it neatly behind the driver/passenger seats. It fit so tightly, that the automatic seatbelts couldn’t go down…BUT IT FIT! I drove home with the chime of the seatbelt alarm ringing in my ears.

      It worked…but wouldn’t it have been SO much more efficient and fun with a friend? That’s kind of my reference for what being single in a married world feels like. I get by. But it’s a different kind of trouble from the married experience of Ikea, which has it’s own unique set of problems!

      It’s hard that things like health insurance always tax singles, and hard to walk in the door from the responsibilities of employee to face the responsibilities of head-of-house. When you’re single you DO have to put yourself first–and it’s annoying! To me it feels it would be nicer to think about someone else’s problems for a change, get a little different perspective on my own. And yes, these are first world problems 🙂

      There’s a mercy and a grace in it though, you are right. Blessings to you as well.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s