Years ago I watched a video segment on marital conflict. The husband and wife shared several sources of strife – he puts the toilet paper on the dispenser backwards, she squeezes the toothpaste tube in the middle. Each situation boiled down to one spouse not getting his or her way about a trivial issue. I was confused. Who thinks they get to decide how the toothpaste is squeezed? Who made her the lord of the toilet paper?
I couldn’t relate. Why? I’m used to living with people. I’m a 28-year-old college-educated woman, and I’ve never lived alone. In fact, I never “moved out.” That’s right – I still live at home. I haven’t made this decision because I’m inept or immature. I’m not incapable of living alone. It’s just that I’ve seen the value of living communally.
In her article “Rethinking the Gift of Singleness,” Debbie Maken explains that the cultural ideal of single adults living alone is a modern invention more than it is a historical norm. The Puritans, for example forbid single living — when “John Littleale was found living by himself, where he was ‘subject to many sins, which are ordinarily the companions of a solitary life,’ he was ordered to move in with a family, or be placed in the house of corrections.”
According to one study, “only 5 percent of unmarried young adults between the ages of 20-29 headed their own households in the first half of the 20th century” (Rosenfeld). Even today, living alone is not the norm – in 2000, only “28 percent of unmarried men and 36 percent of unmarried women between the ages 20-29 headed their own household” (Segrin and Flora).
Lest you dismiss me as an uber-conservative, it’s not just would-be Puritans who are acknowledging the fallout of independent living. In his Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller confesses: “The most difficult lie I have ever contended with is this: Life is a story about me.” After his pastor challenged him to stop living alone, Miller moved in with roommates and began a season of life that profoundly impacted his faith. He writes:
Living in community made me realize one of my faults: I was addicted to myself. All I thought about was myself. The only thing I really cared about was myself. I had very little concept of love, altruism, or sacrifice. (…) God brought me (into community) to rid me of this deception, to scrub it out of the gray matter of my mind. It was a frustrating and painful experience. I hear addicts talk about the shakes and panic attacks and the highs and lows of resisting their habit, and to some degree I understand them because I have had habits of my own, but no drug is so powerful as the drug of self. No rut of mind is so deep as the one that says I am the world, the world belongs to me, all people are characters in my play. There is no addiction so powerful as self-addiction.
Living with people may not cure self-addiction, but it does frustrate self-centered living.
I have a large family. I am the oldest of five children. We always had enough, but we didn’t always have a lot. To be more specific: I know how to share.
For more than two decades, I’ve shared a bedroom with one and then two sisters. I’ve shared a closet, most of my clothes, a mirror, and often a bed. For most of my life, I’ve shared one bathroom with six people. I’ve learned the art of compromise – what to cook, when to plan parties, what to watch on TV, when to have silence and when to have music. I’ve learned flexibility and appreciation for variety. I’ve learned to be mentored by my parents, and I’ve learned to be a mentor to my younger siblings. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned what it means to forgive and what it means to repent. Conflict erupts – sometimes more than we’d like to admit – but in that tension, I’ve experienced iron sharpening iron (Prov. 27:17).
Realistically, not everyone can or should live with family, and roommate situations can turn sour. It may be better to live alone than with people who are spiritually damaging. Still, there is value in intentionally seeking out mature believers to share life with.
Why do I live with people? In my experience, there is no better way to end self-addiction and practice Christ-like love.
What about you? Do you intentionally live with other people or do you intentionally live alone? Why?
Photo credit: Lauren Powell-Smothers