Too many people have the idea that singles need to change, when what really needs to change is the way people think about singles.
“No kids – too much work. No marriage – too much responsibility. No Kosher – too much money.” That’s how Rabbi Leiby Burnham summarized the point of view of a fellow airline passenger who struck up a conversation with him on a trip to Israel. Burnham was traveling with his three kids and they were not always quiet.
The man who wanted no kids, no marriage, and no Kosher, Burnham believed, “seemed reluctant to expend too much effort or resources on anything.” Drawing from that experience, plus an essay in Newsweek, Burnham generalizes to the rest of humanity:
“…his [his fellow airline passenger] perspective is shared by millions across the globe. It partially accounts for the shrinking birth rate in developing countries, the rising proportion of people who choose never to marry, the rising divorce rate, and the downward trends in volunteerism that proceeded the current recession.”
The Rabbi is not finished castigating those who choose a life that is different from the one he deems superior to all others:
“All true pleasure comes from personal accomplishment, and that is only reached through challenging experience. Accomplishment takes effort, diligence, pain, vulnerability and hard work, but the resulting pleasure is exponentially greater than comfort.
“Living spouse-free and child-free can give a person comfort and ease, but not pleasure.”
Burnham posted his essay at the website aish.com. The “about” page notes that “Aish.com’s goal is to give every Jew the opportunity to discover his or her heritage in an atmosphere of open inquiry and mutual respect.”
I don’t find Burnham’s essay very respectful. Nor do I see evidence of an open inquiry.
First is the sense that Burnham seemed to intend: Single people and people without kids are just lazy. Those big global trends, such as declining birth rates and dwindling marriage rates – let’s blame them on all those lazy people who don’t want to marry or have children. True, he does note that laziness only “partially” accounts for these trends. But gee, if scholars were to assess factors such as changing economic, political, cultural, sociological, technological, and communications conditions, I wonder how big a part the specific psychological factor of personal laziness would really play.
Which is not to say that I agree that it plays any part at all.
The second sense in which I used the word lazy in the title of this post was to refer to Burnham’s analysis. Totally missing from his thinking is an acknowledgement that people can choose single life, or choose not to have kids, for reasons other than personal laziness. They can, in fact, choose single life, and a life with no kids, for very positive reasons. They can choose to dedicate themselves to important callings such as social justice or scientific discovery or teaching or art or any of a vast array of ways of making a difference not only in the lives of a spouse or kids of your own, but in the lives of many people, for years or even decades to come.
My point is analogous to something a colleague once said to me about a brilliant brain surgeon: “Too bad he became a surgeon. Imagine the lives he could have saved if he advanced our scientific understandings about the brain with research. Then he would have continued saving lives long after he died.”
Of course, you can pursue social justice or scientific research or other endeavors and also marry and have kids. But maybe not with the same passion or commitment.
I don’t think that everyone who decides not to marry or not to have kids has to have some highfalutin reason for doing so. Maybe you recognize that you are single at heart, and that single life is the most meaningful and authentic life for you. Maybe you realize that you are not particularly maternal or paternal.
Burnham seems to believe the many myths about single people that have already been debunked. I took on many of those myths in Singled Out. Subsequent studies (as reviewed, for example, in Singlism and in Going Solo) continue to shred simple-minded, stereotypical notions such as the one about how married parents are doing all of the volunteering and helping of others.
The irony of my critique of Burnham’s essay is that I think he makes an important point. Pursuing challenges — all that “effort, diligence, pain, vulnerability and hard work” — really can be immensely rewarding. But to equate the pursuit of challenges solely with marrying and having children? I’m tempted to say that the Rabbi “seemed reluctant to expend too much effort or resources” on getting beyond the conventional wisdom. But that wouldn’t be fair.