The Lesson of Sadness

The Lesson of Sadness

In season 2 of NBC’s The Good Place, the character Michael (who is an immortal being) learns about the human concept of death. His sudden grasp of the concept throws him into an existential crisis, until the protagonist of the show, Eleanor Shellstrop, intervenes. “I don’t know if what I’m going to say is going to hurt or help, but screw it,” she says to him. “Do you know what’s really happening right now? You’re learning what it’s like to be human. All humans are aware of death. So, we’re all a little bit sad, all the time. That’s just the deal.”

“Sounds like a crappy deal,” Michael responds.

“Well yeah, it is. But we don’t get offered any other ones,” Eleanor continues. “And if you try to ignore your sadness, it just ends up leaking out of you anyway. I’ve been there. Everybody’s been there. So, don’t fight it.”

I’m an avid binger of The Good Place, and this particular moment in the show is most definitely the one that’s had the most impact on me. Just the simple concept of “we’re all a little bit sad, all the time” is such an accurate description of human nature. It’s true that our lives are filled with that perpetual sense of sadness and anxiety that stems from the notion of death, whether that be the fear of death, the presence of death, or the death of something we hold dear to our hearts. Life is filled with death: the death of loved ones, the death of specific times and eras, the death of childhood, of innocence, of love, and of relationships. Death can be seen in many different forms, and all of the various manifestations of death are difficult in their own unique way.

Currently, I’m dealing with the death of a specific time and era. I recently moved from Illinois to Colorado for college, which meant I had to leave behind my family, my friends, and my boyfriend. My boyfriend and I are now in a long-distance relationship, and one thing I’ve noticed throughout the week we’ve been apart is that his absence has settled into me in the form of a perpetual ache. I’m enjoying my new classes and my new environment, but that constant little ache is something that most likely won’t leave. This means that I need to learn how to integrate that ache into my life.

That idea of accepting sadness as embedded into daily human life isn’t just something talked about on The Good Place. It’s also an idea that’s very well-articulated in Orthodox Christianity, specifically, when it comes to depression. When I was depressed during my junior year, I wasn’t very open to Orthodox Christianity. I was more or less agnostic: constantly wrestling with religion and unable to produce or find answers to satisfy myself. Because of this, I was trying my hardest to find comfort and solace in what the secular world was providing for me. I followed advice pages on Instagram, I looked through self-help books and blogs, and I watched a myriad of YouTube videos. They were often very helpful, and provided me with a few techniques for combating negative thoughts and feelings that I still use today. However, there was one common theme among them all. They all seemed to point me towards superficial solutions, such as talking to friends or practicing self-care. An idea that was fairly common in the secular ideology was that sadness was bad and that we shouldn’t feel sad because we have the right to be happy. I was bombarded with the impression that I should constantly be doing things that would take away the sadness; I should be filling my life with things that made me feel warm, fuzzy, and happy. This brought me into a very toxic mindset where I would indignantly ask myself why on earth I couldn’t be happy if I, in fact, deserved happiness and where my sadness seemed isolating and ostracizing because I thought that I was “supposed to be happy.” I felt like the world was against me; It seemed like everything was unfair because I didn’t feel the way I wanted to feel.

Secular western culture is very focused on individualism. We see this in our career paths: children are more likely to leave their parents and family in order to follow their own personal vocation than they would be in other cultures or in past eras. We see this in our concepts of entertainment: we are more likely to focus on what we prefer to do in our free time rather than what our families want to do. This idea of individualism is also very evident through the secular view on depression. Basically, we are told that if we do not feel happy and fulfilled in our individual lives, there is something wrong. We are bogged down with the concept of personal fulfillment, and we are constantly trying to obtain it in any way we can. We spend time in toxic habits, such as chronic partying, drinking, or drug use because it makes us feel good which we believe is how we’re supposed to feel.

You may wonder where I’m going with this. When I was in my state of depression, I went to a Greek Orthodox monastery with my sister to see if it would make me feel better. During this time, I was having difficulty sitting in church because church services were something that made me anxious and upset, particularly because of the never-ending pressure I received from my church community to combat my depression with prayer along with the ongoing criticism I faced because of my perpetual religious doubt. So, while my sister attended Vespers, I wandered around the empty monastery until I found an interesting book in the bookstore. I don’t remember what it was called, but I know that the book was about the Orthodox perspective on depression. Though the Orthodox Church was, at the time, something I was really struggling with, I was searching for answers in any place I could get them. So, I began to read.

The book mentioned something that I had never heard before: humans are supposed to be sad. We are supposed to be a little bit sad, all the time, just like Eleanor Shellstrop said. And just like the quote in The Good Place, masked sadness will always find a way to leak out. The book was a little more in depth than The Good Place, however. It talked about how humans are, because of the fall, separated from God. And with that separation comes death, and with the realization of death comes the reality that we are meant to be a little bit sad all of the time. During that night of reading, I learned that the first step to conquering depression is to realize that, as humans, we aren’t supposed to be happy all the time. But at the same time, we aren’t supposed to let the reality of death bog us down. Instead, we are called to find a way to mingle that very human sadness with the divine joy of eternal life. We are supposed to learn how to be hopeful and filled with joy while simultaneously recognizing the ever-present ache that settles inside us. The idea that sadness shouldn’t be constantly ignored or shut down is a concept that I still hold very near and dear to my heart.

So how does this relate to long-distance relationships? Well, I haven’t been in a long distance relationship for long, but it’s my experience that the pain of separation shows up as a constant ache. It’s sort of a dull roar, if you will, of sadness that is manageable but always present. But I know that that kind of ache isn’t something that’s bad or unnatural. It isn’t something I’m supposed to get rid of. Rather, it’s a good lesson on what being human is really like. It’s just a part of the ache we all feel in being separated from (or, if you’ll allow me the comparison, in a long-distance relationship with) God. We are all aware of death in its many different forms. Because of this awareness, we are all a little bit sad, all the time. And maybe that’s not wrong. Maybe that’s not something we should suppress or ignore. Our sadness, no matter the source, is just a manifestation of our humanity. Humanity is bittersweet and ambiguous, and pain and sadness are realities that are hard to accept. But we are called to unify our sadness and our joy, and ignoring the sadness is like ignoring an aspect of our humanity. As Eleanor Shellstrop says: “I’ve been there. Everybody’s been there. So, don’t fight it.”

Alison Standish

Alison Standish

Guest Blog Contributor

My name is Alison Standish. I grew up in Aurora Illinois, but I am currently in my freshman year at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colorado. I am pursuing a major in Mass Communications, and I hope to eventually have a career where I can tell stories for a living. Some of my favorite things include: writing, reading, listening to music, longboarding, and spending as much time as I possibly can exploring the outdoors. 

Navigating Adult Relationships Before Marriage

Navigating Adult Relationships Before Marriage

Today we present the third and last of three installments by Dr. Albert Rossi answering student’s questions on dating, marriage, and relationships. Click here to read his first installment, Why Do We Date? and Click here to read his second installment, Why Do We Abstain?

Let’s begin where we began two blogs ago. Christ is everything. The Cross is a difficult privilege. That’s for starters. I will also begin by asking you to listen to my wife singing a haunting song, Today, that is about human lovers and that we can hear as the relationship between Christ and ourselves. He is our most intimate relationship.

So, for this blog let’s reflect a bit on adult relationships. You are adults.

Here’s the bottom line question. Is it wrong to date people who aren’t Orthodox? Perhaps it’s not a matter of right or wrong. Perhaps it is not a matter of good or bad. Perhaps it is a matter of smart or not-so-smart. Dating is a process of finding a mate to marry. Well, marriage has many beautiful intersections, negotiations, and complications. For example, in-laws and finances and where we will live and sexual activity and social life, etc. It probably isn’t smart to factor in a difference of religion if it can be avoided. The real issue is children and how they will be raised. If there is a difference of religion from the get-go, children won’t come along for awhile and then it will be too late to understand what kinds of obstacles must be overcome for each partner to be fully satisfied with how the children are taught religion. As you can infer, I strongly suggest that you do your very best to limit your dating to Orthodox partners, in OCF or your home parish or someone you may meet on Real Break or wherever.

By the way, one basic question in dating is to ask yourself the question, “What kind of parent will this person make for our children?” And, please be careful that at the dating level, we typically see other persons in the very best light. When a couple gets serious, there is a natural tendency to project into the future about how the mate will be. When a couple is serious or engaged, they are rather delusional about the other. That’s OK. But, the tendency is to expect the good qualities in the partner to become better and the bad qualities to become less. Such is not the case. The good qualities in a serious relationship do enlarge as time goes on. But, so do the bad qualities. The bad qualities enlarge just as the good qualities do.

Beyond dating, we all have many different kinds of adult relationships: parents, roommate, acquaintances, classmates, adult relatives, etc. Is there any kind of guideline for this kaleidoscope of life?

"View of a kaleidoscope" - photo taken by H. Pellikka taken from WikiMedia Commons

“View of a kaleidoscope” – photo taken by H. Pellikka taken from WikiMedia Commons

To the extent that we can, we need to seek out relationships that give us strength and hope. We need to take initiatives to try to cultivate relationships that are a healing presence for us, and for whom we are a healing presence. Obviously, this isn’t easy. And, to the extent that we can, and is appropriate, we don’t need to spend undue time, if any, with those persons who take us down.

As guidelines, we need to be as authentic and as honest as we possibly can with all our relationships. The mask we wear, the persona, can block meaningful exchange of energy between others and us.  We gain vitality from meaningful relationships.

We are all imperfect and we are all enough, in God’s eyes. Yes, we are sinners but we are much more than that. We are His Beloved. He loves us as His children. Perfectionism in relationships can tarnish the quality of the relationship. Sometimes it helps to talk about our tendency towards perfectionism. Not all who read this blog have perfectionist tendencies, but I venture to say that most, most of you do. It goes with the territory of being human.

I did a podcast on Ancient Faith Radio entitled, “A Message for Youth on Sex.” The podcast goes about 45 minutes and is an expanded version of these blog posts. You can access that podcast by clicking here.

I’ll end where I began. Christ is everything. We can’t say that often enough. And, yes, the Cross is a difficult privilege. You heard my wife sing Today. We navigate all our relationships as best we can by staying in the Present Moment, by centering ourselves in stillness.

 


Dr. Rossi teaches courses in pastoral theology at SaiPhoto from SVSnt Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He has written numerous articles on psychology and religion and published a book through Ancient Faith Publications entitled, Becoming a Healing Presence. He is a licensed clinical psychologist in the state of New York. Dr. Rossi has a brief, bi–weekly podcast on Ancient Faith Radio titled Becoming a Healing Presence.

 

 

Why Do We Abstain?

Why Do We Abstain?

Today we present the second of three installments by Dr. Albert Rossi answering student’s questions on dating, marriage, and relationships. Click here to read his first installment, Why Do We Date?

For dating Orthodox college students, this is probably the central question, “Why do we abstain from sexual activity until marriage?”   Many non-Orthodox college students don’t seem to abstain. Why should I?

To begin at the beginning, God invented sex for His good reasons. So sex is sacred, good. God knows what He is doing. He made human beings as male and female with a gravitational sexual desire for each other. But it is also true that sex only fits into human life within the context of real human life. We wouldn’t consider sex without some consideration of affection and love. Sex includes warmth, respect and mutual satisfaction. Basically, sex only fits into a context of commitment.

My wife and I, married for 19 years with two children, did what married people do. We made love, that is, we had sex. When we finished making love my wife would often say, “Al, let’s have a cup of tea.” I would say, “OK.” We got up, put on bathrobes, went downstairs and sat at the dining room table. I made the tea. The overhead Tiffany lamp, which I had made, was dimmed low. The time was 11:15 PM, the outside street was quiet and the two children upstairs were asleep. Those 15 minutes of tea-drinking were among the most precious times in my marriage.

 

Image from Wikimedia

Image from Wikimedia

I knew two things for certain. I knew, existentially, that I was loved. How did I know? I knew because of what that woman did upstairs with me. She gave herself totally to me. I also knew that I could love. All I had to do was look at her face. She was a happy camper. That’s all there is to life, to love and be loved because God is love.

So, I had it all during that “cup of tea.” I didn’t say, “I love you so much that if you get metastasized bone cancer and need me to cook a macrobiotic diet for you, and go to the oncologist with and for you, and serve your every need, I will do that for you.” I didn’t say it, but that’s what happened. She would have done the same for me. That’s why I define sex as a “cup of tea.”

Sexual activity needs a context, the context of a committed Christian marriage, an eternal agreement that I will be with you forever. Then, sexual activity has purpose and meaning.   Without the lifetime-committed context, sexual activity is vapid, empty, and meaningless, although at the time it may be “fun.” Sex outside a lifelong committed marriage leads to jealousy, anger, and eventually hatred. Expectations are dashed.

Why do we abstain? The strongest answer is the truth expressed in music. I ask you to relax and listen to my wife singing The First Time.

The first time is the reason we abstain. We abstain so that the first time is with our lifetime partner, someone we can deeply cherish and who deeply cherishes us. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t be sexually active before marriage and experience the mystery of the act of making love fully. And, we can’t be cherished if we have given away our purity before marriage. Of course, we Orthodox believe in “second virginity” called repentance. But, the repentance path is much more difficult. So, please listen with your heart to my wife’s beautiful singing of The First Time.

Retaining one’s purity is not about not. Retaining one’s purity is a matter of getting an interior landscape that is as pure as can be on this planet. The Beatitudes say, “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God.” They shall see God here and now, not only in heaven. The pure in heart can see God in the mirror because they know they are doing they are doing their best to preserve their inner fragrance, their inner innocence, their inner sweetness, for Christ and for the life He wants us to have, and for the life of the future children may have.


Dr. Rossi teaches courses in pastoral theology at SaiPhoto from SVSnt Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He has written numerous articles on psychology and religion and published a book through Ancient Faith Publications entitled, Becoming a Healing Presence. He is a licensed clinical psychologist in the state of New York. Dr. Rossi has a brief, bi–weekly podcast on Ancient Faith Radio titled Becoming a Healing Presence.

Why Do We Date?

Today we present the first of three installments by Dr. Albert Rossi answering student’s questions on dating, marriage, and relationships.

I need to start where I always start, by saying the fundamental Orthodox truth, Christ is everything.

Jesus_Christ_-_Hagia_SophiaWe put everything in the context of Christ. One time a married woman said that, when she was dating, she was looking for someone who loved Christ more than her. She said she found someone and now is very happily married. I would submit her approach to dating as an approach that works. I would also say that your job is to become a person whom someone else can find, someone who loves Christ more than the potential mate. Of course, that’s hard. But, aren’t good things usually hard to go after and find?

So, why do we date? We date because Christ made us that way, to grow-up into Him, to have the peace and the joy and the happiness that we all want. We date because we want to find someone to love, cherish and give our soul and body to. We date because we want to find someone who wants the same thing. We date because we are looking for love, exclusiveness, and commitment.

We date because it is a God-given adventure, an exhilarating and sometimes terrifying risk into the unknown.

We date because we are made that way, to be vulnerable and stretched.

The purpose of dating is to look ahead to marriage, to find a person who will love our children and us in a Christ-like manner. I would now ask you to pause and listen to my wife singing The Wedding Song.

That is what dating is all about. All the good that I have in my life came through my wife. She is dead for 23 years but more alive to me than ever. We are eternally married. I am a convert to Orthodoxy through her. Our children are a gift from her. My doctorate in psychology came as a result of her suggestion. My friendships, beginning with a long friendship with Father Hopko, came through Orthodoxy and my wife’s influence. She is the healing presence in my life. Marriage extends beyond our lifetime. Marriage is eternal.

We date to look for a mate, a lifetime person to walk through life with. Interestingly, when asked what college students want most in a potential mate, 85% of all those interviewed, males and females, say they are looking for a “soul-mate.” Yes, soul-mate describes what the search means for most red-blooded American college students today. Well, I hope I don’t burst any bubbles by suggesting that I don’t agree with the idea of “soul-mate.” Soul-mate is, for me, fundamentally a narcissistic term, making myself the arbiter of how I want you to be.

When we are dating we are scoping around for someone who fits our notion of soul-mate. When we reduce the field to three or four potential soul-mates in our mind, we date to find out which one truly fits our idea and definition of someone for us. A search for a soul-mate approach allows us to define our partner. We decide if you fit into our life, our way. UGH. The problem is that no matter how perfect a soul-mate the person might seem to be, if we marry we will find out that this person has serious flaws we didn’t anticipate before marriage. She or he didn’t show us these characteristics when we were scoping for a soul-mate. We are all fallen sinners, children of Adam and Eve. So, there is no near perfect soul-mate for us to choose. Our culture has a 51% divorce rate that I think is founded on this self-centered version of marriage.

Christ will provide the perfect person for us to marry. We need to pray and stay open to His guidance and grace. The word I use as a substitute for soul-mate is sandpaper. Our marital partner is our sandpaper who will smooth our rough edges by making us more loving, more in the likeness of Christ. We only need to pray and stay open to the Lord’s guidance.


Dr. Rossi teaches courses in pastoral theology at SaiPhoto from SVSnt Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He has written numerous articles on psychology and religion and published a book through Ancient Faith Publications entitled, Becoming a Healing Presence. He is a licensed clinical psychologist in the state of New York. Dr. Rossi has a brief, bi–weekly podcast on Ancient Faith Radio titled Becoming a Healing Presence.