Real Life for Teens:
There are countless sayings, poems and songs telling us we need healthy relationships with other people to have a joyful life: “it takes two,” “one is the loneliest number,” “no man is an island”…the list goes on. At the same time, the overwhelming number of divorces in our society and tons of books and programs providing “relationship advice” demonstrate that, while we know we need other people, we often fail to build and maintain these desperately needed relationships.
What does it take to have a relationship—whether with friends or family—that gives others joy, and brings us joy in return?
The joyful life is, quite simply, the “good life”—it is the life all of us really want. St. Benedict of Nursia describes the “good life” like this, “What are the rules for living a good life? In the first place to love the Lord with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul and with all one’s strength. Then, to love one’s neighbor as oneself” (see Matthew 22:37-39; Mark 12:30-31; Luke 10:27). We saw in previous units the way in which our joy is increased—or decreased—by how much we love God; we now see that we also grow in joy as we grow in love for others.
But what does it mean to love others? The Holy Apostle Paul gives us a great description of how to build and maintain joyful, transforming relationships in his epistle to the Romans:
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion. Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. (Romans 12:9-18)
This is a long list, but the attitudes and behaviors mentioned by the apostle can be grouped together like this: healthy, joyful relationships involve an appropriate view of ourselves, being supportive and giving, and being patient and forgiving.
First, we need an appropriate view of ourselves, and this can be summed up in one phrase: it’s not about you. We’ll talk more about this in the next unit, but here we can tie it into the idea of vision—is your focus on others, or on yourself? An out-of-focus life is always directed on ourselves, while a joyful life is always focused on God and others. When your focus is entirely on your own desires, you suffer from what St. Paul describes in Romans 12:16 as setting “your mind on high things.” I like how Eugene Peterson puts it, “Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.”
When we think too highly of ourselves—and thus, badly of others—we’ve been stabbed with what St. Niketas Stithatos describes as “a three-pronged barb heated and forged by the demons out of vanity, presumption and arrogance.” Fortunately, he points out that there is hope for those of us with such a spiritual problem, adding, “Yet those who dwell under the protection of the God of heaven detect it easily and shatter its prongs, for through their humility they rise above such vices and find repose in the tree of life.” St. John Chrysostom explains how this works when he says, “For nothing is so acceptable to God as to number one’s self with the last. This is a first principle of all practical wisdom. For he that is humbled, and bruised in heart, will not be vainglorious, will not be wrathful, will not envy his neighbor, will not harbor any other passion.”
An appropriate view of ourselves leads to the second quality of healthy and joyful relationships: such relationships are supportive and giving. The key to joyful relationships isn’t what we can get out of them, but rather what we can give and put into them. St. Gregory the Theologian encourages us to give to others: “Help nature to the best of your ability, honor the freedom of creation, protect your species from dishonor, come to its aids in sickness, rescue it from poverty…Seek to distinguish yourself from others only in your generosity. Be like gods to the poor, imitating God’s mercy. Humanity has nothing so much in common with God as the ability to do good.”
We should not only be generous when sharing with others, but also thankful that we can assist others when they need help; we should not, as Ambrosiaster says, behave “as if somebody was twisting (your) arm to do it.” The attitude with which we give to others influences not only our own joy, but also the joy of those whom we help—notice what St. Isaac the Syrian says, “If you give something to one in need, let the cheerfulness of your face precede your gift, and comfort his sorrow with kind words. When you do this, by your gift the gladness of his mind surpasses even the needs of his body.”
Being supportive is particularly important when another person is suffering. Samuel Taylor Coleridge provides a wonderful image of friendship when he writes, “Friendship is a sheltering tree;” when life’s problems make us feel like we’re burning in the hot sun, good friends make us feel like we’re resting in the shade. St. Maximus the Confessor puts it like this, “A true friend is one who in times of trial calmly and imperturbably suffers with his neighbor the ensuing afflictions, privations and disasters as if they were his own.”
Finally, healthy and joyful relationships depend upon being patient and forgiving. This patience and forgiveness goes beyond simply putting up with a person’s irritating habits—it includes, when necessary, forgiving the most hateful attitudes and savage behavior. St. Kosmas Aitolos shows us the lengths to which we may be called to be forgiving when he says, “If a man insults me, kills my father, my mother, my brother, and then gouges out my eye, as a Christian it is my duty to forgive him. We who are pious Christians ought to love our enemies and forgive them. We ought to offer them food and drink, and entreat God for their souls. And then we should say: ‘My God, I beseech Thee to forgive me, as I have forgiven my enemies.’”
This seems shocking—how can forgiving such hatred and violence ultimately bring us joy? St. John of Kronstadt explains, “God is long-suffering and merciful to you: this you experience many times every day. Be long-suffering and merciful to your brethren, also fulfilling the words of the Apostle, who thus speaks of love before everything: ‘Love suffers long and is kind’ (1 Corinthians 13:4). You desire that the Lord should rejoice you by His love, rejoice on your part the hearts of others by your tender love and kindness.”
There are two important things we should realize from all this. First, it is clear that joy involves others—we can only fully experience and grow in joy when we are in joyful, transforming relationships with God and others. Secondly, even when we are talking about our relationships with others, we must always remember that God is at the center of these relationships—as St. Paul points out, truly Christian relationships are “fervent in spirit, serving the Lord” (Romans 12:11). Christian relationships are joyful because, as St. Kosmas says, “Fortunate is the man who has these two loves in his heart, that for God and that for his brethren…Whoever has blessed love, firstly for God and secondly for his fellow Christian, becomes worthy of receiving the Holy Trinity in his heart.”
The joy we experience is dependent not only on how we think and act, but also upon the character of the people with whom we choose to have relationships—building relationships with people who have a good character should result in healthy and joyful relationships, whereas building relationships with people whose character is bad will make it far more difficult to grow in joy.
St. John of Karpathos warns against developing relationships with people whose lives are opposed to the Christian life: “Never form a close friendship with someone who enjoys noisy and drunken feasts, or who likes telling dirty stories, even though he may have been a monk for many years. Do not let his filth defile you; do not fall under the influence of people who are unclean and uncircumcised in heart.”
Evagrius the Solitary adds that, in addition to avoiding people whose attitudes and lifestyles will bring us down, we should also develop relationships with other people whose lives are truly Christian:
The friends that you do have should be of benefit to you and contribute to your way of life. Avoid associating with crafty or aggressive people, and do not live with anyone of that kind but shun their evil purposes; for they do not dwell close to God or abide with Him. Let your friends be men of peace, spiritual brethren, holy fathers.
The importance of friends in helping us to be faithful Christians can be seen in the proverb we read during Friday Vespers in the fifth week of Great Lent, “Let a friend be with you on every occasion, and let brethren be useful in necessities, for they are begotten for this reason” (Proverbs 17:19). One of the reasons Christians can be joyful is that true friends add to our joy and help it to grow.