“Do not be afraid because of your Orthodoxy; do not be afraid because, as an Orthodox in the West, you will be often isolated and always in a small minority. Do not make compromises but do not attack other Christians; do not be either defensive or aggressive; simply be yourself.”
I live alone in a tiny former mining town in Arizona that overlooks the remains of an ancient sea. It’s part Moria, and part Rivendell; in what definitely qualifies in some seasons as Arizona’s version of the Misty Mountains. (No balrogs, thank goodness) It is a truly magnificent place, and I know in my heart that I am exactly where God needs me to be. I’m working in a career I love, doing exactly what I want to do with my life—in fact, exactly what I’ve wanted to do with my life since I turned 22 years old. But that doesn’t mean it has it’s problems.
I am also the only Orthodox Christian for at least 20 miles in any given direction, and most of that direction is on the other side of a mountain range. I work most Sundays, since my work is heavily geared towards the tourist industry, and not many tourists go to Church on Sunday. I could take the day off, but it would force me to take even longer to pay off my student loans than it already is. It gets worse.
I am the only single, datable Orthodox Christian man in my entire age group for at least 50 miles in any direction. The two nearest Orthodox communities are absolutely amazing and wonderful, but to say they have a giant population of people that I’d consider dating with would be a huge lie. All the single women in those parishes are either teenagers younger than 18, or widows older than 50, save for a single catechumen who is just barely 20 (whom I’m pretty sure isn’t single—and as a rule, I feel one should not date catechumens, period: faith should be your first focus at that point in your religious life, not dating. Just my 2 cents.)
It’s not a terribly exciting demographic for a thirty-something single Orthogent who would like a companion. It’s not a terribly exciting demographic for any single Orthodox Christian in our age group, either. Most of the people who I know have said similar things to me, or have told me similar stories, regardless of gender. (The dating situation here in Arizona is so bad, I’ve even essentially given it up as a hopeless cause.)
We’re a bunch of Ents. We’re…well, it’s kind of like we’re all Treebeard, wondering where all the entwives (or enthusbands) have gone. In fact, the more I think about this metaphor, the more I like it; partly because I’m always fond of Lord of the Rings references, but also the fact is, like ents and entwives, single Orthodox men and women often seem live in radically different places, and sometimes seem on the surface to have entirely different desires and mindsets. It’s only in major cities like Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco, where there’s a critical mass of both of us and even then, somehow we seem to end up isolating ourselves from one another.
The fact is, I’m isolated here, on my mountain, both in terms of my faith, and in terms of potential romance, like…pretty much everyone else who’s reading this. Now, we could let this grate on us, because it is supremely frustrating. We want companions. But at the same time, as frustrating as that fact is, this isolation is something that could well be beneficial. Why?
Speaking for my own self here, it forces me to be as good as I can be. I am the only example of an Orthodox Christian many people might encounter, whether locals in my mountain town, or tourists coming in to visit and drink locally-grown wine. It’s up to me to be, therefore, a good example. I have no choice; the only other option is abandoning the faith entirely, which, as we all know, is no choice at all.
Mind you, this can be a bit of a dangerous path to tread if you’re obsessed with perfectionism, so it goes without saying: beware. It also, by default, forces slight asceticism. I’m not talking about being a monk of course. Don’t rush out to buy a pillar to stand on. Living alone can be an act of asceticism, and a joyous one, because it forces you to be in close contact with God and in touch with your own soul. I can’t stress this enough—don’t go overboard with it. God has given this life unto us for the time being; and it’s hard enough as it is. We don’t need to make it any harder. The longer you spend balancing on a pillar, the easier it is to fall and make a mess of things.
The fact is a joyous single life is something that is DECIDEDLY not a bad thing, as some readers have seen in an earlier article on Orthogals about the fruits of being single. The fruits are merely different; not more bitter, as some would have you believe. It’s…kind of like pomegranates versus bananas. They’re both super tasty, but you don’t really want to mix the two together. Isolation teaches us how to be comfortable with ourselves, and really, if we aren’t comfortable with ourselves, how on earth can we honestly expect someone else to be comfortable with us also?
And yes, while in marriage the two people become subsumed to a will of humility and grace, the fact is, if you don’t know how to be humble, marriage will be difficult—judging from the marriages and couples who I see every day in the tasting room. I’ve seen couples who had one or the other ride rough-shod over the other, and then confess to me while the other is in the restroom that they’ve made mistakes in their choice of companion and feel entirely trapped. I’ve also seen some couples who are true equals, working together, and that is lovely to see—that is what marriage truly is about. The fact is, isolation, and living alone does teach humility, and that’s nothing to be sneezed at, when it will make being a companion, and living in communion with one another that much easier when and if it does happen.
How do we become less isolated? Possibly the internet. I’ve met quite a few single Orthodox women online in my age group. While I am not interested romantically in any of them, (nor are any in me, insofar as I am aware) they have become very close friends. Friends can always introduce you to other friends. Said other friends could become romantic companions (or other good friends. Both are good.) The internet is a great way for us isolated Orthodox 20-40 year olds to come down from our solitary mountaintops as a community, in the same way that your average Orthodox parish comes together every Sunday for communal prayer. We can meet, greet, and hang out over instant message.
However, the problem is there is not a terribly great community for Orthodox singles to meet online these days, and dating online can be terribly awkward. But even so, there’s another, darker question which is raised: how do we meet, since the two have such disparate lives in disparate places, far from another, and have settled in our places, and our jobs? Why leave a sure job and a cozy apartment for a married life in a world where you’re not sure you’re going to have a job when you move cross country to be with someone else?
The fact is, the world is too uncertain currently for such dramatic romantic gestures, and it’s quote possible that, since we’ve been independent for so long, we are too prone to simply use the excuse of “Oh, but someone will come here,” and possibly ignore those farther afield. We want people to come to us, and say our land is fair, to continue the ent/entwife metaphor. Neither party really wants to move to the other; and the fact is, while we claim we don’t like our isolation much, the real reason is we may be too drawn to it to escape, unless you’re dating/wedding someone in your own larger community of believers in your region. Modern American Culture breeds this individualistic identity where what we want comes first, before anything else.
So to sum up: We’re isolated from each other…since many of our circumstances often prevent us from meeting other Orthodox singles, because we are so far apart from one another. And there’s no easy way to solve this issue, unless we all start coming together, which is something that would prove to be very hard to do.
There might not be an easy answer here to solving this problem. I’m interested, therefore, in hearing what you all have to say.