A reader, an IT specialist, wrote to Foma magazine to ask for advice on how to survive in an unbelieving working environment. Father Stefan Domuschi, PhD in Theology, answered the questions raised by the reader.
Father Stefan, what should an Orthodox person do in a company, where their views and way of life do not coincide with those of others? Maybe, they should look for a company close in spirit?
In fact, it is not the first time that people come up against the situation described by the reader. Remember the recent past: the Soviet times, when talking about your faith was not acceptable at all and even dangerous. Remember ancient Christians, who lived in persecution among pagans. However, it was in that era that the Christian world turned into a real empire. How did they do that?
Despite the fact that Christians went to the Church, a separate community, in which all people were believers and pious, in society they did not seek to separate and close themselves off from people: they communicated with everyone, worked together with pagans and other non-Christians. They simply lived in a way worthy of a Christian: they did not condemn or get angry, they were always honest and ready to lend a shoulder, and that was enough for Christianity to become a world religion out of obscure, unknown, and perceived hostilely religion.
The key here is the way of life. Pagans in their community did not see the love, which they saw that Christians had: we must live and act all together. I believe this is the main thing that the author of the letter should understand.
Yes, evil company corrupts good habit (1 Corinthians 15:33). Yet it is one thing to be in a deliberately corrupting company of drinking companions, thieves, and fornicators, and another to be in a company, where the purpose of meetings is different (IT-technology). Then everything the author writes about is secondary for his colleagues. All of them got together for a different reason: to work. If you acknowledge this main goal of being in a working group, everything else will be easier to cope with.
Understand also that the world does not end with a working group. You should not necessarily put working group and social circle on the same footing. The boundaries of this circle may be much wider. However, it is important to find the environment that meets your internal needs. At work you work, but you communicate in a group of people close in spirit. This may be a community of parishioners at your church or a company, in which people are practicing Christianity. You will feel the support and find an outlet: you will know that you are not the only one working in a group, where communication is reduced to vulgar jokes and anecdotes.
One of the most important ideas of the Book of Wisdom is the idea that those, who communicate with the corrupt and stupid, will become corrupt and stupid. Yet it does not mean that Solomon calls not to talk, communicate or cooperate with such people. I think that he meant the emphasis: where your communication is genuine, real and where you just meet people on business.
What if a staff is the one, where all vicious interests are stronger than work objectives?
Perhaps you expect me to say something like “the world is rotten and stained with sin: run, brother, from this office, look for Orthodox IT pros”, but it is the wrong path. On this path you can save yourself, but you will not learn to live in a real world. A believer must do this in order to bear evidence to the good.
How to live in such a group?
I think that even in a company of unbelieving cynics you should not distance yourself from everyone, “climb into a cave” and from there sometimes teach them how to live. Think, what does society expect from a person today? Professionalism, the ability to do everything acutely and honestly, not to fail, and in a company: to laugh at a good joke, share common interests, and make conversation. This is what every Orthodox Christian can do. They are not required of doing anything else.
What if you and your colleagues have no common interests and even more: their interests disgust you?
If your colleagues are discussing a bad, vulgar movie, a “slasher”: say that you do not watch such movies. This would not mean that you extoll yourself: everyone has a different temperament, different interests, so it is quite natural that hobbies and ways of passing the time do not coincide. They can answer with a snort or a laugh, but it will not disgrace you.
At the same time, I am sure that in any company it is possible to find something in common: for example, you can discuss a modern movie or book, which everyone has seen or read. It may be a detective, an action, but you should try to find in it something kind and good that you can learn.
Well, if it is impossible to maintain a conversation: leave the room, focus on your work, put on headphones. Laugh at normal jokes and when it comes to everything else make it clear that you do not like it. The main thing is not to extoll yourself, not to behave arrogantly.
What should a person do in situations when it is impossible to evade the question or walk off, when they directly ask you for your opinion, send unworthy jokes to general chat rooms, force you to attend birthday parties?
People often come to me to confession, and complain and repent that they do not want to gossip, but people ask for their opinion and they have to engage in a conversation. However, here it is necessary to look for a middle ground. How to do this? Not to slander, not to gloat, and not to become a source of gossip. You can tell your opinion, but do not make it personal and do not go into details or just evade the issue or answer monosyllabically.
This also applies to work chat rooms, where people send messages and images of different content. Leaving this chat is impossible, because important issues and jokes are sent there in a jumble. To say “do not send this” means to alienate. You can simply delete these messages without reading or looking at a picture. Birthdays can be safely celebrated together, but in a decent Christian way. If you are going to go to a café and have dinner together, there is nothing wrong. It is different if the purpose of a birthday celebration will be something else, sinful. Then refuse, because it all depends on you.
Won’t they consider me a prude if I keep refusing something?
Here, as I have said, everything depends on you. There may arise many controversial questions, in which it is necessary to strive to maintain the internal integrity and attunement to good. It will be impossible to reconcile to many things, so you should be prepared that you will be considered a prude and you will have to become a black sheep in some matters.
So the way of a black sheep is inevitable?
I think it is also about neophytism. When a person becomes a churchgoer, they want to change their life radically, to give up everything secular, and to cut off communications with friends. The main thing here is not to overdo it. Such radical measures can lead not only to the way of a black sheep, but also to a downright confrontation, especially if you start teaching or denouncing someone.
So how should you treat these people? How not to get irritated?
Love the sinner and do not love a sin: this is the Christian formula that should help you. Look for something good in a person, approach them with attention and care. The main thing is not to close yourself off, and interact with people.
Should people talk about their faith in a company?
There is no need to tell about this specifically: many people have a negative attitude towards the Church and will regard you in the same way, having learnt about your faith. Therefore, it is important to first establish yourself as a normal person and not some fanatic or agitator, and then talk with people about your faith. This is a better path. I am deeply convinced that imposition of your opinion and unwelcome confession only irritate others and do not arouse interest in the faith.
Yet if there is a situation when your opinion as a Christian is important, then be honest and objective, explain simply and clearly, and in response to criticism show that if there are drawbacks, they do not deprive the Church of the main thing – God. It is important not to try preaching morality and to give something to read or send a link to an essential article in time.
Maybe, it is better to hide your faith?
No, neither should you hide your faith specifically, nor show it deliberately. Firstly, you need to make sure whether your sign of the cross is appropriate, for example. It does not mean that you need to give up praying at work: you can pray silently. Yet you have to be aware of how others would perceive your actions. If a colleague is sitting near you and you know that they are an ardent opponent of the Church, your prayer will only give them a reason for mockery. So why incite anger and aggression in people?
But if a person feels that they cannot handle it, if the situation at work puts emotional pressure on them and they cannot but get irritated? What to do then? Should they keep tolerating it?
Everyone defines the limit of their patience for themselves. For example, in the Soviet years people had to work in factories and plants, where everyone around could mock the faith. Yet they did not resign: otherwise, they would not have been able to feed their family. So, if you cannot find another job, you should endure it just like New Martyrs did. However, do not accept, do not agree to, and do not get involved in sinful things. Also, start looking for another job, with a prospect for the future.
The second way out of the problem is that if you feel that your spiritual balance is disturbed, change your job. Otherwise, it can spiritually harm you. With such problems, it is better to turn to a particular priest and tell him in detail about the difficulties of your special case. Besides a priest, you can go to an Orthodox psychologist. They will understand you as a believer and will help you find a way to solve the problem.
So how to maintain contacts at work without giving up your religious beliefs?
Here the ancient Christians can serve as an example of how to behave. They did not have a thousand years of history and patristic literature, to which they could refer. Yet they had a commandment: be wise as serpents and harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16), let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16) and do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6).
They lived in accordance with these instructions: they tried not to come into the spotlight, but to preach so that it would be fruitful: they opposed some people and evaded disputes with others, while striving for the greatest benefit, not for theirs, but that of their neighbors.
It is essential to gain wisdom and experience to behave in the same way so that people could see a normal and open person in you, who neither encourages in gossip and vulgar jokes, nor walks sullenly in black clothes. It is a long and difficult path to learn living in a secular society in such a way that you would not impose on anyone, but at the same time you would observe your internal principles.
Translated by Julia Frolova