Being Fully Human, christian, difficult people, emotional, faith, perspective, Relationship

Best Tools for Dealing with Difficult People

Difficult PeopleEarlier this week, I met with a team from C3 Exchange in Grand Haven to train them in Management by Strengths (MBS). This is a great tool for improving relationships – at home, at work, at your faith community, or anywhere.

As you think about your experiences with people, would you say that there are people you agree with and others you put up with? The people we agree with at work tend to be the people we like and trust – and the basis of trust is understanding.

When there is a breakdown in understanding, we usually don’t see it that way. We don’t go around saying we misunderstand people, instead we tend to say I understand him – he’s a jerk! Or I understand her – she’s an idiot! We tend to say strong things about people we don’t understand and usually those are not very positive things.

Change Perspective

So a huge step we can take toward improving our relationships is to seek to understand the people we interact with. And the basis of understanding is communication. Right away we have a problem because people say things their way and we hear them our way. Communication is based on our ability to listen to the other person and to actually hear what they are saying. It means listening to them from their point of view.

Which is a huge challenge because nothing affects how we hear things as much as our own point of view. If my point of view gets turned sideways and my point of view gets in control of me, it is harder to understand you. I need to get a good understanding of why I think and feel the way I do and then have an appreciation of why you think and feel the way you do. The minute I do that, I am going to tear down this barrier.

We tend to judge and evaluate everything we see and hear in terms of ourselves, which is fine – but “I” need to be able to look around and see how the other person sees and judges things because it is just as fine. Our goal in relationships is to see from the other person’s point of view, to get in agreement and get things accomplished.

MBS looks at 4 basic temperaments or 4 common points of view so that we can think about our own natural way of relating to others and the ways in which others might naturally try to relate to us. Knowing these different styles of communication can go a long way to improving our relationships – but they don’t fix everything.

Exhale

People will still annoy us and there are times we will hold our breath in frustration and bafflement. So the most important thing we can do at home, at work, and in all settings is to remember to breathe. Deeply and slowly. Breathing keeps us centered, grounded and focused. Most of us are pretty good at breathing in. What we need to remember is to breathe out, fully and completely.

Owning the Shadow

Self-introspection is another wonderful tool. What is it that annoys me about this person? Usually what annoys us the most about someone else is something we don’t like about our selves. If we can be look objectively at our reactions to others and be brutally honest in our own self assessment we can discover something about our shadow, truths about ourselves we have been denying, so that we can name and reclaim those parts of us we have tried to get rid of.

See the Divine

As people of faith we have yet another tool as well. We believe in the Divine that lives within each of us. Business Author and Social Entrepreneur Carmel McConnell offers this advice: “Mentally acknowledge that everyone is in transition to perfection, some further down the road than others. This helps you to let go of the desire to judge, blame and snipe.”

Picture in your own mind someone you’ve had a hard time dealing with – it could be someone you’re struggling with right now or it could be someone you’ve interacted with in the past. Picture them and then see in them the Spirit that lives in us all. Take a deep breath, exhale and then love them with the Spirit that lives in you.

Namaste

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Being Fully Human, change, Christian Mysticism, Compassion, Heresy, Heretic, Humility, Interfaith, pluralism, Progressive Christianity, Spiritual

Tension in the Tank

Tension in the TankI write today with a message of tension. Now I know a great many of you woke up this morning and thought to yourself, “I can’t wait to go online because then I will feel more tension in my life!” Am I right? Well, not if your images of tension are all negative – and so often they are. So my challenge today is to convince you of the need for positive tension in our lives.

 When this country was still relatively new, fishermen out east started shipping cod across land by freezing it first. But when it arrived it had lost its flavor. So they tried again, sending it live in salt water. Now when it arrived not only was it tasteless, it was also mushy. So they tried one more time, shipping it with its natural predator the catfish. The catfish chased the cod all over the tank. When it arrived, not only was the flesh of the fish firm, it was also tastier than ever. This is the phenomenon of “Tension in the Tank” and it serves as a metaphor for many aspects of our life, including our spiritual lives. 

When there is no tension, there is the opportunity for complacency. There is no need to act. The result is soggy fish or a soggy life. When there is no tension, the stage is set for us to feel secure no matter how poorly we perform or how little we do. On the other hand, we can find ourselves at times in the grips of crippling tension, living in fear and insecurity about our livelihood, our relationships, our possessions and our physical needs.

The spiritual journey offers us another option: a life that is challenging and yet rewarding beyond measure, a life of accountability. It is in our spirituality that we are challenged to do our best. To not take what we’ve received for granted. To take risks. To set our goals high and to believe they will be met. It’s as if we swim with catfish, but with the confidence that we will arrive whole at our destination.

What are the sources of tension in your life that keep your faith fresh and vital?

A Conservative Country 

One of them, I have to guess, is living in the United States where we seem to be having an upsurge of Fundamentalism. Here in West Michigan I am perpetually challenged to be compassionate and understanding toward those who truly believe they owe it to me to let me know I am going to hell. When I was at seminary I had a fellow student who actually took offense at the idea that God could actually love everyone! That was one of the first indications that I was, in fact, in the wrong place!

And of course, so are you. As a spiritual person, you really don’t belong here at all. Which is why you are so infinitely needed here. Right here in this place of tension. We all have had times when the Spirit has broken through to add a little tension to our life.

For me, those moments began when I was quite young. I was welcomed into this world by Lutheran parents. Parents who brought me to church to be baptized at one week of age because the pastor was leaving and they wanted to slip me in quick before he drove away. When I grew older I attended public school. For a while I thought I was incredibly fortunate. Here I was living in the best place in the whole wide world learning the one true religion in the whole world. I was amazingly blessed. But by the time I was in third grade I started wondering about things. Here I was being told at school about those terrible Russians that I was supposed to be afraid of. And for some inexplicable reason it started to dawn on me that Russian kids right at that same moment were in school being taught how terrible and frightening I was.

Then I started to think about those kids who lived in the most remote parts of China, who didn’t know about Jesus and would die without ever knowing Jesus. How come I was so lucky and they were not? What weird twist of universal fate left me in the most envious position in all the world and left others consigned to hell? I didn’t even know the words yet, but that was when I became a heretic and a pluralist. I realized that those kids were being raised in another tradition and that I had no more right to tell them they were wrong and try to take that away from them than they had to try to take my beliefs and understandings away from me.

The Path of Pluralism 

I still feel the same way. I haven’t met anyone yet who shares my exact same concept of reality, my version of Truth as best I have crafted it to date. And hopefully, neither have you. Because if you have then chances are one of you has not done their own thinking.

I am very proud to be a heretic and I like to be in the company of other heretics. Because I believe that without our own heretical insights and impulses our spiritual journey becomes tasteless and soggy, if not stagnant and dead.

If we are truly caught up in the mystery then we have to discover at some point that no one can give us the answers, because the answers are always inside of us. Truth can be pointed to, suggested, guessed at, but we cannot for all of our attempts ever fully find the words to express the great mystery of our existence. And so we speak in parable and metaphor, not in doctrinal certainties.

Which means we fully embrace the faith journey of all spiritual traditions as equally valid and rewarding, recognizing that we move to a place close enough to God that the distinctions we draw between our faith experiences and others become more and more important as something to raise and up celebrate and less and less important as something to divide and separate us.

Father Thomas Keating reflects that religions are probably supposed to be the starting point of the spiritual journey. Pluralism and the interfaith movement are not about detaching ourselves or uprooting ourselves from our own spiritual history and tradition. In fact, mystics have very rarely separated themselves from their historical religions. Without changing a single letter, they came to understand the meaning of these religions more deeply. Dorothee Sollee writes that, “It isn’t suspicion that turns people away from the church; it is hunger that drives them to seek help wherever their dignity and their right to have a life are being respected.”

If I have to define myself at all, I say that I am a Christian Mystic Taoist. Mysticism is the direct experience of God. The path of the mystics is toward a transforming union with God. Mystical experiences happen in every culture and every faith tradition, among people of all different backgrounds and every walk of life. The question to ask when exploring mystical experiences is not “Who are these people? How are they special?” The question is “What kind of culture honors these experiences and which destroys them?”

For example, childhood is ripe for mystical experiences of awe and amazement and wonder. Among the Native indigenous people of North America, a mother will begin a conversation with her children by asking, “What did you dream?” In my non-indigenous North American home I was always more likely to lead with, “How was school? Do you have homework?” When our dreams and visions are not honored, they tend to become meaningless, embarrassing or simply forgotten.

We Are All Mystics 

The truth is that all of us our mystics and most of us have experienced heightened sensations of awareness or unity or being grasped by the certainty of knowing Spirit’s presence in our life – often at very young ages. But in our haste to leave childhood behind, we may end up labeling those experiences as crazy or silly or the product of an overactive imagination.

The trivialization of life is perhaps the strongest anti-mystical force among us.

To have a mystical experience is to have an altered state of consciousness derived from an encounter with the divine reality. This state is referred to as illumination, enlightenment, awakening or the union of the soul with God. Mysticism is really no different from the promises many religions describe in the language of being made whole, liberation, the peace of God, coming home, and redemption. But mysticism deals with these experiences differently, by lifting them out of doctrine and freeing them for feeling, experience and certainty.

Mysticism claims that it is in existential experience, in the actual feeling of it, that we finally know what grace is all about. And to feel grace is to know ecstasy. Mystics claim a relationship with God based on love that arises not because of the demands of powerful institutions or of God, but out of utter freedom. Ken Wilber describes a mystic as one who does not see God as an object, but one who is immersed in God as an atmosphere.

Aldous Huxley describes three gates into mysticism: “We can begin at the bottom, with practice and morality; or at the top, with a consideration of metaphysical truths; or, finally, in the middle, at the focal point where mind and matter, action and thought have their meeting place in human psychology.”

The lower gate is preferred by teachers like Gautama Buddha and those who focus on practices that increase concentration, like yoga, breathing techniques and spiritual disciplines. The upper gate is sought by philosophers and theologians who prefer speculative thought. And the middle gate is the way of spiritual religion exemplified by the Sufi’s of Islam and Christian contemplatives, like Thomas Merton who said we become contemplatives when God discovers God’s self in us.

A spiritual life is ultimately a life of tension because it means choosing to believe in a different reality: one that believes in miracles and promises and the need to reach out in love and compassion toward everyone – even those we feel the least loving and compassionate toward. A reality that embraces all faiths as equal and valid and challenges a society that favors only one path, particularly here in conservative America where religious discrimination is the norm and even tolerance can be difficult to come by.

Beyond Tolerance 

Fred Stella talks about the stages of interfaith relationships that begin with tolerance – which essentially means I will let you live. Even in places where ecumenical and interfaith dialogue are occurring, the encounters are often more like a first date. I’ll make my best impression and only show you the really good things about me while trying to decide if I like the little bit of you your willing to reveal. It’s all very pleasant and we feel good afterward, but we never get into places of depth or dare to tread where conflict might exist.

First date relationships are a start, but they will never change fear, hatred or violence. For that we need communication, connection and collaboration. Our communication needs to be on a much deeper and a much more vulnerable level. Our connections have to lead to genuine relationships in which people of other faiths have actual names and faces. Our collaboration has to move us out of our own comfort zone into a space we may have never entered before.

I attended a conference once where I heard a Hindu Christian speak. He suggested that the church’s approach to other traditions has been to embrace a “Theology of Hostility.” Many of you have experienced the consequences of this approach personally. And now those of us who are no longer part of mainstream Christianity have to be careful not to follow that example.

Genuine engagement with others means that instead of explaining ourselves in contrast to others, as superior, better or above others, we begin articulating who we are in a way that makes sense to the other and invites them in rather than shutting them out. We begin by approaching people of all traditions and beliefs with genuine humility, eager to share not what we have been taught but what we have experienced to be true.

And we are wary of the shadow. Because heresy does have a shadow side. It does tend to want to establish its own right thinking – declaring itself right and above reproach. When we end up thinking WE’RE right and everybody else is WRONG, we only perpetuate an ideology of hostility, pitting one set of human understandings against another.

The spiritual journey is not the practice of mindlessly repeating everything we have been taught. Nor is it the practice of disagreeing with everything for the sake of disagreement. The spiritual journey is about opening ourselves up to truth we do not yet have the words to describe or the language to share. Until finally we can move beyond this silly state of us vs them and the construction of dualities that require barriers, boxes and boundaries.

The Promise of Tension 

Today as Spiritual people, we should find ourselves regularly standing in a place of tension, torn between two different worlds, two different value systems. Because Spirit does not call us into a place of relief. Spirit calls us very directly, clearly and undeniably into a place of tension. Which is why you are about your work at Spirit Space. You have heard that call and against all odds are pursuing that path into the heart of the Divine. It isn’t easy and it isn’t fast.

The promise of tension, as much as we long for it to go away, is often exactly what it takes to stir us to do the work we are in fact called to do; prepares us in ways we cannot imagine to serve our world and to serve each other, and to always be prepared for the Spirit to move us in an expected direction as our own heresies change and evolve. For as T.H. Huxley said: “It is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies and end as superstitions.”  

So my hope for you is that there will be more tension in your life and that you will think of me, although the image isn’t particularly flattering, as your visiting catfish! For it is the challenges, trials and tribulations we face as we answer the call, the catfish we encounter on our spiritual journey that add seasoning, flavor and texture to our lives.

Namaste!

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Being Fully Human, Compassion, disability, hope, marginalized, mental illness, neurodiversity, normalcy, perspective, Relationship, stigma, worthiness

Neurodiversity

NeurodiversityIf you don’t know something that you want to know, what do you do? If you are conducting research on something, where do you look? Do you make a B-line for the library? Do you grab the appropriate letter from the set of encyclopedias? Or do you turn on your computer and do a Google search?

Google has become a whole new way of life. We now have all the world’s knowledge literally at our fingertips. The most powerful research tool ever to be constructed by human hands, the most impressive feat of human ingenuity and collective wisdom. And it shall be called… “google?”

What the heck is a google? Well, Google got its name from a 9-year-old nephew of a mathematician who was asked to invent a name for a number with 100 zeroes. He came up with a googol. How do I know that? That’s right, I Googled it!

Names are important. It turns out that when you blindfold people, a rose by any other name does not smell as sweet!

One of the most liberating things I ever did was to change my name. Having been raised in home in which my relationship with my father was strained at best and experiencing unhealthy marriages that did not end well, I had accumulated a long string of names. Then in the spring of 2010 I petitioned the court and dropped all of the extra baggage. Lee had been my middle name. And now, for the first time, I felt the congruence of my name actually proclaiming who I knew myself in my limited ego existence to be. Names are carry a lot of emotional weight and they are critical for communication.  

 My son Alex came home all excited one day from school. He was 5 or 6 six years old. He said, “Mom, I just found out that me and Alex Jones and Alex Smith all have the same middle name!” “Really?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, “Xander.”

Two weeks ago I shared with you news about Alex that is not as cute and funny. He, like nearly 1 in every 5 Americans is struggling with mental illness. A number of you have shared with me since that announcement your own struggle or a family member’s struggle or a friend’s struggle with mental illness. That’s the politically correct name – mental illness. And it’s better than many of the common pejorative names we toss around haphazardly like psycho, schizo and freak. But today I want to introduce what might be a new name in your vocabulary: Neurodiversity.

The Need for Names

I first heard the name on NPR about a month ago so I investigated it to learn more. How did I do that? Yes, I Googled it! I Googled Neurodiversity and this is what I learned. Neurodiversity is a movement to destigmatize mental illness and to recognize that brains are every bit as diverse as any other aspect of life. As we wrap up a month of talking about Diversity, I think it is more than appropriate to recognize that the mentally ill remain squarely in society’s camp of the marginalized and misunderstood.

We talked a couple of months ago about words. Our words are basically placeholders for ideas and concepts. The names are a special kind of word because they contain a whole collection of ideas and concepts.  

Names lead us to making assumptions about people – some of which are clearly true and some of which are undoubtedly false. And while we know assumptions often get us in trouble, we also need them if we want to get past the first five minutes of our day without being paralyzed by analysis. Our labels help us to make quick decisions about how we should respond or behave in any particular situation or place. But we also use our labels to maintain the status quo so that we aren’t challenged to think beyond what we have already observed.

Names become a tool for dehumanizing people when we don’t want to put forth the effort of understanding them. If they are *that* then I know enough about them to know I don’t want to really know anything about them. Why would I let a silly thing like facts get in the way of altering my world view?  

I had a psychology professor who used the example of “woman driver.” You’re driving along and somebody in another car does something stupid. You look. If they are a woman, you say to yourself “woman driver.” If they are a man, you say to yourself “hmph, drives just like a woman.”

Know what I’ve noticed the last couple of years? Seems like whenever someone commits an act of horrible violence, the media immediately ask if they are schizophrenic. If they aren’t, then they acted like a schizophrenic – despite the fact that violence is not even a symptom of schizophrenia. Think John Nash. Think Jack Kerouac.  

Which brings me back to the name neurodiversity as opposed to mental illness. I like it this name because it suggests that people are not diseased or broken – they are different. Thomas Armstrong, the man who I heard on NPR, argues that we don’t say that a cala lilly has petal deficit disorder, we value it for its own intrinsic worth. Similarly, we need to approach mental illness and developmental disabilities from an entirely different perspective that challenges us to see the intrinsic worth of every human being and every human brain.

What is Normal? 

Neurodiversity proponents say that schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other psychiatric conditions may have given our ancestors an evolutionary advantage because they allowed a few people to think outside of the box. When no one else could come up with an answer, it may have been these creative thinkers that pointed to another way. This theory, which emerged about a decade ago, challenges us to celebrate the differences between our brains and moves us away from our almost instinctive focus on problems and deficits.

When we look at the whole make up of humanity, we see a range of different thinking that’s made our progress in science and the creative arts possible.  Picture a bell curve of humanity. To neurodiversity proponents, people who are disabled are not sick or broken, they are merely at the edges of the bell curve.

This approach strikes at the heart of the medical model that focuses on defects and deficits. Neurodiversity doesn’t ignore the struggles many people have to live functional lives, but it says we need to give at least equal attention to the assets, advantages and abilities of people who are simply wired differently.

The name “neurodiverse” tears down the false wall of separation that divides the “normal” from the not “normal” and calls into question the idea of normalcy itself. It allows us to see different ways of thinking and processing the world as natural variations instead of seeing people as bad, broken or in need of repair. To proponents of neurodiversity, the idea of a “cure” can actually feel like an attack on their being. This is particularly true in the autistic community where advocates believe autism is part of who they naturally are and who reject the idea that there is some other hidden self within. One autistic man writes that trying to cure him of autism is as detestable an effort as trying to cure someone of being gay.

A Society that Makes Accommodations

When I worked at Kandu I helped people with barriers to employment find competitive employment. Kandu and similar organizations are not in the business of fixing people or changing them into something else. They are in the business of identifying strengths and finding ways people can use those strengths to succeed in society. They are also in the business of identifying accommodations that society needs to make to help them achieve that success. 

Now none of this is to romanticize the functional limitations of people on the edges of the Bell curve. I don’t propose stopping treatment or research in the field. But I am suggesting we stop looking at people as diagnoses that need to be fixed and start looking at how as a culture we can make accommodations so that everyone can survive and even find a place to thrive without having to be made into some imagined social ideal of normal.

When we name people as defective, disordered and ill, we build a wall that implicitly states that the rest of us are normal or whole, ignoring the fact that we are all flawed and imperfect. We make people into “them” and “other” in a way that might sound sympathetic and compassionate, but that also reinforces judgment and fear.

We ignore the reality that we all struggle with deficiencies and we all have aspects of our lives that we are working to improve or overcome.   

The real value of the neurodiversity movement may be in reminding us that we all experience joy and sorrow, pain and hardship, challenges and opportunities and that a humanizing society is one in which we are all given the chance to make the best of what we have been dealt.

 Renaming mental illness as Neurodiversity is a start. A change of name and our entire outlook and set of assumptions can change – because it forces us to change our perspective. A change of name can open us up to see and explore other truths that are out there just waiting to be discovered – and waiting to be shared. I mentioned two weeks ago that we are not traveling alone. We are on a journey together, learning how to live together in all of our wonderful diversity – including neurodiversity.  We each have so much to learn and so much more we can teach.   

These days we also have the resources of the entire world at our disposal. That wasn’t always the case. I heard a story just the other day that I’d like to use to close on chuckle. Two people were sitting on a couch together sharing a snack in the days before Google was invented. One said, “I just thought of something I’d like to know more about.” The other replied, “That’s a damn shame.”                                                 

Namaste

 

 

 

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Being Fully Human, boundaries, Buddha, change, Compassion, Jesus, love, Relationship, Respect, self help, Spiritual

My Enemy, My Self

the enemy withinThe preacher had just delivered a highly emotional 30-minute sermon on the topic of forgiveness. When he finished he asked how many people were ready to forgive their enemies. About half of the hands went up. Not enough. So he preached for another 15 minutes then asked again how many people were ready to forgive all their enemies. A few more hands went up. Not enough. So he preached on for another 20 minutes. By now people were getting awfully restless and it was getting to be lunchtime so when he asked how many people were willing to forgive their enemies every hand in the place went up – except one. It was old widow Miller in the back of the church. So the pastor asked her to stand up. “Mrs. Miller,” he asked, “why aren’t you willing to forgive your enemies?” She answered, “I don’t have any.” Well now, the preacher was might impressed so he asked her to come to the front of the church. “How old are you Mrs. Miller?” he asked. “I am 91,” she answered. “Well now, Mrs. Miller, can you tell the congregation how it is that you have lived to be 91 years old and don’t have a single enemy?” “Yes,” she replied, “I outlived all of them.”  

How about you? Any enemies still living? And when I say “enemies” I’m not implying that there are people you truly want to see harmed or even dead – although if there are those people in your life they certainly qualify. But I’m also talking about those people who make your life more difficult by being in it, the people who are hard to be around, who drive you crazy. I’m also talking about those people in your life who seem to have it out for you. And on a less personal note, I also want to include people and whole groups of people who seem intent on destroying your environment, attacking your life style, or ruining your country – from within or from without. And if you’re still just too nice a person to be willing to think of anybody as an “enemy” then consider the fact that somebody somewhere thinks you are an enemy of theirs.

We are not perfect and we do not live in a perfect world. Hence we join all of humanity in recognizing that people have been making each other miserable for thousands of years. We all drive somebody crazy – even if we have no idea we’re doing it. Of course, we don’t see it that way. We think our behavior is normal or justified or somebody else’s fault. 

Frankly, it’s a lot easier to focus on someone else’s actions than our own. Because to admit how our behavior affects others is to identify in our self the very things we condemn in others. In fact it is precisely that which annoys us in other people that really bothers us the most about our self. That’s why it stands out so much to us in the people we don’t like – we’ve attempted to disown that part of us so now we see it reflected in the people who drive us crazy. Dr. Mark Rosen wrote the book Thank You for Being Such a Pain.” In it he writes, “To understand our encounters with difficult people, we eventually need to accept the fact that we are them.” 

It’s also possible that difficult people don’t just show up randomly in our lives but that we find them when we need to grow and develop. Our adversaries may be some of our best teachers, showing up at just the right time with the characteristics that match exactly the places within us that need learning and healing. At least some of our enemies just might offer a spiritual “kick in the butt.”  

So if we’re essentially stuck with enemies and difficult people, how are we supposed to do deal with them? According to both Buddha and Jesus we’re supposed to love them. 

Love Your Enemy, Avoid the Trap

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” It is true. Love is transformational. There are all kinds of stories and movies about difficult people being redeemed by the power of love. And some of us love the idea that OUR love especially has the power to bring about THAT kind of change. Wow – we could be so special, so important. But when we decide someone else’s transformation is our responsibility, we have fallen into a trap. 

There are three major problems here. First of all, we can get really messed up thinking that love means allowing ourselves to be mistreated and abused. Each of us deserves to be treated with respect and we will never help anyone be a better or happier person by allowing our own safety or emotional well-being to be compromised. Next, you’re setting yourself up to be more hurt in the long run. Because to base our well-being on someone else’s behavior gives our enemies incredible power over us. Finally, it’s just not a very realistic goal. We have a hard enough time making ourselves be the people we want to be, let alone accomplishing that feat with someone else! In short, if your primary strategy for dealing with a difficult person in your life is getting them to change, I’d suggest that you give it up right now because odds are it will never work. 

The complicating factor in the teaching of love is that while we are told to love our enemies, we aren’t given very specific instruction on how to do it. I mean it’s relatively easy to “say” we love our enemies and on a spiritual level I imagine most of us strive to embrace all of humankind as our brothers and sisters – but we can’t manufacture feelings of love just because we’re told it’s the right thing to do and we can’t stop our emotional reactions just because we want to. Love is not a technique. It is more a state of being, cultivated over time and sustained through constant effort. We all seek to find a place in our heart to love someone in a healthy way regardless of what they do. 

But in the meantime, when someone is causing us pain, love is usually not our first impulse. Ignoring them, getting even or cutting them out of our life may come to mind as possible options. But none of them are particularly loving. So if we can’t get rid of them and we can’t change them, who can we change? It turns out the one and only person we really have any hope of changing is our self. Not that this is an easy task either – but it is the one in which we actually have direct control. 

What Can We Change?

So what can we change about ourselves? Our reactions are a good place to start. Thinking about how to react instead of simply reacting is something we will have lots of opportunities to practice. I used to endure horrible tirades by my ex-husband on the telephone. I was an anxious nervous wreck every time he called. Until I began trying to stop my automatic reaction and remain calm and detached. It took a long time to learn to stop that natural impulse, but on the way I got to the point where when the phone rang I thought “oh good – another chance to practice being non-reactive.” The difficult people in our life usually give us more than one shot at learning new responses and behaviors so we can be grateful for the opportunity they provide to practice!  

Another change we might aspire to is not just to control our reactions, but to work with our emotions as well. But again, that’s a pretty hard thing to accomplish. Even if we can get our reactions under control, we may still experience incredible feelings of frustration, anger and hurt. The first real task for us then is to begin to get in touch with those feelings. What is the precise emotion being stirred up within us? If we can experience our feelings for what they are and not try to deny them we have already gained a tool for responding more appropriately to our real nemesis.  Meditation is a great practice to help us cultivate patience and inner peace so that we can begin thinking about how we will respond to others and what feelings we will allow others to pull up in us. Eventually we may even find ourselves able to let go of the negative emotions even as they arise.  

Perhaps the most important thing for us to change is our perspective. This is huge because it means being able to see through another person’s eyes – to genuinely walk a mile or two in their shoes. 

It sounds pretty simple, but it can really have profound and powerful results. I’ll give you an example pulled from my interactions with my ex. In one of our rounds I had become extremely frustrated by the way in which he was pushing our son Jackson in karate. I was helping Jackson out by not making him participate in karate during the weekends that he was home with me. So I start by thinking about what a crummy father I think he’s being. Then I start a dialogue with him in my mind. When he replies to my accusations, I realize that our son doesn’t talk to him about how pressured he feels. So I can hear my ex responding by talking about the ways in which he believes he is supporting his son and his confusion that I am not. From HIS perspective that makes perfect sense. From his vantage point I’m the one that looks like I’m not supporting our son – no wonder he is so frustrated with me!

Another way to shift our perspective is to get to know whom it is we are struggling with. You might accomplish this by actually talking to someone over lunch. Or you might need to do a little more investigative work. I had a broken relationship with my father. I moved out of the house when I graduated and quickly cut him out of my life. In later years as an adult I came to the point where I knew I needed to do my self work. How do we do that? By dealing with the issues from our family of origin. I decided I needed to better understand who this man was that I knew as my father. So I started calling and meeting with his siblings, his mother, others who could help me fill in the spaces in the puzzle beyond my limited interactions with him. 

A few years ago, I was at a funeral of a person who caused a lot of pain in a lot of people’s lives – and everyone knew it. I wondered if the priest would tell us how wonderful this man was while everyone suppressed sarcastic rejoinders. But Father Jim skipped the meaningless platitudes and instead said simply, “Not one of us can know all of the pain and hardship this man experienced in his life.” 

Suffering and Ignorance

Eventually, if we are sincere in our attempts to understand others, we will be led to feel compassion for the suffering and ignorance that is at the root of all difficult behavior. Not only that, but we will realize that our own suffering and ignorance add to the problem. That the friend and the foe both reside within our own self. In fact, we will come ultimately to realize that there really is no difference between me and you, that the idea of us and them is purely a human construct and an artificial barrier to healing and wholeness. 

To take that to its extreme, while on his deathbed Voltaire was asked by a priest to renounce Satan. Voltaire replied, “Now, now my good man, this is no time for making enemies.”

We are a people who value the dignity and worth of every human being. We use the word “Namaste” a lot. That means that we see the Light, the Divine, the Transcendent, the Good and the Pure in each other and in everyone. Prayer and meditation are much easier spiritual pursuits than seeing the Light in those we label difficult and wrong and enemy. But one of the marks of spiritual growth is the extent to which it develops in us the attributes of tolerance, self-control, kindness, compassion, gratitude, humility, forgiveness, patience, generosity, and the desire to serve. Perhaps in the end we aren’t told to love our enemies because our love will transform them. Perhaps we are told to love because in doing so, we are the ones who are transformed. 

 
Namaste
 
Community Conversation:
What is your strategy for dealing with difficult people?
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