Learning To Love Difficult People
Recently I’ve been grappling with this truth: Humanity is complex. We are an intricate, convoluted, paradoxical, yet beautiful creation capable of both great kindness and great evil. This is true on a group level as well as on an individual level. I do not believe anyone is immune from producing both good and evil.
However, if I am honest with myself, I do not always engage humanity as if I believe this to be true. Specifically, I have the tendency to want to reduce people to binaries. A person is either good or bad, honest or dishonest, kind or mean, loving or hateful. Once I have decided which category a person belongs to, then I choose how to engage with that person, if at all. Admittedly, this intellectually lazy approach lacks compassion and grace, but it is also easy and comforting.
The problem with my approach, among other things, is that it does not take into account our complexity. We are not all bad or all good; we are complicated. There are people who function with a great degree of integrity, but exhibit questionable judgment in certain areas or moments of their life. Likewise, there are mean people that can show great kindness.
My insistence on flattening people is really frustrated when I encounter people’s complexity. How do I deal with witnessing the shortcomings of someone I admire? How do I factor in the goodness of someone I have determined is a bad person?
For instance, when I read about King David in the Bible, at times he comes across to me as someone who is bloodthirsty, arrogant and vindictive. However, I have to reconcile that the Apostle Paul’s statement that God referred to David as a man after God’s own heart. (Acts 13:22). He was also undeniably a man of great faith who slew Goliath when others ran (1 Sam 17). In other words, David, like others, was complex. And his life causes me to constantly ask myself how do I allow people to be the complex beings they are?
My typical modus operandi is to simply cut off those I deem are bad or hurtful. However, this is not always possible, especially when you love the person, are related to them, or must deal with them because of your work. I am learning to become less frustrated in those instances where I cannot simply cut the person off. Instead, I see them as occasions to practice a life of grace and compassion.
People are more than any singular decision they make. They are even more than what others may perceive as a character flaw. This was certainly true about King David. More importantly, I believe that the majority of people want to be loved and accepted. Some people may go about achieving that end the wrong way, but I think their ultimate goal is no different than most people.
A life filled with compassion keeps that truth at the forefront of my mind. It also provides a different lens through which to see a person’s behavior. Arrogance and belligerence, for example, are not quite as upsetting when seen as desperate pleas for love and acceptance. Likewise, grace allows me to treat people with dignity. It keeps me from dismissing their humanity, and reminds me of my own.
A life of grace and compassion should not be confused as condoning bad behavior, however. I am not suggesting that we excuse inappropriate behavior or fail to call out evil when we see it. Indeed, I think compassion compels us to lovingly correct our fellow human beings. We must continue to address the injustices and evil that plague us.
But we must also avoid the tendency to become intellectually lazy by reducing any issue to an “us versus them” type approach, where “they” are all bad and “we” are all good. I see this often in political rhetoric when we speak of our foes. We cannot be so gung-ho that we are blind to the reality that we are just as capable of evil as “them.” If we are not careful, we will turn into the one we claim to hate.
Again, we are all capable of great good and great evil. I guarantee that there will be some point in your life where you will disappoint and even hurt someone you love. How do you want them to respond to you? Do you want to be dismissed, or would you ask for grace and compassion? I have a sneaky suspicion that you would want to be treated with grace and compassion. If you want that, then why not also offer that to others? After all, isn’t that what Christ has called us to do?