Thursday, March 19, 2009

Compassion and Difficult People

I used to read eagerly the magazine and newspaper articles that advised how to get along with difficult people, how to remove them from one's life, how to discourage them from harassing oneself, how to come to terms with them if they were relatives or parents or spouse, that sort of thing. After awhile I quit reading those articles because none of them ever offered the answer I wanted to find: how to love them despite not liking them.

This is a question that people often ask me: how do I love so and so when I don't even like him/her? In my first pastorate, we had a loyal but very difficult person whose presence in the congregation galled nearly everyone. S/he hogged the microphone at joys and concerns every Sunday. S/he had ideas that nobody felt would work. S/he wanted to run certain committees. S/he had an insatiable need for attention. S/he was eccentric to the point of irrationality. And on and on.

And s/he loved us. S/he didn't realize that others didn't like him/her; s/he was not socially perceptive enough to see that s/he rubbed people wrong. And s/he loved us. S/he gave generously to the congregation's budget, freely gave of time and energy, helped out wherever help was needed, all the time irritating and annoying people with his/her eccentricities and neediness. And all the time, s/he loved us, even though few loved him/her.

There were mitigating factors---a difficult past, an accident or illness---but none of it seemed to excuse the constant annoyance of his/her presence. During our first year together, six different congregants came to ask me that question: how do you love someone you don't even like?

I wondered too, because this person was also a problem for me. But the situation came to a head one day when the Annoyer was publicly shouted down by the Annoyed in a meeting and I realized that as the minister I'd better figure out an answer to the question and offer some kind of guidance.

That situation is long in the past now and I'm pleased to note that it did resolve itself in a better way. I asked people to be honest and kind with the Annoyer and promised them that I would develop a relationship with him/her that would allow me to tell him/her hard things in a loving way. Gradually things improved and people did find love growing. But it was hard. It was so clear that even though we did not love him/her, s/he loved us; that puts an obligation on the loved ones, to be as kind as possible, and this ethic was not lost on the Annoyed.

It may have been that ethic that made people more compassionate, the knowledge that when someone loves us, we must return love in the best way we can, even when it's hard, even when we do not feel kindly.

In every congregation, there are people like the Annoyer. They love us but drive us crazy at the same time. They may be hard to be around, offer suggestions that seem offbase, want to run things, say hurtful things occasionally in the name of honesty, but they love us. As we get to know them better and better and understand their loneliness or their difficult past, we may find compassion growing and a certain oddball kind of love that keeps us hanging in there together, offering help when times are tough, seeing the value in the friendship even when we're angry. Because they love us.


Robin Edgar said...

Have no fear The Emerson Annoyer is still here! ;-)

The Emerson Annoyer would like to ever so opportunistically take this opportunity to let U*Us know that s/he is actually proud of being eccentric to the point of irrationality aka "silliness and fantasy", that s/he *is* socially perceptive enough to see that s/he rubs U*Us the wrong way, indeed s/he makes a point* of rubbing wrong-headed U*Us the wrong way, and quite regrettably finds it necessary to say hurtful things occasionally in the name of honesty and integrity aka truth and *meaning*. . .

When will U*Us learn to stop worrying and love the bumb known U*U World-wide as The Emerson Annoyer? To say nothing of elect him as President Reject of the UUA. . . Come to think of it, if I am elected President Reject of the UUA, I will take a cue from former U.S. President George W. Bush declare myself to be *The* Annoyer. :-)

* The Emerson Annoyer hereby mercifully refrains from linking to the U*U Jihad Army's press release announcing its rather pointed secret weapon to the U*U World. ;-)

Charlie Talbert said...

Thank you.

ms. kitty said...

Is that because you love us, Robin? or maybe I should say U*U*s? Thanks for your remarks. I see you in a new light.

Charlie, thank YOU.

Robin Edgar said...

It's latish here and I am tired Ms. Kitty, so please let me get back to you on that. For the time being allow me to remind you and other U*Us that one of my favorite sayings is the ancient Roman poet Ovid's epigram -

If U*Us want to be loved, be lovable.

Or something like that anyway. ;-)

Dan said...

How do you know if you annoy people? If you keep getting recommended for/ sent to seminars on "How to Deal with Difficult People".

Also, every group seems to have at least one person who is "difficult". If you can't identify who that person is, it's probably you.

My solution is to always assume I'm the difficult person, until proven otherwise.

Mossyrock said...

I give credit to my ex-husband who was the first one who helped me understand that the folks who are the most difficult are the ones who need our love the most. There's a story behind that difficulty - as you point out, Ms. Kitty.

When I encounter a difficult someone, I ask myself: what does their behavior touch in me? The aversion I feel often has much more to do with something in me than something in them. If I can hold onto this view, their behavior can be a gift. Some of that hurumph !@$% melts away. We're both creatures just trying to make it through the day.

Thanks, Ms. Kitty.

ms. kitty said...

Great comments, Dan and Mossyrock! Thanks.

Lizard Eater said...

I loved this post Ms. Kitty, because you pointed out the line to me between "difficult person who can be an important part of our church" and "difficult person who can wreck our church."

"And s/he loved us." I think there's a whole lot there.

I've run across a few challenging people and some of them I have grown to love dearly. Why? They loved us. And when we pointed out boundaries, they stayed in the church.

I have seen a couple of others who, when we pointed out boundaries, absolutely wanted to take down the entire church. And when we didn't allow that to happen, they left.


ms. kitty said...

Yep, there's a big difference there, all right! And it's important to think about it before writing somebody off because they're annoying. Thanks, LE.

Robin Edgar said...

Well I let a full day slip by and am yet again rather tired so I will postpone responding to you in more detail Ms. Kitty, but Mossyrock is onto something. . .

"The aversion I feel often has much more to do with something in me than something in them. If I can hold onto this view, their behavior can be a gift."

As far as pointing out boundaries goes, The Emerson Avenger probably wouldn't even exist if the UUA's Department of Ministry and/or Ministerial Fellowship Committee and/or a certain unmentionable U*U church did a better job of pointing out boundaries to egregiously transgressive U*U clergy, behavioral boundaries that are already reasonably clearly defined in the UUMA Guidelines and Code of *Proifessional* Practice to say nothing of the Seven Principles. . . Quite regrettably however the UUA and MFC and UCM have repeatedly failed, indeed have obstinately refused, to do so and have thus allowed transgressive U*U clergy to behave in ways that make your "Annoyer" seem like a sweet little pussycat.

I definitely will get around to answering your question in more detail but for now I will simply say that I do love U*Us, and all kinds of other people, when they are lovable. When U*Us get less than lovable, to say nothing of considerably less than loving and even hateful, I find it difficult to love them. You asked here about how to love people despite not liking them, but it is all the harder to love people or even like people who not only clearly do not like you but apparently hate you, especially when their dislike, and even outright hatred, is not justified by anything that you have said or done. . .

Interestingly enough the Blogger word Verification Code for this comment is shine. I must be on a roll tonight or something. . .

Bon Nuit,

Robin Edgar aka *The* Annoyer ;-)

Chalicechick said...

Loving people when they are being loveable is the easy part.

Or rather, as Marilyn Monroe puts it in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:

"Don't you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn't marry a girl just because she's pretty, but my goodness, doesn't it help?"

Of course it helps when men are rich, women are pretty and people are loveable.

But it would be a pretty crappy world if those were the only circumstances under which we loved.


ms. kitty said...

I agree, CC. Thanks for your thoughts.