What did you think when you read the title of this reflection? Did you think, “How in the world can we thank God for difficult people?!”
The truth is, most of us do not like living or working with difficult people. What is a difficult person? It’s someone we don’t get along with. Someone who is different from us. Someone who annoys us. Someone whose mood is unpredictable, whose manner is irritating. And the list goes on. If this is true, then how can we thank God for these people in our lives? I think there are basically two reasons we can thank God for them. First difficult people can give us important knowledge about ourselves and about people in general. And secondly, they have the power to bring forth good qualities in us—even more so than the people we naturally get along with. Let me explain.
For most of us, difficult people are a source of pain. Don’t we sometimes call them a pain in the neck? In Sanskrit the word for pain is vedana, a word that means not only suffering but also knowledge. The pain of dealing with difficult individuals can give us knowledge about ourselves and about human beings in general. By dealing with them, we learn, for example, that we are not perfect, we are not always patient or kind, we are not as strong as we may have thought. Difficult people also give us knowledge about human beings in general. They tell us: Everyone is different, I cannot control other people, my way of seeing things is not the only way, or simply, every individual is a profound mystery.
Secondly, difficult people can bring forth good qualities in us. Mark Rosen, a management consultant, has written a book whose title captures this concept: Thank You for Being Such a Pain: Spiritual Guidance for Dealing with Difficult People. The basic premise of the book is this: Although congenial people are wonderful to live and work with, they do not elicit as much virtue from us as difficult people do. Difficult people can help form us into better human beings by calling forth from us a vast array of beautiful human qualities such as patience, understanding, compassion, humility, strength, kindness, self-control, and love. Especially love. Anyone who has ever raised a child (especially a two-year-old or a teenager) knows what I am talking about.
On the other hand, congenial people are very important in our lives too. They support and encourage us in our efforts to give and receive love—and in our efforts to deal with difficult people. But let’s face it: ordinarily, congenial people are easier to love than the difficult ones.
It is easy to assume that difficult people are those other people in our lives. But we must be honest. We are probably a difficult person for someone else—no matter how friendly and sensible we may think we are. At this very moment we are probably helping other people grow in virtue! That knowledge can keep us humble!
Let us end this reflection with a little prayer:
God of Beauty and Mystery, it’s hard for me to live and work with difficult people. But help me to see that they can bestow certain blessings upon me. May my interaction with difficult people give me important knowledge about myself and about human beings in general. May my interaction help form me into a better person, a more loving and virtuous person. Help me to acknowledge my own idiosyncrasies and shortcomings that sometimes make me a difficult person to live and work with too. In your great wisdom and ingenuity, allow my faults somehow to be a blessing for others. I ask for these gifts through Jesus who interacted with difficult people with patience, understanding, and great, great love. Amen.
Have difficult people ever been a blessing for you?
Thank you for your prayers for the retreat last week at Lial Renewal Center in Whitehouse, Ohio. I had 14 beautiful retreatants: one lay woman, one Ursuline Sister, and twelve SND’s from Toledo.