Giving thanks for difficult people

November 21st, 2018

Some years back, I had a particularly difficult parishioner. Let’s call him Jack. Jack was gruff, opinionated, and sometimes caustic. I was often afraid around him, and defensive. It didn’t take long to realize that he reminded me of another gruff, opinionated and sometimes caustic person in my life — my grandfather. Although small in stature — like this parishioner — my grandfather was a scary figure for me as a child. He was like the hard man in the parable of the talents who reaped where he did not sow. One of his famous sayings was, “You want something to cry about? I’ll give you something to cry about!” That threat was followed by the appearance of a belt. Not exactly comforting for a little kid. Needless to say, Jack never pulled out a belt, or threatened me, but I often felt small and young around him. Surprisingly, I found a way to be grateful for him.

At some point, I realized that I perceived Jack through an emotional filter of fear and defensiveness. Once it occurred to me that I was projecting my grandfather on to him I was able to get some emotional distance from him and put him into proper perspective. I was able to see and feel that I was no longer a child, that he did not intend to hurt me, and the fear that I was feeling was left over from childhood. It didn’t belong to this time and place.

I began to thank God for the difficulties he presented to me. This wasn’t easy. Or natural. But it did help. As I began to pray for him, I also cut myself some slack. I found I could approach him with greater confidence and openness. As our relationship shifted onto healthier terrain, I saw that some of his comments to me were helpful, and some of his insights were right on.

Then another insight surfaced. Jack had been trying to communicate a whole slew of things to me that I missed entirely. I was so caught up in my own stuff that I didn’t realize he was putting out subtle cries for help. His marriage was on rocky ground, his health was deteriorating, and spiritually, he needed me to be available, not closed down.

Giving thanks for Jack allowed me to go from being defensive to present, from shut down to available.

When you come to a relationship with tainted attitudes — toward yourself or others — it’s hard to listen with an open heart or mind. This won’t empower you as a leader. And it won’t empower your people to trust or follow you.

Who are you not present and available for? Give thanks for the difficult people in your life. Then, identify what’s in the way of being fully present. Take the time to resolve it, so that you can bring your full humanity, and your full spiritual powers, to bear.

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