What do you do with obnoxious people? You know who I mean—difficult people, insolent people, nasty, mean, irritating, drive you out of your mind and push your crazy buttons people. Maybe we’re talking about friends, acquaintances, or total strangers. Then again, maybe we’re talking about family members. For us monastics, we might be talking about those who belong to our brotherhood or sisterhood. In any case, we’re talking about times and circumstances and people that pose a challenge. I’ll spell this out. Here’s what I have in mind—when someone puts you on the spot and forces the issue. I just hate it when that happens. It ruins my day. Is this a problem for you? It is for me. How do we handle it?
Two strategies come to mind. The first consists in applying the old maxim that the best defense is a good offense. In other words, jump into the drama and beat them at their own game. Blast them for what they say and do, what they are about to say and do, and—just in case—whatever you suspect they might be thinking of saying or doing. Get them first.
This plan has a consequence, though. Even if I win the argument, I lose in another way. It boomerangs on me. When I lose my cool with somebody, my cool usually stays lost a lot longer than I want. With interpersonal relations, victory doesn’t bring peace.
The other strategy amounts to sizing up the situation and then running away. No, I don’t necessarily mean running in a literal sense. We can do that, too, but running can take other forms, more figurative forms. Hypocrisy and self-abasement, for example. Pretending you don’t understand. Giving a vague reply that deliberately misses the point and hoping the other guy doesn’t insist on pursuing the matter. Buttering the other person up with flattery. Insincere agreement. All these responses have something in common—a retreat into the inner sanctum of our thoughts and feelings, where we probably stew over the matter in a spirit of ever-increasing outrage, resentment, self-pity, self-justification, and a helpless sense of victimization. I may walk away from the real-life situation and then play it out in my own head, staging rehearsals and performances, taking on all the roles myself in my fantasy—and then writing a review of the production.
In other words, even when I bite my tongue and put on my great stone face act, I land in the same turmoil as when I rush into the fray. So much for peace of mind. Whichever of these two strategies we pick, then, we end up entangled in drama. Either we engage in an external drama, or we move the theater inside our own psyche for an internal drama. In either case, we might as well just announce that “the show must go on.” Neither strategy works very well, then, does it? We could pose one question of both of them—is this any way to live? And we would have to answer no.
Just speaking for myself now, I know that I have to find a better way. That is, I fall into each of these strategies from time to time—with a clear preference for massive retaliation—and I don’t consider the results successful. Besides, it occurs to me every so often that the four monastic vows I took include a commitment to stability. Among other things, that means emotional stability. And I can’t maintain emotional stability if I leap into someone else’s drama or if I run away in fear and then withdraw into my hideout to lick my wounds. There has to be a better way.
I think there is. It requires us to resist the temptation toward external drama on the one hand and internal drama on the other. But how do we accomplish that? Well, I believe we can draw on what some of the Monastic Fathers write about the four stages of becoming captivated by a thought. The Fathers developed their analysis specifically about thoughts that interrupt our prayers, but their account works equally well when we apply it to our dealings with other people. Anyway, the four stages go like this, with an application of to the subject at hand. First is the provocation, which would be the words or actions of the other person. Second is what the Fathers call coupling, where we start thinking about what the other person is saying or doing and we begin to interpret it, evaluate it, and judge it. The third stage consists in forming a strategy to react to the other person’s words or acts, whether externally or internally. The fourth stage, captivity, is the point at which we throw ourselves into action without looking back.
What will save us from this mess is mindfulness—that is, becoming aware of the process taking place inside us. With that awareness we can make a decision to respond rather than react. In other words, we can walk a middle path between external and internal drama and respond—with discernment—to the real-life situation instead of letting our thoughts go wild in that semi-automatic process so characteristic of our fallen situation, and then reacting to our own captivity instead of the real events of real life.
Okay. So if this works as I expect it to work, it brings me some inner peace. All well and good. But I still have this difficult person standing in front of me, insisting on some response from me. So the situation remains unresolved. What has my dispassion gained me?
Well, when my thoughts and feelings don’t dominate me, I can respond to the person and the situation rather than react to my own semi-automatic mental and emotional processes. I can be present to the reality before me instead of getting lost in my own psychic whirl. When I step back from the mechanism of judging the other person and justifying myself, I can discern what I need to say and do. After all, no matter how smart I think I am, how clever I think I am, how adept I think I am at accomplishing half a dozen things at the same time with perfect attention to each one, I have to admit—when I am being honest—that I can’t really keep my attention on the situation in front of me if I am preoccupied with my own interpretation, evaluation, and reaction to that situation.
Finally, if I can break free from all this mental and emotional turmoil, from all this it’s all about me stuff, perhaps I can open myself up to allow God’s light to shine into the dark corners of my mind and heart. If I can do that, God may be able to illumine me so that I can speak and act according to His will rather than my own.
Easier said than done, of course, but it’s worth a try