sinner pastThey say to love your enemies, but no one tells you how to do it. It’s easy to think nice thoughts about difficult people when you’re alone, but how do you love the annoying work colleague, you know the one who’s like a shiver looking for a spine to run up. We’re supposed to find the best in people, but how do you do it? How do find the best in a person that even telemarketers hang up on?

Sometimes you can remove difficult people from your life, and sometimes that’s exactly the right thing to do, BUT, on the other hand……

Sometimes you can’t. Sometimes they’re your boss in a job you need. Sometimes they’re a brother-in-law and you don’t want to lose touch with your sister. Sometimes they’re an ex and you need to co parent. Sometimes they move in next door. Sometimes they’re on the other end of an important service call. You get the point.

And in any case, can’t we do better than create a cocoon of people we like? As Socrates said in Peaceful Warrior, “Those who are hardest to love need it the most.” They need it. WE need it. It makes us better people to stretch beyond the safety of people who ignite us.

Think of it this way. Every act of love brings light to the world. If loving your family and friends lights up a room, imagine how far reaching the light, deep within and out to the corners of the earth, when you break through the shell of familiarity and love a stranger or beat down a wall and love someone you dislike.

The world desperately needs the sort of love that stretches to the moon and back and collects all the strays, monsters, foes and nemeses on its way. The question remains- yes, but how do you find the beauty in the beast?

Let’s get practical here. How do you see the best in people acting their worst?

EVERY person has some redeeming qualities. I mean everyone, by virtue of being alive, has some goodness in them. This includes global terrorists, Vladimir Putin, Lance Armstrong, the sunshine club at Westboro Baptist Church and yes it even includes politicians. My philosophy is that everyone is basically good but really, really scared. Hence the many strange choices WE make.

Mother Theresa said, “Everybody has something good inside them. Some hide it, some neglect it, but it is there.”

Take as an example the movie, Gran Torino, with Clint Eastwood playing the most hate filled character imaginable. And yet we love him. We root for him. We love him because we want to find something redeeming in his character. He treats his Asian neighbors so badly and yet they see it. After he saves the teenage boy next door from a local gang, the boy’s sister says to him, “You’re a better man to him than our own father was. You’re a good man.” What is this goodness she sees?

Maybe it’s his HONESTY. He speaks his mind without a filter. Some of the people we find difficult have no filters. They say things the rest of us think in the privacy of our own minds. They offend us. They shock us. They scare us with their jaded perspective on life, even though we know they have a half truth. They are honest, and honesty is one of THE most virtuous qualities.

Maybe it’s his DETERMINATION. He has values and won’t back down. Some of the people we find difficult frustrate us with what we see as stubbornness. And yet we could learn a thing or two from their determination.

Maybe it’s his CREATIVITY. Cranky people amaze me with their creative wit. The repartee between Eastwood and his Italian barber is priceless. They verbally spar without missing a beat. We don’t have to abuse each other. But we can learn from the creativity of cranks.

Maybe it’s his RESILIENCE. He’s a hard man for a reason. He’s seen a few things and learnt how to protect himself. That shows incredible resilience. We don’t have to harden ourselves or close the world out, but we can learn from the resilience of the battle weary.

Without too much thought, I’ve come up with four qualities that we might admire in a difficult person. There are so many more. And this is just the beginning point. Find something, anything, redeeming in the difficult person, and you will be on the path to respecting them, or at least tolerating them.

As I grow older, I find that raw honesty inspires me more than anything; people who have been touched by the harshest parts of life and its left them real, worldly wise, even a little hard headed, brave, worn out but still trying, shaken but not stirred. Unpretentious, battle scarred, prone to shock you by saying the things you’re thinking, willing to see things most people turn away from, cranky honesty is disarming but beautiful in its own way.

Now switch gears. So far, it’s all been about the other person. Let me let you in on a little secret. I could populate a small city with people who find me difficult. The lesson here is really for me, and what I can learn about myself. Life is a school and difficult people are the faculty. Difficult interactions are the class. So don’t avoid them or you will never graduate into the fullest version of who you can  be.

delightfully difficult

Difficult is SO subjective. We find people difficult because they hold up a mirror and we don’t like everything we see. Learn to love your own cranky qualities, and you will have less resistance and conflict with cranks and monsters around you.

And maybe the most important lesson of all from Gran Torino is that people are complex, they have all sorts of conflicting motives and experiences. And they change! Eastwood is protecting his worldview, his community, at least what he thinks is best for his neighborhood. He thinks his Asian neighbors are the problem, only to later find that he needs to protect them to safeguard a culture he values. He changed. People change. We ALL change. Be slow to judge.

Oscar Wilde said it well,

Everyone may not be good, but there’s always something good in everyone. Never judge anyone because every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.

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  1. Joan says:

    In AA we hear this advice…”Bless him, change me”.  This what we are told to do when a person is getting under our skin.  Thought it was nonsense at first, but with time I have come to know the wisdom in that advice.  It works.

  2. Petra says:

    As always – thought provoking…. and one that in general I don’t struggle with until it comes to the depravity of humans who relentlessly forget the people that they are killing / displacing/ depriving are just like them… I was a Westerner in the Middle East when 911 occurred and I had patients in my surgery cheering what was happening on the TV in the waiting room … while I cried for humanity….Yes one can admire their tenacity of belief, their determination but the manifestation of those qualities still remains wrong… and while I can understand that desperation drives people to do desperate things there are different ways.  do I hate them –  no, am I grateful for them teaching me about what I value – yes … but can I forgive them – not so sure….As Joan says – “change me” …

  3. R says:

    Thank you SO much for this timely piece of, oh SO valuable, wisdom.This hit me at my core, as I am struggling with what I know in my head about being peace(ful) in order to create the peace I want, versus needing to be right and making others wrong. I know I have the capacity to be loving and gentle, and yet…I fail myself practically every day. I’m crying as I sit here typing…the pattern is the clearest it has ever been.Receiving your email and deciding to open it up was truly a moment of divine intervention.Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!!With love & gratitude!R

  4. ian says:

    thanks for your honest comment my friend. You sound like the sort of honest I admire a lot. Keep wrestling. You could have been describing me too by the way. You could have been describing most of us. No need for guilt.

  5. Fr. Olimpio C. Ármoa says:

    Great article, I love it. May the Lord keep telling you how to behave with our dificult brethren and to recognized how dificult are we all. I will keep reading every week

  6. Diane Catipon says:

    I experienced this and sometimes i find it hard to see the good in others when they provoke me. Im learning and i always say to myself to keep my peace even if they do something against me. God bless. Continue to inspire others. 😀

  7. Cathy says:

    Great article. My husband has always been able to find the best in me when I’m at my worst. I respect him so much for it because I find it so difficult to do the same.  I’m trying though!

  8. tess colayco says:

    thank you for this magnificent article! I learned a lot. Now to put these wise teachings into action in my daily life. Pls keep sharing your insightful articles. Blessings.

  9. lukovski says:

    Such a great article! It reminds me a lot of my mum who always used to (and she’s still doing it) point my strong sides, my best personality traits in time when I was literally losing it… To be able to see the light in the darkness is truly a magnificent gift we have all been given with. All we have to do is develop it and use it!

  10. Georganna K. says:

    i realize something, it’s so great to share thoughts and perspectives! I have heard that Oscar Wilde quote paraphrased by my guru,and have reiterated the quote. Genuinely, I love this whole thought going on in this writing piece. Not only does it bring hope to difficult people (me at times), but it also has a wisdom about accepting ourselves and others, bringing more consciousness to our WHOLE selves! Bravo!

  11. ian says:

    Well said Georganna. Love to you and your family

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