Difficult People

We probably all experience some phase of life during which we begin to lose our patience with people.  In this, I mean not merely the people with whom we live or work, but also the human race in general.

In this modern age, we experience large numbers of people simply as a reality of our way of living,.  We interact with them at home, at work, in supermarkets, on the roadways, around our neighborhoods, and even online.  We live lives so different from our tribal ancestors tens of thousands of years ago, yet we each maintain the same frames of flesh and have the same brains, adaptable though they are and so malleable to varying circumstances.  Our modern social landscape often exists at stern odds with our evolution.

And as we mill through multitudes of our worldly counterparts, we inevitably encounter people whose actions and manners conflict with our own–and this happens on every level of interaction from the casual to the intimate.

Those of us who are teachers feel it all the more keenly.  We see in our students all of the raw impulses of humanity, and we work to help the children refine their actions and responses to suit a healthy social context.  But then there are their parents, our colleagues, administration, burdened taxpayers, fellow commuters, neighbors, in-laws, spouses, our own children–and ultimately, ourselves.

Similar to the food fight scene in Animal House, it seems at times as if we all throw our insecurities at each other and smear our human fellows with the unprocessed humanity in which we seem to wade hip deep.

Life, then, becomes a continual effort to sidestep the ignorance, thoughtlessness, selfishness, and malice of other human beings.  Those of us who are deeply humanistic add the extra effort of trying to protect others from our own.

Growing up Catholic, I learned of sins of malice and sins of weakness.  In my adult life, I began to investigate other spiritual traditions. That investigation yielded two understandings: first, that the deepest, most meaningful message of every religion is essentially the same statement, only in varying spiritual languages; second, that all failings are sins of weakness–or at least, perceived weakness.

Human existence can be brutal, no matter our station in life or our circumstances.  Often we underestimate the suffering that can be borne by people who appear to have the most favorable conditions of life.  The Needs Hierarchy of Abraham Maslow, however, reminds us that as life meets one level of need, we move to another stratum of development with a new set of demands for stability and growth.  For example, someone can have independent wealth and no concerns about food, shelter, and material comforts; still, the lack of a sense of belonging or self-worth can harm that very person to the point of making him or her consider suicide.

On yet another level, we want the world to make sense, to have an order to it that satisfies our longing for justice, peace, and harmony.  This would fall into the category that Maslow called aesthetic needs. Many of the greatest minds of literature and art anguished over the cruelty they saw in the world.

Suffering explains–but does not excuse–most of the strife, misery, and discord we see in the world.  The vast majority of us contribute to this in some way, just as we suffer at the hands of others. Sadder than this, however, becomes the realization that we too often misunderstand suffering to be weakness.  This belies the strength that accompanies pain–and the transformation that strength can bring about. But that is a topic for another day.

In the meantime, we may have no hope of fully evading the ills mixed in with the joys of human interaction, but the better we each reconcile ourselves to our own humanity, the more we become able to transcend the harm to which we are all sometimes susceptible.

14 thoughts on “Difficult People

  1. The line that most resonated with me: “Similar to the food fight scene in Animal House, it seems at times as if we all throw our insecurities at each other and smear our human fellows with the unprocessed humanity in which we seem to wade hip deep.” i believe that is so true. Most of us live in our own heads despite all the humanity around us with which we engage daily.

  2. “The better we each reconcile ourselves to our own humanity, the more we become able to transcend the harm to which we are all sometimes susceptible.” Powerful words that I’ve been needing to hear. Thank you for sharing this thoughtful piece.

  3. Wow. I especially love “smearing our human fellows with unprocessed humanity.” This is brilliant! While wearing my ashes today, I can relate to the Catholic part of your slice well, and also to the exploration into other faith traditions part. The commonalities really are so true. I also love what you say about strength, and I would add that suffering is also transformative and can even be redemptive – not a bad thing, but the tough part is getting through it. Thank you, Paul – I always look forward to your slices.

  4. “…we each maintain the same frames of flesh and have the same brains, adaptable though they are and so malleable to varying circumstances.  Our modern social landscape often exists at stern odds with our evolution.” This was the first passage that hit me, but only the first. Powerful reflection and commentary…Fareed Zakaria should invite you on!

  5. “And as we mill through multitudes of our worldly counterparts, we inevitably encounter people whose actions and manners conflict with our own–and this happens on every level of interaction from the casual to the intimate.”
    You nailed it, right here! And especially as educators because we have a responsibility to cherish the children entrusted to us, regardless of whether their personalities and behaviors mesh with ours. Probably one of the biggest challenges we face!

    I loved this post!

  6. I have enjoyed reading your posts these past few slice of life days. Considering the small sample, this is your best. I love the analogies, the reflection, and the analysis. I am definitely sharing with friends.

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