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Breaking Open the Ordinary

Sandy Prather

Irritable man



It has happened once again. At a recent event I found myself cornered by the one person I was hoping to avoid. Within our group he is known to be “difficult.” I’ve been caught before by this emotionally needy, rather lonely relentless talker and endured the one-sided and seemingly endless litany of comments and complaints that constitute conversation for him. I try to be patient, compassionate and engaged, but inwardly I am screaming, “Get me out of here!” Before long I start making excuses and begin edging away. It is only in hindsight that I face the reality of what I have done.

Years ago, in a spiritual community in France, there lived an irritable old man. This man was selfish, lazy, and critical of everyone and everything. Try as they might, no one in the community could get along with him. Eventually, after several frustrating months, the old man left the community to live in the city.

When Gurdjieff, the leader of the community, heard of the old man’s departure, he immediately went after him. Gurdjieff pleaded with the old man to return but he refused. It had been too difficult. Finally, Gurdjieff offered to pay the man a large monthly wage if only he would return to live in the community. The man agreed.

Members of the community were aghast when Gurdjieff appeared with the old man in tow. Upon hearing of the arrangement that had been made, they were horrified. Gurdjieff listened to their complaints and then laughed. “This man,” he responded,“is like yeast for bread. Without him you would never really learn about anger, irritability, patience and compassion. That is why we need him here.” (The Irritable Man, John Shea, The Legend of the Bells and Other Tales).

I like to believe I am patient, compassionate and kind. But life keeps offering me a reality check. After all, it’s not so hard to think I’m pretty saintly when I’m alone and have only myself to worry about. My husband and I are now empty-nesters, and he is often “out and about,” so I can structure my days exactly as I want to. There’s no one to make demands on me; no one challenging my choices; no one questioning my actions or my decisions. It’s easy to be patient, pious, and think unselfish thoughts when I am alone.

But I remember well enough the challenges inherent in the hurly burly demands of family life. A two-year-old screaming No for the umpteenth time; a teenager defiantly and consistently breaking curfew; a misunderstanding with a sibling: these have the power to raise my blood pressure, incite discord and tempt me to incautious, unkind, and ungenerous responses. My peace of mind and saintly self-image can evaporate pretty quickly when faced with other people and their demands.

It seems that Jesus’ command, Love one another, is a lot easier in the abstract than in the concrete. Many of us have heard the quip attributed to the over-worked pastor, “I love humankind; it’s people I can’t stand.”

Truly, the most difficult people to love are probably the ones right beside us. That’s why family, community life and parish are so important. It is why God calls us as a people: we are saved in and through our relationships. It is there that we are drawn into the encounters we need where preconceived notions about our own goodness are tried and tested and the virtues we profess to hold are made real.

It is in our engagements with one another that we learn that loving is not the same as liking, and it is not easy. In the deepest Christian sense, love is active. Sister Helen Prejean reveals this dynamic in the movie Dead Man Walking. A father of one of the victims protests that he can’t love the man accused of his murdering his daughter because he doesn’t have her, Helen’s, faith. Sister Prejean’s response is a simple one liner, “It’s not faith, it’s work.”

It is the work of loving like Jesus does and it takes, as it did for Jesus, a willingness to die to self. It demands a sacrifice of one’s own inclinations and preferences in favour of a generosity of spirit and a gentleness of heart. It requires a bearing of each other’s wrongs, enduring the hurt they cause and being willing to forgive over and over again.

It is clear to me what I should be doing in my encounters with my difficult “friend.” The Christian imperative is to see past the dysfunctional behaviour and challenging personality in order to encounter the person he truly is: a beloved child of God, lonely and afraid, needy and sad, rather than bad. Sometimes I do this well; other times I fail miserably. Always I know what I am called to do and furthermore, why I am called to do it.

The existentialist Jean Paul Sartre once famously remarked, “Hell is other people,” which is one view, but I favour Gabriel Marcel, the Christian existentialist, who wrote, “I hope in thee for us.” Thank heavens for my friend, who calls me to live my values, and reminds me in the process that we are saved by and in our relationships, as much through the challenging, fraught ones as the easy, graced ones.

Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.