It is common to the human condition, unless you live in isolation and never have any contact with any one. Some people are just so very difficult to be in the same room with, let alone love.
Chuck DeGroat’s book, Toughest People to Love, explores the task of loving people that drive you crazy, annoy you, irritate you, and make you want to become a recluse. DeGroat writes, “God didn’t create human beings to operate like machines; to many of us, that is a truly remarkable revelation. To be human, instead, is to be in relation with God and with others. Being human is complex, messy, and much harder than we ever imagine it will be.”1 For most of us, becoming a hermit is not a realistic option. But, as DeGroat points out, we are relational people and that means we interact with people that we enjoy and with people we do not enjoy. DeGroat explains that all of us have baggage from past relationships, from young children all the way up to the present. All of us. Some of us carry small suitcases, and some of us have carts full of baggage. But, for DeGroat, the important thing is that we learn other people’s stories. The more we get to know other people, especially the people we do not like, the more we find common ground and a common humanity. A simple, yet significant truth.
It seems to me that DeGroat is right. While I am thrilled to relate with many people in my life, there are others that I would prefer to turn and run the other way when I see them. Now, as someone who has spent time teaching, I can tell you that running the other way is not considered a good educational practice. In the field of education, one is constantly confronted with a wide spectrum of people. Some are easy to be around, and some are very difficult. But I cannot avoid the difficult people.
I have discovered that when I set aside time to really talk to difficult people and learn more about them – who they are, where they came from, what they are interested in and why, they become less difficult. That does not mean, however, that we become best friends forever, but they become more human and more relatable. When I was in my doctoral program, there was a fellow graduate student that drove me crazy. We were in virtually all the same classes together and I could not avoid him. I found him arrogant, narcissistic, and annoying. But avoidance is not always possible or the right thing to do. So, I forced myself, especially at first, to talk with him and get to know him better. Did we become best friends? No. But I realized that when I deliberately chatted with him at breaks and found out a little more of his story, he started to become more likeable. He didn’t really change, but I did. Or, more accurately, my attitude toward him changed. He still annoyed me and I would still roll my eyes at some of the things he said, but I saw more of the positive aspects of humanity that made him more valuable as a person.
The tricky part is making an effort to spend time with someone I find difficult. Why would I do that, when I can spend time with people who are effortless, fun, and encouraging? This is a regular battle, but a worthwhile one. I was talking with a student about diversity on a college campus last week. Through the course of our conversation, we agreed that as we age, most of us keep selecting workplaces, neighborhoods, jobs, social activities, and even churches that reflect our same ideas and opinions. Which means we don’t choose to spend time with and rub shoulders with people who think, act, and behave differently than we do. Most of us do not choose to invest our time and energy into the people we see as “difficult.”
But what happens if all we do is spend time with people we like and who see the world in a similar way that we do? I have had a number of people discuss the current presidential race and ask questions like, who is actually voting for Trump? I don’t know anyone who is admitting that they voted for Trump, so how is this happening? How is this possible? It seems to me that if we don’t understand a popular cultural movement, maybe we need to spend more time with people who live, work, socialize, and worship in a world that is unlike our own. It might be difficult, but a valuable experience.
1. Chuck DeGroat, Toughest People to Love, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eardmans Publishing Company, 2014), 14.
Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College.