Irritating People and Why they Irritate

Today I was praying, and for some reason started to think about someone I know who irritates me. (I admit that I’m too easily irritated, but that’s for another post.) When I had this thought – about this irritating person – I remembered a question from Geri Scazzero that I’m learning to ask:

“What does my response to [fill in the blank here – in this case,
the person’s name] say about me?”

And before I answer, let me clarify. I’m referring to people who are loud (I’m quiet.), people who are pushy (I’m accommodating.), people who are messy (I’m organized.), people who are crude (I’m usually fairly well-mannered.), people who talk too much (I’m often quiet.), people who are confrontational (I’m conflict avoidant.), people are all emotional (I’m subdued.), people who are arrogant (I’m ever so humble.), people … well, you get the picture. (I’m sorry if I offended you, my friend, please read to the end before you dismiss me entirely.)

So, “What does my response to a person who irritates say about me?”

Well, that question led to others:

Why do certain people bother me so much?

Is it because they’re not like me?
Do I think it would be better if they were like me?
Do I think it would be better if they were at least a little more like me?

And what exactly is the problem? Why is what irritating people do so irritating or frustrating to me?
Why am I so critical and often so judgmental?

Is it because I’m forgetting God’s “signature” in all his creation – the amazing diversity?
Is it because I’m fooled by the “disguises” that people come in? (Mother Teresa talks about how Jesus himself appears to us regularly in the disguise of the poor.)
Is it because I’m forgetting what a poor template I would be for this new humanity?
Am I threatened by people who are different from me for some reason?
Am I resentful of the extra work it takes to engage in a relationship with and love these people?

Oh, wow. I think perhaps this is where we were headed from the start. It could be that. I suppose that’s what God wanted to say to me today. This is why we started with irritating people in our prayer time. Ouch. Don’t you just hate it when that happens?

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“If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed –
but hate those things in yourself, not in another.”
Thomas Merton

“Until we have seen someone’s darkness,
we don’t really know who they are.
Until we have forgiven someone’s darkness,
we don’t really know what love is.”
Marianne Williamson

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Downward Mobility and the “Full Gospel”

People often say, “Everything old is new again.”, and today some prescribe ancient spiritual practices as a positive way to impact the deepest needs of modern people. Much of what I hear being said sounds like the “full gospel” more than anything else I’ve ever heard. By that I mean that I’m hearing “good news” for me as an individual (I can know God more deeply and increase the possibility of being changed by him.) and “good news” for others (since God can use me in the lives of those in my circles of influence to profoundly affect them in their relationship with God.) In other words, I can become a better human being, and God can use me to help others also “morph” in this way. These others would include my spouse, my children, my siblings, my parents, my friends, my neighbors, the poor, and other disenfranchised people that I seek out as I become a neighbor to them. (These notes reflect a logical approach, not a chronological one, meaning that they attempt to answer these kinds of questions: “If I’m hoping and praying for God’s kingdom to come into my life and circles of influence, how should I go about that? Logically, where do I begin? What are the priorities? What things depend on other prior things?”, etc.)

What follows is an outline of what I’m hearing, the full explanation of which would be a book.

1. You can’t control others or your own circumstances, so don’t waste important energy trying.

2. You are not responsible for the reactions and behavior of others. That’s their business. They have to attend to that.

3. Focus on yourself. That’s where you have some control. You are by far the biggest problem you have. Expending energy on this makes sense. Each of us must invariably start here.

4. When you change yourself, that affects all your “systems.” (marriage, family, work, church, neighborhood, etc.) You’re not giving up on change in the lives of others you love, you’re simply approaching it in a way that makes that change more likely – you’re addressing the need for person change. As you change, others will change.

5. The most important thing you can do is to change yourself, and changing yourself is the only hope you have of changing others or your circumstances. (Obviously, points #1 through #5 all go together.) This statement summarizes the first four points, but also holds out personal change as the most critical, wisest, most strategic commitment you can make.

6. None of these will be enough to change you: more information, more motivation, more accountability, or more serious effort. This may sound like bad news, but it’s really actually good news, as we see in the points that follow.

7. The possibility of change increases with new perspectives – a) when I see myself as loved and valued by God, b) when I see others as loved and valued by God, c) when I see exactly where I need to be changed or transformed (my ego, temperament, ingrained habits, signature sins, thought patterns, etc.), and d) when I see that God is bigger than my problems.

8. The possibility of change increases with the learning of new skills entailed in attending to God, for instance in learning a) to sit in God’s presence, b) to wait, c) to listen, d) to let go, e) to be mindful, f) to do without, g) to meditate (lectio divina), h) and to practice solitude and silence. (Practicing these things is the key to the new perspectives of #7 above.)

9. The possibility of change increases with the learning of new rhythms in attending to God, for instance in practicing a) the daily office, b) an examen, c) unceasing prayer, and d) keeping Sabbath. (These will be aids in building the new skills of #8 above into our daily lives.)

10. The possibility of change increases as I bring new attitudes and practices to my relationships – a) speaking truth in love, b) practicing loyalty and kindness (embracing managed conflict rather than running from it), and c) looking for and capitalizing on transformational moments in each day (Nouwen’s “full moments.”)

11. The possibility of change increases as I adopt new priorities – a) living out the great commandment, b) involving myself in the great commission, and c) seeking justice for the poor and disenfranchised. (These will be the measures of success of this “project” at all times.) If you’re not growing in a life of love for God and others, and if you’re not practicing justice, something is amiss. These are the Biblical measures of progress.

12) The possibility of change increases as I embrace a new kind of patience – applying grace to myself and others, and embracing the unique journey that God has for me and them – remembering that personal transformation is the work of a lifetime and cannot be forced in my life or the life of others.

In the end, I am powerless over my sin and when it comes to truly changing myself. Only God can change me. My job is hospitality toward him – welcoming him and creating space for him to continue the work that he has begun in me, no matter how daunting that may be. Seeking God’s kingdom first (his glory, his agenda) will be the only appropriate and most effective way of entering into personal transformation. Seeking after the good things he has for me must take a secondary place to these priorities of his. The foundation of all that I do in this regard will be my refusal to insist on my rights before God, and with others. (Phil. 2) The commitment to do this a central and intrinsic part everything above. (#1-12)

I don’t know if this sounds new to you, but much of it is revolutionary for me. It’s a lot of familiar ideas, but the words are all arranged in new ways. I hope you find this provocative and helpful, and as always, I welcome your reflections and contributions. In the end, it’s all about our greatest happiness, and God’s greatest glory (but not in that order).

Examen for an “Overachiever” – a postscript

Out of curiosity, I did a google search to see if I would find my blog post, and found a handful of places where others were discussing “overachieving” and the “examen” of St. Ignatius. (I separated these references from my examen prayer page because I wanted it to be free of distractions. At the same time, I wanted to share just a few resources with interested readers. Obviously, the materials available on the examen itself, and contemplative spirituality are endless.)

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Is there within me, beneath all of life’s surface issues, a quiet stream that flows continually from the heart of God? Is there a solid place to which my life is riveted and from which I can reach out to others with kindness and compassion?”

These are the questions posed by Fil Anderson, who actually has a book on our exact topic: Running on Empty: Contemplative Spirituality for Overachievers . He himself highly recommends Thomas R. Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion, which also targets our topic by “gathering together five compelling essays that urge us to center our lives on God’s presence, to find quiet and stillness within modern life, and to discover the deeply satisfying and lasting peace of the inner spiritual journey.” (Amazon)

I also found this: Journey With Jesus: Discovering the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, a book highly recommended by Dallas Willard, who says,  “The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius is one of very few works produced by followers of Christ that reliably guides those who have seriously put their confidence in Christ onto a path where what we Christians endlessly talk about becomes the reality of daily existence.”

I hope this is helpful. If you want to suggest other resources that you have found helpful on the interface of overachieving and spirituality, or on using the examen, please do. The whole idea is to learn from and encourage each other in these things.

The Examen of an “Overachiever”

Years ago someone called me an overachiever. I suppose it’s true in the sense that I have distinguished myself at times in spite of my limited gifts and natural abilities. Early in life I learned that I could compensate for a lack of natural talent by hard work. I ran cross country in high school rather than being a sprinter – and I set a new school record. In Seminary I wrote a thesis that was more than twice as long as necessary (Have I mentioned about my OCD tendencies?) – and I won an award. As a pastor, when I became convinced of the importance of prayer, I preached several series on it – one must have been 16 weeks long, and started praying with people from the church for hours and hours each week. For me, success has always meant working harder than the other guy. More was always better. Faster was better too. There was definitely no time to waste. “Daylight”, as they say, was “burnin’.”

I’ve been in recovery now for some time, but it’s tough going. I recently wrote out a prayer for use as an “examen.”* I need to pray this like I do the Lord’s Prayer – “daily”, and I find it helpful when I do. If you can find something useful in it, that’s great too. Here it is:

“In the morning O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation. Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray.” (Ps. 5:3,2)

Today I leave to you …
what I do or don’t accomplish
what others think of me
my comfort and my pleasure
my health and my happiness
my sense of satisfaction and my success
my impact and my importance.

Today I will hallow your name by  …
leaving enough silent spaces to hear from you
living in calmness of spirit, not in haste
looking for transformational moments in the events of the day
waiting for my turn to speak
talking less and listening more
acting and speaking only out of love
remembering the poor and marginalized
depending on you rather than myself for success, and working to further your agenda and enhance your reputation, not my own.

May I do this by your grace and Spirit, desiring to experience and increase your kingdom rule. May I persist in all my weakness, and in spite of all my failures, as I depend on your unfailing love to see me through. Amen.

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* “The Daily Examen is a technique of prayerful reflection on the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence and discern his direction for us. The Examen is an ancient practice in the Church that can help us see God’s hand at work in our whole experience.” My version involves using this morning prayer at the start of the day, and then returning to it at the end of the day for the “prayerful reflection on the events of the day” that is the essence of the examen.

I have posted other resources on the interface between overachieving and the examen elsewhere for those who are looking for more help.