My kids and I were at the doctor’s office the other day, and we couldn’t help but notice the fish tank in the waiting room. Not that the tank was all that exciting, but one big fish kept chasing another smaller fish around, as if they were playing together. At first we were amused, but soon it became obvious that neither wanted to play. The smaller fish – poor thing! – was clearly trying to get away. No matter what he did or where he went, the bigger one was constantly on his tail nipping at his fins. It seemed hopeless…they were stuck in that tank together.
Isn’t this how we all feel at times? Stuck with people we’d rather not be in the same room with, much less have to live with day in and day out. Yet sooner or later, this is our fate: we end up living or working closely with someone who really rubs us the wrong way, that person who seems to know how to push all our buttons. A bad roommate or coworker is one thing, but what if the person who irritates you the most is a parent, a brother or sister, or even your own child? As most of us can attest, blood and chromosomes are no guarantee that you’ll get along. In fact, much of the time, it almost ensures that you won’t!
What I’m talking about here is the normal, everyday, run-of-the-mill irritations that we all experience: annoying habits, poking and prodding, snide remarks and sarcasm that seem to be part and parcel of every family’s life. When I was growing up, my brothers and I used to love to torture each other. And, to be honest, it’s no different now that I have my own kids.
God’s mysterious ways
But I’ve finally come to realize that this arrangement is no mere coincidence. It’s not an accident, nor is it simply Murphy’s Law at work. On the contrary, living and working closely with those who annoy us is a part of God’s plan. It’s intentional and purposeful.
What?!!! Does God want us to be miserable? Is He up in heaven laughing, making a little joke at our expense? No, of course not. But He’s far less concerned about our temporal happiness than He is with how we’ll spend eternity.
We – as in, the human race – were clearly designed to live in community, not as solitary creatures. (Remember that line in Genesis, “It is not good for man to be alone…”?1)But that doesn’t mean it will always be easy. Even happily married couples will sometimes say, “My wife is making me into a saint!” or, “My husband is going to get me to heaven.” We say it jokingly, but it’s so true. This is precisely how God works!
Made for Union and Communion
‘Community’ has come to mean many things in our modern culture. But in God’s original plan, it was the family. It’s why He made us male and female in the first place – to complement one another, body and soul, and bring new life into the world. As children spring forth from a unity of hearts and minds and bodies, we form a community of love – the family.
It’s our destiny, what we were made for: to live together in harmony. But sadly, family life isn’t always so blissful. Because of our fallen human nature (yes, it was bliss in the Garden of Eden at first!), we inevitably say and do things that hurt or annoy one another.
Even if our actions are unintentional, the simple fact that we’re all so different means that, at times, we’ll get angry or frustrated with one another. Funny how the very thing that makes our world so infinitely beautiful and diverse – our differences – can also be the source of pain, frustration, and seemingly endless annoyances. How can we understand and deal with this? By adopting God’s supernatural perspective with the help of His grace.
A match made in heaven
Have you ever seen a rock tumbler in action? At first the rocks are rough and jagged – not pretty at all. But then, after adding a bit of sand to the tumbler, something incredible happens. Ever so slowly, the rough edges wear down until they disappear completely. The stones become smoother and more lustrous, until eventually they look like beautiful gems. Who would have guessed it at first – what lay beneath that rough, ugly exterior?
The same goes for each one of us. Our Lord has a supernatural perspective (unlike most of us) and knows what we need. God sees our potential – what’s on the inside – and uses whatever means are necessary to transform us. He puts people in our lives to help us grow, not only in patience and humility, but also in selflessness and generosity; He allows certain situations to stretch us and mold us – to help us become the people we were meant to be.
So though we might not be able to pick our family members, the Lord can – He’s chosen them precisely for us! We might even say they are instruments of mercy, for they help bring about our salvation. (Ha! Try that one on for size!)
My saintly sister?
I love the example of the saints, especially Saint Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower. Though we might think that life in a convent would be utter peace and joy, St. Therese assures us that this definitely isn’t always the case. In her writings and letters, she reveals her frustration and dismay at not being able to get along with her fellow sisters. There was the sister who gave her mean, sidelong glances, and the one who assigned her the most menial tasks. And, of course, there was the old nun who ceaselessly “made strange, clacking noises in chapel.”2 It was a source of constant irritation for the young girl; she had to be creative and find ways to deal with it – her “little way” – which proved to be her path to holiness.
The Cross of every day
Regardless of where we live, human nature is reassuringly predictable – pretty much universal! For the vast majority of us, the way we will experience the Cross is in the annoyances of our neighbours and co-workers, in the irksome habits of those closest to us. Each of us has ample opportunities daily (perhaps hourly) to “offer up” these annoyances, to learn to bite our tongues and put others before ourselves. This is how we, too, will grow in holiness.
Fr. Francis Fernandez explains this phenomenon well:
“We will normally find the Cross each day in the sort of petty annoyances that may occur at work and which usually present themselves to us through people around us. It may be something unexpected, the difficult character of a person with whom we have to live… We have to accept these daily pinpricks courageously, offering them to God in the spirit of reparation without complaint. Those mortifications that crop up unexpectedly can help us, if we receive them well, to grow in the spirit of penance that we need so much, and to improve in the virtues of patience, of charity, of understanding: that is to say, in holiness. If we receive our setbacks with a bad spirit, it can cause us to rebel, or to become impatient or discouraged. Many Christians have lost their joy at the end of the day, not because of big reverses, but because they have not known how to sanctify the tiredness caused by work, or the little snags and minor frustrations which have arisen during the day.”3
Stairway to heaven
God doesn’t ask us, or expect us, to like everyone, to be sure. But we must try to love them. What if you show up at the Pearly Gates one day, ready to be received into heaven, and the Lord says to you, “Where’s your crazy neighbour?” “Oh, him? I did my best to avoid that guy.” “What?” God exclaims. “I sent him to you – he was supposed to come with you. He was your way in!”
This is the life of the Christian – to not only “put up” with one other, but to help one another. We are even called to go out of our way to love and serve one another. It’s radical and countercultural, completely misunderstood, just as Jesus was.
The Path of Holiness
Living with people who annoy us requires that we grow in virtue, yet the only way to grow in virtue is to put it to the test. To grow in humility, we will surely have to endure humiliations both great and small; to grow in patience, our patience will certainly be tried. This is just how it works!
With the same ability to notice every little thing that bothers us about a person, we must learn to also notice their good traits. Regardless of the way we may feel about someone, we can choose to love them. Love isn’t tied to our emotions – it’s an act of the will. What’s more, things change, people change, situations change. Don’t feel stuck and lose your peace! Keep a sense of humour and learn to laugh at the absurdity of the moment. Above all, find joy in little things.
Living in community – in families, parishes, neighbourhoods, cities, and even countries – won’t always be easy. We’re all different, with different ideas and different ways of doing things. But if we let God have His way – if we allow Him work in and through us – all things will work together for the good, according to His purpose.4 And His desire for us is nothing short of eternal life.
– Kelley Holy
“Spread love everywhere you go: first of all in your own house.” Mother Teresa of Calcutta
1 Genesis 2:18
2 Society of the Little Flower [website]; Internet; accessed 19 September 2016; available from http://www.littleflower.org/therese/life-story/her-life-at-lisieux-carmel/.
3 Fr. Francis Fernandez, In Conversation with God, (London: Scepter, 2012), Volume 2/2.2.
4 Cf. Romans 8:28