OK, let's be honest. Difficult people are hard to love. Hard even to like. It's even worse if you have to work with them. You try your best to love them, like them, appease them, or ignore them, but it can be exceedingly challenging and can test the bounds of your patience and compassion. But I recently learned something that I think might help me (and you) the next time a difficult person makes your blood pressure skyrocket or causes you to bite so hard on your lip that it bleeds. It's this: Difficult people get sick and die, just like the rest of us.
And that means you are no longer entitled to see them as bigger, worse, lesser, or different than anyone else—including yourself. They can no longer be your comic-book-like anti-hero. You can no longer fix them as a symbol of inhuman evil. When a difficult person in your life dies, you finally have to accept them as a person just like yourself, just like the people you like or love.
Here's my story teaching...
My partner and I did business with a difficult person (referred to from now on as "DP") for the last 20-some years. We had a few out-and-out verbal battles, but mostly it was an on-the-surface polite and cordial business relationship, despite the difficulty. The DP was not only difficult (read: nearly impossible) to please in most cases, but was also disorganized in the presentation of information. This caused extra work with the almost expected pay-off of some sort of complaint or non-professional verbal communication (read: insulting comments and verbal mistreatment). If work came from DP, it was guaranteed to create days of stress and gnashing of teeth.
We were also aware that other peers/co-workers felt the same way about our subject DP, so information exchange took place on occasions when they too had to blow off a little steam over some altercation they had with DP. Essentially a myth was created around our DP and the DP took on a superhuman quality. DP became a caricature; a caricature of my own anger or annoyance in human form.
Then something happened. A week to the day of the last (and one of our worst) run-ins with DP, DP had a major traumatic health event and a couple of weeks after that, DP passed away. It was a shock, as a sudden illness and death always is: propelling you into an instant awareness of your own mortality and the fragileness of life. DP's death for me was also a very humbling, Dharma-teachable moment.
I had recently wished that DP would retire, quit, move, go away... anything so we wouldn't have to deal with the stress anymore. And DP did go away... to the hospital. And then DP went away permanently. I'm not saying my wish had anything to do with DP's medical event or death, but wow, timing like that can sure make you take notice of your own thoughts and initiate self-reflection.
When DP suffered, DP became a person again in my mind and the mythical protagonist was no longer to be found. Just another sentient being suffering and dying. And in DP's dying, a bright Dharma light of wisdom shined brightly on my anger, my imperfection, my ignorance. I was no longer the good guy wronged by the evil DP. I was another human pausing to notice another's illness and death—the future that awaits us all, even difficult people.
In creating my DP Super Anti-Hero, I forgot I was chiseling a character out of my own thoughts. And forgot that DP's behaviors are a result of causes and conditions and not coming from a fixed self or identity. In fact DP is empty of an inherent existence, despite my creation of an innately mean Super Anti-Hero with my thoughts. In creating a fixed DP self in my head, I created something that—if I had spent more time examining my thoughts and not DP's words and actions—I would have seen was against the very principles that "supposedly" guide my life as a Dharma practitioner. It was against the Four Marks of Existence, or the Four Seals of Dharma, which I've mentioned in this blog before, but will summarize again, in context:
1) All compounded things are impermanent. DPs come and go.
2) All emotions are painful. DPs cause me emotional distress and someone/something cause DPs emotional distress, too. But no matter how painful, theses emotions don't last and insults can't hurt me.
3) All phenomena are empty, without inherent existence. Nothing exists by itself, inherently. Nothing exists independently, or externally. All things are the object of a subject, so therefore without inherent existence. DPs aren't Super Anti-Heros. I create them as objects to my subject.
4) Nirvana is beyond extremes and is, therefore, peace. This means that, if you accept and keep the first four concepts as your worldview, you will be at peace. If I accept DPs as a human being, I may glimpse peace, because beings are inherently good, I believe.
I'm sure I will have to deal with more difficult people in my life. I'm also pretty sure that I will fail again and again to remain patient. But I hope that maybe I will remember that difficult people and me are the same: we both share anger, imperfection, ignorance, and impermanence.
In The Way of the Bodhisattva Master Shantideva teaches this with so much more literary grace. I will leave you the pertinent verses of his enlightened words from Chapter 6 on Patience:
Pain, humiliation, insults, or rebukes--
We do not want them
Either for ourselves or those we love.
For those we do not like, it's quite the opposite!
I'm not angry with my bile and other humors--
Fertile source of pain and suffering!
So why should I resent my fellow creatures.
Victims, too of like conditions?
Never thinking, 'Now I will be angry,'
People are impulsively caught up in anger.
Irritation, likewise, comes--
Though never plans to be experienced!
Every injury whatever,
The whole variety of evil deeds
Is brought about by circumstances.
None is independent, none autonomous.
Thus, when enemies or friends
Are seen to act improperly,
Be calm and call to mind
That everything arises from conditions.
If things occurred to living beings
Following their wishes and intentions,
How could sorrow ever come to them--
For there is no one who desires to suffer?
And if their faults are fleeting and contingent,
If living beings are by nature wholesome,
It's likewise senseless to resent them--
As well be angry at the sky for having clouds!
Although indeed it is the stick that hurts me,
I am angry at the one who wields it, striking me.
But he is driven and impelled by anger--
So it is his wrath I should resent.
Scorn and hostile words,
And comments that I do not like to hear--
My body is not harmed by them.
What reason do you have, O mind, for your resentment?
So like a treasure found at home,
Enriching me without fatigue,
All enemies are helpers in my bodhisattva work
And therefore they should be a joy to me.
Because of those whose minds are full of anger,
I engender patience in myself.
They are this the cause of patience,
Fit for veneration, like the Doctrine.
About these blog posts
A mix of older posts I wrote for the blog, Suchness: It's All Good - Buddhist Ramblings, LinkedIn articles, and Career Coaching blog posts.