Lovingkindness (n.): a tenderness and consideration towards others (Oxford Languages)
Sonder (n.): the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own (Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows)
One of my goals for 2022 is softening my views of difficult people.
This takes some mental calisthenics. There have been individuals in my life that have impacted me in negative ways, and trying to see around that is usually met with a great deal of internal resistance on my part.
But when we hold onto hurt, we sully ourselves, not to mention completely (and possibly unfairly) writing off the person whom we view as the cause of our pain.
I need to stress that giving difficult individuals a second look to examine their internal motivations does not mean absolving them of all responsibility for their actions. What they did or said remains that and their role in your pain is not diminished. But in letting go and softening our own reactions, we heal ourselves and decrease the impact that the individual’s actions have on us.
What has been working for me is one simple thing: to pause and imagine what pushes people to be uncharitable. In my experience one of the main motivators seems to be fear. We all have our own ways of dealing with this emotional state, some of us may retreat and tremble (this would be me), others may lash out and attempt to control the situation that way.
I’ll go out on a limb and say that many of those in our lives that we perceive as “evil” may be running away from something. And their inability to deal with their fears and shortcomings makes them very pitiful indeed. The more thoughtless and controlling and misery-inducing an individual seems to be, the more fear they may well have bubbling under the surface.
If we can step back a bit, we can mitigate their power to upset us, because that’s when we see their behavior in a different context.
Let me offer an example: One of the most toxic bosses I ever had would go into “tyrant” mode, judging immediately and harshly, seemingly unable to manage her employees without bullying them. There was intense tension when she was around and I felt like I was never good enough, something that affected me deeply.
But I soon learned that she made everyone feel that way…and also that she was locked in an unhappy marriage and had little control over her personal life. So she established (and overestablished) control where she could. She hired young employees who would work for lower wages and greatly increased her profits, although it also resulted in a significant turnover because the conditions were psychologically distressing.
I dreaded work so much that it was only a matter of months before I resigned my position. I got myself out of there, a decision I never regretted. And I stress this because if a situation is bad, even if you can find some sympathy for the perpetrator, it never means you should stay there and take the abuse.
But understanding what a difficult person is going through can offer some balm for your soul as you shake off the effects of the negativity. Naturally, this is far easier to do from a distance, but it can also help create some emotional space for you if you cannot put physical space between the two of you just yet.
And in the context of a lovingkindness meditation, this makes it much easier to bring that individual into focus and offer them kindness and compassion for what they are experiencing.
It may help to consider this: true power comes not from expressing your dominion over others; it comes from understanding the reality of the situation and making the choice to respond with compassion.
In the case of my former boss, upon searching for her recently, I was shocked to learn that she had founded a charitable organization to help children in need. All those profits that she had amassed had gone to a very good cause, as she now worked exclusively on a volunteer basis.
And I sat there, staring at her photograph on my computer screen. That was her, certainly decades older, but different from the way that I had remembered her. So much more complex a human being. And instead of scoffing at the “old person trying to get into heaven”, I was filled with joy. Inside that being that I had only known as a tyrannical boss was a genuine caring person who was finally able to express her true loving nature.
Nothing could have made me happier.