‘Tis the season to spend time with family and coworkers and friends, and mixed into all of the celebration are those special people who just drive us nuts. In the month of December and in the name of baby Jesus we are uncomfortably pushed into close proximity with people who rub us the wrong way, who have nothing in common with us, or who bring something out in us we find difficult to face. Happy. Holidays.
I’m not talking about dealing with people who are destructive or have hurt me or times when reconciliation or counseling may be in order. Embarrassingly enough, there are people whose personalities simply irritate me and their perspectives and words make me feel attacked or annoyed. I try to pretend that I’m above that, but I’m not.
I’m in a spiritual direction cohort, where I’ve been studying spiritual formation and the art of listening to God and others. Our group was recently discussing a case study. As I listened to the subject of the study speak her incoherent and religiously verbose point of view over a recording, my stomach tightened. I found myself holding my breath, tensing my posture, and concentrating on not looking annoyed. As the study unfolded, the subject finally opened up and after long pauses in silence the true version of her frightened, shamed, desperate, and courageous self came out from behind the offputting mask of defense and distraction she had originally upheld.
As I stared at the small box in the center of the room which served as the source of the audio recording I felt shallow, ashamed, and unworthy to witness the beautiful thing that had happened before my eyes. I can be so proud. I can be so easily annoyed and quick to dismiss- especially toward those who seem proud themselves. I wondered, in a painful moment of self truth-telling, how many stories I had never heard the beautiful end of simply because I did not value their mystery or honor the distinctness of those people that I didn’t like.
I asked my teacher a humble question, “Is it possible to like everyone? It seems like you do and I wish I did.”
Because I have tried to like everyone. I’m actually a really nice girl. Truly. And I tell myself that every human has dignity and is a precious soul that Christ died for and whom he loves relentlessly. I tell myself that the spirit of God is within me and loves every human desperately and the world will know the spirit of God by how I love. I know that community and relationship is God’s design for the human experience and I tell myself that any bitterness or grudges can be pointing to unhealth. BUT THEN certain people open their mouths and it is ALL OVER. I wonder if I can just “love people without liking them” and design ways to avoid ever talking to their head again.
My wise teacher with silver hair and gentle eyes looked over his thin metal glasses and his answer must be told and retold until all of us humans learn how to love each other.
He quoted Sister Wendy Beckett, the British nun whose precious spirit journeyed from hermit to world renowned art critic. In her profound piece “The Art of Looking at Art” she says “It has been well said that the basic condition for art appreciation is a chair.” In truth, every person may best be appreciated as a work of art. If we consider God is the original artist of each souls design we must understand that no painting goes untarnished or unvandalized in our world, not even our own. Perhaps if we were able to “pull up a chair” we may be able to be still enough for long enough to appreciate the mystery of the art before us, even if the initial impression is far from awe and wonder.
Sister Wendy adds, “The passageway provided by art is very wide. No single interpretation of art is ever “right,” not even the artist’s own. He or she can tell us the intent of the work, but the actual meaning and significance of the art, what the artist achieved, is a very different matter.” Difficult people cannot be labeled or analyzed or interpreted in a definitive and absolute way. The effort to even attempt such a narrow appreciation of someone is dehumanizing.
I know that when I sit in the “chair” in quiet and sacred humility to contemplate the art of the person in front of me, it will not only be hidden beauty that presents itself. I may never be sophisticated enough to discern their glory- Lord help me. When my brokenness and bias leaps out ahead of the beauty I hope to find grace from the master curator of heaven and earth. Dear God, in that most human and scary place teach me to allow that grace to cover me and overflow on all of the people I don’t like- including myself.
The chair of appreciation is best sat upon in silence and solitude. As I sit and allow myself to consider my special, difficult people I invite God’s presence through prayer. Teach me to see their beauty, Lord. Teach me why my ego and emotion react so viscerally to their art. Be gentle, Lord, as my anger and hurt come out. Let there be no shame as you correct me and heal me. Thank you for this invitation to recognize you through unexpected art, and to recognize myself in my reaction. Amen.