By Rob Furlong

How can we love difficult people?

The Scorpion and the Tortoise
An 1847 Persian illustration of the Indian B?dp?y fable "The Scorpion and the Tortoise"

A blazing fire was roaring through the forest and the animals gathered at the shore of the lake in order to swim to safety. Unable to swim, a scorpion attempted to convince a tortoise why he should give him a ride on his back. Unconvinced, the tortoise replied, "You are my natural enemy, how can I trust that you will not sting me while we are in the water?" "That would be foolish!" replied the scorpion, "For then we would both die – trust me, I won't sting you!" So the tortoise allowed the scorpion to climb on board, but half way across he savagely stung his rescuer at the base of his neck. As both animals sank to certain death the tortoise cried out in despair, "Why did you do that?" to which the scorpion replied, "Because it's in my nature to sting!"

Like the scorpion, there is something in us as people that when confronted with someone we do not naturally like, rather than befriending them we reject and hurt them.

Is it possible to love difficult people? And if so, how do we do that?

The place to start is by acknowledging the inherent worth and dignity of all people. The Jewish philosopher and author, Martin Buber, proposed the idea of the "I – Thou" as the basis for relationships. He simply meant that when we regard another person as a "thou" instead of an "it" we see them as another human being created in the image of God and this profoundly changes how we relate to them. We no longer view them simply as an object or unworthy of our attention but as a fellow traveler through life and in need of love and friendship – just as we are.

"Love springs from awareness" wrote one author, "...the first ingredient of love is to really see the other."

Looking at people through God's eyes – created in His image – enables us to treat them with respect and dignity.

It also helps to ask the question "Why?" I am sure many of you have been in social settings with a group of people where anything from sport to politics or the latest book or movie is being discussed. In my experience there is usually one person present who does not quite fit in. They can be extremely introverted or they make a comment which causes such awkwardness in the group that they are politely ignored for the rest of the evening!

For many years it was my habit to make a judgement on people like that and it was not a positive one! But in recent years when I have been in similar situations I have increasingly found myself asking the question "Why?"

"Why is this person like that?"

"Why do they think that way?"

"What experiences in life have they had that causes them to speak or act like that?"

By asking these questions it allows me to stop and think for a few moments about the other person, who they might be and what they might have been through. This does not mean that I will find all the answers to my questions but it slows me down long enough from making a harsh assessment of the person and writing them off.

Something else that helps me to love difficult people is to also admit that there have been times (many!) when I have been the difficult one, the member of the group who did not quite fit in! As I look back over the course of my life I can remember times when I have said or done things that embarrassed or alienated people but I can also see how many of them showed me grace. Their care for me moved beyond mere tolerance to that of genuine friendship and love.

To remind myself that I need others to show me grace helps me to then extend grace to others as well.

It is a difficult thing to love difficult people but when we do we grow as people and so do many who are the recipients of our love.

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