Every situation is different and requires its own discernment. Therefore it is impossible to provide a universal response to every personal conflict that may arise. My intention is to offer some principles that might help in various situations. However, underneath each reaction and interaction or lack thereof that we may or may not have with others must be done in the right spirit. This means we must realize that all interactions involve spiritual discernment. Words or silence both have power. I would like to spend some time sharing with you some attitudes and responses we might have with difficult and challenging people. Everyone has their own charism in dealing with issues in their own way, and their own personality. However, there are times when we need to have boundaries.
I would like to first address the diabolical or evil presence of an individual. All of us can be mouth-pieces for Satan. And if we are really honest with ourselves, we will note occasions in our lives when our words were destructive in the life of others. Be assured this doesn’t make you so far gone that you needn’t consider yourself a Christian. Remember: St. Peter was told by Jesus: “Get behind me Satan.” Eve was the first mouth-piece of Satan when she tempted Adam. All of us have some part to play in passing on gossip, lies, personal opinions and impulsive statements that are naïve, that can cause misdirection and disorder in the lives of others. However, there are some people who are so crafty and under the influence of the Evil One (perhaps without knowing it) to such a degree that they should be avoided. These people might be possessed (it is the demon speaking), or they could simply be wicked.
Pope Francis recently drew a distinction between the “corrupt” and the sinner. The sinner is all of us, including the corrupt man. However, the corrupt man is a type of sinner that might not be in all of us. He is one who knows he is a sinner, yet refuses to admit of it to himself and to others. It may seem that I have contradicted myself here. If a person knows he is a sinner, how can he refuse to admit that? Doesn’t he admit it on some level? Yes. However, there is a whole other level of self-deception, self-justification and self-righteousness that abodes in him.
He is convinced in and through his passion and lack of spiritual integrity that he is righteous when he is not. Such a man is vicious, and thinks himself (on the surface) to be virtuous. Again, I think if we are honest with ourselves, this exists to some degree in all of us, but in the wicked/corrupt, it is to such a degree that the person is poison and cancer to be around. In fact our presence actually enables the person to perpetuate evil. These are the people we should not eat-with. Such people whose presence brings about a sort of “inner-twisting” whereby we recognize that entering into dialogue with such a person becomes a battle-ground that we cannot win. No matter what you say, no matter how genuine you say it, your words will be used against you. Pharisees did this to the Master, and he was so wise that many times He could answer their questions with such great wisdom that it would confound the people. However, not all of us have such power and wisdom. Many of us, including me especially, can experience a temptation to respond to every objection or every argument or every accusation. Meanwhile, this is merely the person bating you. Christ also did respond silent, and at other times he answered questions they didn’t ask, in order to frame the discussion on His own terms.
The antagonistic person might purposefully mischaracterize your point simply to antagonize a response out of you. This is typically called “trolling” but it can be done with a vicious spirit. In many of these cases, what God asks of us is silence. I remember years ago I was having a difficult relationship with someone. It came to me, through a great deal of prayer, that I was not meant to dialogue with that individual. Through direction and the guidance of many others, I was told: “This isn’t your responsibility.” Of course, pride and a false type of charity always brought about the temptation to avoid fostering a legitimate boundary for my own sanity. Such great anxiety (the type that causes you to not sleep) would take hold of my heart that I felt the need to “control” or seek “reconciliation” with this individual at any cost. Isn’t that what Christians are called to do? Not always.
When I was young, I had an exaggerated notion of God’s mercy. It is a weird thing to say, because we know that there are no limits to God’s mercy. But there are limits to its definition. Some acts are merciful, others are not. If a person is abusive, subjecting yourself to that abuse isn’t merciful towards that person at all…it is enabling. Sometimes mercy, and love, are not perceived as either mercy or love. Again, when I was young, I didn’t understand this. I remember Christmas Eve, praying for the Devil, that I hoped he would have a good Christmas. It was an absurd prayer, of course, as a child, I didn’t understand the nature of angelology and why what I prayed for was impossible. It was at best a sentimental and hyperbolic notion of mercy. But it was offered to no avail. Sometimes people are so wrapped up in the devil, in deception that we simply need to respond to their own vileness and viciousness with silence.
Exorcists are reminded of this when exorcising a person who is possessed. They are reminded that entering into a dialogue with the devil himself is a fruitless endeavour. Satan is far more intelligent than us, and therefore, whatever he does, be assured its aim is deceptive and a means to ensnare us. One priest testifies that during an exorcism that he performed, the possessed individual began cracking jokes to such a degree that it had the priest and the people rolling on the floor in laughter. But it was all a deception, slowing down the process of exorcism. No curiosity, no saviour-complex , should ever avail us to converse with those who are ensnared, except when they are not under such an influence. But sometimes a person is not possessed, sometimes the person themselves is wicked enough that they need not be possessed to conduct their evil deeds. And like the devil, they may be able to outsmart you and to manipulate the discussion in such a way that brings about confusion and disorder into your life that God does not want for you, that you cannot handle, nor are expected to handle.
Let me give you an example. Last week I was at Shoppers Drug Mart picking up a prescription. As I waited in line having purchased some other medication, a man was ahead of me. He stated: “Bless me Father!” Immediately I felt ill talking to this man. I didn’t feel bothered, but I could feel the disorder within him, in my own soul. He was not there to respect the office or the Church or to discuss anything with an open heart or mind. He continued: “The only regret I have about being Catholic is that I wasn’t sexually abused. That way I could have become rich by suing the Church.”
I was taken off guard, and immediately felt confused by his statement. I needed time to process it, but I couldn’t understand his point. How demeaning to those who had been sexually abused, who probably wished every day that they hadn’t been abused! Was he attacking the victims, suggesting that they were lucky to be abused because they received money? It seemed horribly absurd. Was he in some twisted way trying to get me to suggest that the victims were just “money-grabbers?” Immediately, in my spirit, I felt this intense regret for the abuse of children within the Church. Rather than directly responding to his statement I simply confessed: “It is quite horrible what has happened to those children, isn’t it?”
My question framed the discussion in the way it should have been framed. Interestingly enough he changed the subject. He then confessed he was an atheist who followed Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. At this point, I wanted to see if he was interested in an intellectual discussion. I asked him: “Have you heard of Peter Kreeft. He is a professor of Philosophy and has some intelligent things to say on the matter.” “Pffft” he responded, “Philosophy is stupid. Do you even know what it means?” I responded, “Yes. It means Love of Wisdom. And if you don’t love it, you don’t have it.”
I purposefully made a point with a small bit of humour, to assess whether or not he would be willing to discuss anything on an intellectual level or just to be down-to-earth for a moment. I prodded, to assess the situation to confirm my intuition. However, he didn’t seem interested and just changed the subject. Was his goal to frustrate me? Probably. But he wasn’t in my head, he hadn’t gotten under my skin. The conversation went in many different directions after this. Later, while he walked away, he turned around and said, “And remember: whatever.” His statement reminded me of Zen Buddhism which upholds that the notion that there is some cosmological purpose to our existence is inherently absurd. This was how I interpreted his action.
But I didn’t react, other than to say to him: “Enjoy your movie.” In this interaction, I knew that nothing I said held any weight or value. He was talking to me in order to vex his own venom, and yet I took control of the conversation by framing his statements in the proper light. As a result, he did not stir or get the reaction from me he wanted. Perhaps he wanted me to be offended. But I wasn’t. I just stood there, not really sure what to say, and spoke when I felt called and remained silent when I couldn’t figure out where the conversation was going.
I also didn’t give him any excuse to dismiss me as a Christian by reacting tit for tat. In this way, I believe I upheld the teaching about “turning the cheek.” This of course has been grossly misunderstood. When we turn the cheek it doesn’t actually mean we turn the other cheek to be abused. Rather, we are actually taking control of a situation, while maintaining our own integrity. This is because in Jesus’ time no one would ever be considered honourable if they struck you with their left hand (that is the hand that was used to clean themselves). Therefore to turn your cheek, you would be saying, “You must dishonour yourself if you wish to hit me again.” It was a way of saying, “I’m not going to respond to your hatred with hatred, but I’m also not going to allow you to do this again to me.”
Victims of abuse who fall for a false notion of mercy and Christian charity often think that what the Church is requiring of them is to remain in an abusive situation. But understanding scripture properly, we know that this just is not the case. God does not want us to condone behaviour by enabling it, nor does he want us to become what we hate, fighting fire with fire. The path to love our enemies is therefore incredibly narrow. On the one hand we cannot be enabling, but on the other hand we cannot hate the person. There is a place in between, but it is difficult to find.
Sometimes people need to walk away from situations, from towns who do not believe, just as Jesus did. We need not curse the town in the process, but we should walk away. Our happiness is not contingent on concessions and reconciliation with every sinner. Our peace comes from being reconciled to God, which involves an openness (but not success) in finding peace in our neighbour. Some people will never admit of their own fault in this life; for them it seems too hard to bear to look inward. All in all, I have encountered numerous times, that not every situation requires a response. Sometimes we are simply there to be slaughtered like a silent lamb, and this speaks more eloquently than anything else we can say.
Having wickedness disturb your peace will only validate his antagonism. Being unmoved and at peace will only inflict war within the antagonist. And this is good, and for this reason Christ came to bring the sword, rather than false-peace.Christ brings division, as he sheds light upon the issues we sweep under the rug. We the people hate the truth at times…its hard to look at. But when we are seeking the truth with integrity, God can work with that, and help to win our hearts over. But it is His work.
Not all cases are diabolical. Sometimes people are wounded and they are impulsive and immature with their emotions. Their emotions frame their perception of truth to such a degree that they act without any impulse control. They use manipulative techniques without even realizing it in themselves. I have encountered some people who will go from “one-extreme to another.” They do this in order to manipulate your emotions to feel bad for them, and to make you perceive yourself as the bad-guy.
No one wants to be considered bad, but if our goal is to be perceived well by others, we are vain. Often such a way of framing a situation easily controls your behaviour that we acquiesce to their bullying, because their perception seems to matter to us over and above what the truth actually says. I have been bold in this regard with some individuals, especially those who go from one extreme to another. I remember one time offering a critique (although I offered a lot of praise as well). This individual however only heard the criticism. As a result he/she decided to say, “Fine I won’t do anything anymore.” I responded, “Hey that is manipulative.”
The shock on the person’s face was telling. He/she realized when I said that, I wasn’t attacking him/her, I was actually encouraging the person. It put them in a dizzy. Why? Well, I explained, “I love what you do, and I think it would be great if you continue. I am only asking you to change this one little-thing.” In other words, I did not back down from my request, but I also put the situation, immediately, into its proper context. I added, “Going from one extreme to another is merely a technique to get a person to feel sorry for you and to back down. I’m not backing down, but I’m also not attacking you personally. I love you, and am asking you to do this because it’s what should be done. Can I explain why it is important?” It is funny how calling people out can be so profoundly loving, and actually building the person up, in such a situation. The person is called out on their emotional, disproportionate reaction, while maintaining at the same time an authentic love for the person. It was a grace to be able to do this, and the person left realizing that I had set up a boundary where immaturity was not welcome, but love was. All of a sudden love was real, and concrete, not sentimental and ambiguous.
People want real love, and it comes from people who are not obsessed with the perception of others; in this way love is proven authentic, and weighty. When we search for love through manipulation we are always left empty. The one thing I’ve learned through all of this is that loving your enemy (or difficult people), is both a gift and a challenge. It is a gift because it gives us the chance to build up within ourselves the virtue of confidence in the truth, while also loving the person we speak to. People, therefore, who are difficult are saving us, they are God’s gift to us. If we don’t attempt to enter through the narrow gate, we either vilify the person to the point where we excuse ourselves into silence, or we enable the person by justifying their behaviour through our presence or keeping the dialogue/diatribe in motion. Both are wrong, and both are right responses, depending on the situation, the motive and the way we go about communicating what is important. In the person whom you should not speak to, you learn how to conquer the temptation of a saviour complex or the false notion of mercy (enabling). With the emotionally unstable or immature person, you learn how to communicate love, while not simply avoiding conflict out of sloth or cowardice.
All situations can bring about a death-to-self. But I will end with a caution. There are people in our lives that we need to shut out. While the nature of man is good, we must keep in mind that the nature of the devil is also good. The devil was created by God, and will always have the nature to “worship God.” But themoral-character (which differs from our nature/ontology) of some people is vile and evil. Alternatively, we must be very careful not to vilify someone simply because they disagree with us, and therefore to pigeon-hole them into this category. We become one of those crazy Catholics who think that everyone and everything is the devil. In reality, we become the number-one reason why no one goes to Church or is attracted to Christianity.
We must therefore have more than a gut-reaction, but be wise and live a prayerful life under the guidance of good direction from people who have an objective and wise view. If we are tempted to dismiss a person for the wrong reasons, to excuse ourselves and to rationalize/justify this action by convincing ourselves that they are more evil and twisted then they really are, then we are not approaching this with the right spirit. Above all, there must be an awareness of our motives, and why we “want” to either avoid or seek conflict.
Sometimes we are living a life motivated by fear and therefore pride, yet we have the habit of justifying our motives in the service of God or neighbour, that we fail to realize the motives are actually quite the opposite. Some occasions call for directness, other situations require boundaries that avoid enabling certain behaviour. There are some people we need to simply ignore or walk away from (which can be a loving thing for that person), unless they experience a transformation so significant that the reality of manipulation and twistedness is gone. At the end of the day, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ through baptism. We are not meant to be at war with each other, but we are. And we must battle and navigate through temptation carefully and with wisdom. Therefore, be neither only silent nor only confrontational: but wise. Christ did both. Know your limits, and know the person you are talking to.
By Father Chris Pietraszko