Last week a minor news item prompted me to indulge (briefly) in a bit of structured reflection that surpassed mere musing. And I suspect that this was precisely the result intended by the particular newsmaker in question.
Pope Francis on Wednesday reminded Catholics of the importance of putting up with annoying people as a spiritual work of mercy. “Show patience with troublesome people,” the pope said during a general audience at the Vatican.
“Troublesome people exist. Be patient with them. This [forbearance] may seem unimportant … but it contains a sentiment of deep charity. These are gestures of mercy, and what is done to one man is also done to Jesus,” Francis added.
I had been previously unaware that there are also six additional “spiritual works of mercy” expected of the faithful in their daily lives. Musta never got the memo:
- counsel the doubtful
- instruct the ignorant
- admonish sinners
- forgive offenses willingly
- comfort the afflicted
- pray for the living and the dead
Here at Waking the Dragon we think we do a pretty good job with the first three items on this list: counseling, instructing and admonishing (although not necessarily in that order). But when it comes to dealing with annoyances, Pope Francis and I probably have different ideas about who might actually qualify as a “troublesome person.” He might be thinking of the daily throngs of tourists who crowd into the Vatican, hoping to bask in the reflected glory of the papal presence or yearning for a literal touch of the divine. For me, troublesome people are the tireless complainers we often encounter in life, those who view the minor irritations of daily existence as unsupportable burdens that they alone are forced to shoulder. Contrary to what Donald Trump would have you believe, they’re not mostly women.
That’s where the structured reflection comes in. Many years ago, during a conversation with my insurance agent (I wasn’t the one complaining), I’d had a flash of insight. In retrospect, maybe it’s blindingly obvious, but at the time it was new to me. A complaint –or even a rant– often isn’t just an expression of irritation at particular circumstances or life experiences. Instead, it is an indirect admission that the speaker feels a lack of personal agency or social power, and that this powerlessness is emotionally painful. [Pause for Reader’s own reflection on this point.]
In many cases, the complaint is also a coded message communicating the anguished cry, “Nobody Loves Me!”. It is a plea for love, endlessly ignored. This, above all else, is the consummate tragedy of human existence. In cases such as these, it’s clear that Spiritual Work of Mercy #1 (patience with troublesome people) isn’t enough. Spiritual Work of Mercy #6 (comfort the afflicted) is definitely called for, and Spiritual Work of Mercy #7 (prayer for the living) might be an additional option chosen by those who believe in its actual efficacy.
So, here’s some career counsel for corporate employees in customer service departments everywhere: at the very least, exhibit genuine patience with troublesome people … and truly comfort the afflicted.
Wait, There’s More
But my recent reflection on the topic of “troublesome people” also took note of a more pernicious specimen of humanity than the Category I victim of circumstance. This is, of course, the other principal type of complainer: the supremely entitled person whose sense of self-importance becomes affronted when his whims are not immediately granted the precedence and top priority he feels they clearly require. This guy (usually but not always a man) may employ bluster, “loud-talking” and intimidation at the time of the original “offense,” but also later reenacts his outrage and indignation in front of a third-party audience that he expects will validate his claims. Indeed, from his point of view, they self-evidently should agree.
It’s much more difficult to have patience with the Category II complainer –and thus perhaps that much more meritorious in the eyes of heaven. Let’s hope so anyway. But mere patience won’t always be enough: it may be necessary to add some Spiritual Work of Mercy #3 (instruction of the ignorant) to the mix by gently pointing out that there are other things in this world beyond his personal priorities. If that doesn’t work, I recommend a light cudgeling with a four-foot length of straight-grain 2×2 Douglas Fir. Arms, legs and back only –no head shots! Nothing to break any bones, just a few bruises to make a lasting impression.
Sorry, that was my inner mobster speaking out of turn. Francis wouldn’t approve. Forgive me Papa Francesco, I have digressed. Here’s what I should have said, the whole point of this post: violence deployed in anger is a lazy expedient that gets rapid –but ephemeral– results. The only reliable methods for effecting durable change in the world are tiny gestures, incrementally accumulated through tedious repetition. Minor acts of kindness and mercy, one person at a time. Start with yourself, and go from there. You can thank me later.