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Self-Knowledge • Growth & Maturity

How to Love Difficult People

Perhaps the finest way to develop a loving attitude towards other people is to recall, in the face of their difficulty, that we are, in the end, all children.

The claim is an odd one. Adults are clearly not children. They have powers of reasoning that quite outstrip those of younger people, they have options and a sound grasp of right and wrong, they are capable of causing serious damage; they should know better. 

Children, on the other hand, are well-known for their powers to melt our hearts. Partly this has to do with their physical appearance: with their unusually large eyes, their full cheeks, their unthreatening statures, their tiny fat fleshy fingers. But ultimately, the child attracts our tenderness because, when they act in ‘bad’ or tricky ways, it tends to be easy to work out why they have done so: they hit their little sister because they were feeling left out; they started to steal things from the other children because their parents were going through a divorce; they ran away from the party without saying goodbye because they were panicked by a sense of unworthiness.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Overall, when it comes to the psychology of children, we discover a surprising and hugely gentle truth: that ‘badness’ and difficulty are, invariably, the result of some form of pain, discomfort, hurt or wound. The child does not start by being dreadful, they become so in response to injury, fear or sorrow. 

With adults on the other hand, confronted by nasty or terrible behaviour, our thoughts do not – for understandable reasons – generally turn to imagining why it might have occurred. We’re satisfied with nimble and compressed reasons: because they’re an arsehole, because they’re crazy. This will do for now.

And yet it is always open to us to wonder why someone acted as they did – and here we are liable to stumble on an always provocative and properly revolutionary idea: the reason why little children and big people do wrong is – despite the differences in age and size – exactly the same. One category may be no bigger than a chair, the other can be gigantic and able to carry guns, post lengthy screeds online or start and bankrupt companies, but in the end, the psychology of blunder, meanness and anger is always the same: evil is a consequence of injury. The big person did not start off evil, their difficult sides were not hard wired from the start, they grew towards malice on account of some form of wound waiting to be discovered.

It is work of extraordinary patience and humanity – it is the work of love – to go in search of what these wounds might be. To search is morally frightening because we too easily imagine that it might require us to wind up thinking well of behaviour we know is abhorrent: it doesn’t at all, we can remain appalled while simultaneously tracing a path back to the true catalytic factors. The work can also be practically frightening because we imagine that it might require us to leave someone at liberty to cause us or others yet more pain: but again, we can keep the wrong doer safely behind very high bars, even as we sensitively explore the origins of their violations.

Once the full stories of our trespassers become known, our perspective may swiftly rework itself. The bully who pursued us online had once worked as a porter, then been fired some years back and fallen into depression and was facing the bankruptcy courts. The angry populist politician was remorselessly belittled by a powerful father. The sexually impulsive person used their addiction to calm themselves down from some unmasterable anxieties related to early emotional neglect. Our judgement on behaviour never has to change; our sense of why it occurred can be transformed.

The discipline of psychotherapy has been central in helping us to chart the sometimes unobvious or contrary connections between a symptom and its genesis. Boastfulness may have its roots in fear; anger can mask terror; hatred can be a defence against love. The haughty air of the grown up can take hold as a way of compensating for invisibility. A satirical manner can be a shield against an exiled longing for sweetness. 

The prison system in most countries tends to place people below the age of eighteen in separate young offenders’ institutions, which treat inmates with a degree of kindness and hope – in order to delve into the psychology of transgression with a view to understanding and overcoming its causes. But after this age, for the most part, prisoners are locked up in bare cells and the key is – metaphorically – thrown away. They should, after all, have known better.

And yet we are all, as it were, young offenders, however old we might actually be; in other words, we all need our crimes to be treated with a degree of sympathy and empathetic investigation. It is an exquisite feat of mind to be able to imagine them as always still, at some level, infants in a cradle.

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