Why are we unloving?

Not long ago I was leaving my house in the morning and was behind a car that was about to turn onto the main road. Clearly her judgement had failed her because she turned out too close in front of a passing car. There was no accident thankfully but she clearly should have waited to turn until the car passed. The woman in the passing car was clearly upset, and to my surprise she gave the other driver the finger. Neither driver knew the other. They were strangers. But because of one driver’s mistake of misjudgement the other felt stranger enough to make an insulting gesture.

Why do we have tendency to be unloving in moments of frustration? I realise that I am not immune to moments like this, whether with strangers or loved ones. Recently I had booked a hotel room through Priceline.com for a weekend trip with my wife. Because there was the risk a potential snow storm could cancel our weekend I phoned Priceline to enquire about the possibility of cancelling in the event the storm was bad. I didn’t want to cancel, I simply wanted to see if they would allow me because of weather. The agent I spoke to did not seem to understand that I was only wondering about the possibility of cancelling; she seemed to think I wanted to cancel now. After explaining to her three times that my intent was simply to enquire about the possibility of cancelling in the event a storm prevented our travelling, she said, “Okay sir, I will go ahead and process the cancellation of your reservation.” At that point I raised my voice in frustration and asked her why she hadn’t been listening to me! (Needless to say, I do not recommend Priceline.com. When we arrived at the hotel the reservation was found cancelled with no available rooms.)

I did not know this woman and I suppose I could have spoken to her a bit more politely. But my frustration got the better of me. Why does this happen? It’s because a lack of self-awareness.

Awareness is one of the most important features of the spiritual life. Call it contemplation, noticing, self-examination, listening, looking. Awareness helps us grow as human persons and helps us allow God into that flourishing. Here are a few things to pay attention to in our effort to be more loving:

  1. Stress triggers – Spend a few days noticing the things that trigger stress in you, like poor customer service, the tone of someone’s remark, an annoying habit someone has, or some other pet peeve. Pay attention to how you naturally react to those things.

  2. We can’t control others – I can’t always control what others do, but I can control how I respond to my stress triggers. My natural response may be an abrasive one, but a more loving response is within my control. For me, nervous finger tapping drives me mad. My tendency would be to yell, “Stop it!” But if I’m aware of not only how finger tapping is a stress trigger but that I have the danger of an unloving response, I can try to be loving as I ask the person to stop. Or I can gently remove myself from the situation.
  3. Pausing – If we can actually notice that we’re frustrated before we react, we have a chance to choose how to respond to the frustration. When I feel a building frustration within me I will consciously pause, giving me a chance to consciously choose how I respond.
  4. Eye contact – I’ve found a world of difference in frustrating relationships and interactions when I make eye contact with the person. How often do you make true and sustained (more than a glance) eye contact with a cashier at the store? How often do you make eye contact with other drivers? Making intentional eye contact with someone means you acknowledge them as human, as an other who is worthy of love, dignity, and respect.
  5. A habit of care – We can reduce our negative and unloving reactions if we practise a habit of care for others. By integrating little moments of care into our daily lives we will become naturally more loving, where our natural tendency is responding lovingly to others, rather than unlovingly. This can be as simple as genuinely saying thank you to strangers, and really meaning it. It can be allowing a car into your lane in traffic.

Praying the daily Examen can be helpful in cultivating a sense of self-awareness and an awareness of how God might be calling us to respond in particular situations. Jesus encountered many people who reacted unlovingly to people they did not even know—the ill, the blind, and other strangers. Even the teachers of the law reacted to Jesus by testing him. When do I feel “testy”? Can I pause in those moments long enough to be aware of how God might want me to respond?

Listen to an audio version of this post…

Music by Kevin MacLeod

13 replies

  1. Andy, thank you. I was most unloving in reaction yesterday due to frustration. I reflected upon my words and actions during my Examen before bed. However, upon seeing the title of your email this morning I chose to read and use as morning reflection. Your message, your examples, and your guidance on ways to thwart unloving reaction offer contemplation. Thank you for the Ignatian insights you offer in God In All Things.

  2. really enjoyed this–will be very beneficial for me to reflect on these suggestions from time to time.
    Thank you

  3. Glad you brought this up. In the end, I think it’s a part of life and that’s just the way it is. We are human and humans have the ability to cause one another problems. I got into a car accident last summer where a woman was pulling out of a parking spot on her phone and did not look and proceeded to pull out of the spot at a fast speed—NOT LOOKING. Very dangerous. So we crashed. Thank God nobody was hurt. However, the inconvenience caused by this incident was really not what I needed at that time. Not only that, the woman was at fault on the police report and my insurance company agreed. She decided to try and file a claim against me and blame me. Some people are just so thoughtless and selfish it’s very hard to not lose patience. While I didn’t say what I really wanted to say to her, I did tell her she was reckless and unreasonable and that I’d be waiting in my car for the cops to arrive. My point is — who wouldn’t lose patience? Who wouldn’t be aggravated? I was grateful that nobody was hurt, but the woman could have killed herself, or me and I wonder if she is still driving like that. Probably. Not to turn this into a tangent, but my mother’s coworker was killed in a car accident last week by a driver texting. We have the capacity to literally ruin others lives by the choices we make. That is why we act unloving. A woman is dead now because someone had to text while driving. Someone has to live without their mother now. It’s sad and it’s infuriating and it’s so unnecessary most of the time and that is why we are angry…. or at least why I get angry.

  4. Thank you all for your comments. It’s clear this is an issue that touches all of us. And yes, it can be a very human response – But, Jesus is the model of being human. He certainly could get frustrated but he was never once unloving. That is an ideal we can strive for each moment when we recognise our frustration.

  5. I think it’s something that is ever evolving and always something to think about. Jesus did lose his temper, rebuke people and got annoyed….if that’s the best word to use. I think that was part of Jesus’ humanity as is ours. We are not robots who will float around with serene smiles and being sugary sweet to everyone we meet. In fact, I try to beware of people like that because they are not authentic. I appreciate people who come to me and say, “Hey, Stephen, I’m kinda pissed off at you and here’s why. Let’s talk.” I respect that. In our relationships we need to have freedom to express ourselves openly and honestly and “being loving” is open to interpretation. If I confront a person about something they did, even if I do it tactfully, they might see that as unloving because I hurt their feelings. Ultimately, I set a boundary which is healthy for the both of us. But to them, I was “the meany.” I think mature Christians understand that getting annoyed, upset and losing it every now and then is not contrary to being a Christian. We see people all throughout the bible that were far from sweethearts. Again, we see Jesus getting agitated in the temple and flipping over tables. I don’t see that as being unloving. We are human. Being human means having flaws and accepting those flaws is part of spiritual maturity. In the larger scheme of things — we live in a world that is very hostile and we should work on being kinder to one another. But before we do that we should define what being kind means. I once heard a sermon that was titled, “The difference between being kind and being nice.” Nice is that sugary sweet fake nicey nice behavior that really doesn’t solve anything, produces no fruit and leads to little change or social justice. Being kind is confronting things head on in a way that benefits everyone in the long run, even if people get their feathers ruffled along the way. Yes, pick and chose your battle. Yes, be mindful of what you say. Pray for the virtue of patience….but never be afraid to speak your mind or speak out or take a stand for yourself or for others. It’s the kind thing to do.

  6. thank you Stephen. This has helped me so much. Accepting the human frailty of the other – yes. But also accepting my own… and bringing the whole to Christ who accepts us beyond measure in our brokenness and frailty.

  7. No thanks needed Dorothy. I’m just being human. 🙂

    Authentic Christianity is all about being human. never trust any version that tells you otherwise.

    God bless….

  8. thanks again Stephen…

    I can’t begin to tell you how much that middle sentence speaks to me in this moment…
    it gave me the grace of true self-acceptance with my fallibilty – and _that_ enabled me finally to move from _my_ need to be reassured that I am forgiven by another to deep concern instead that the other should find healing in whatever way for the deep pain I’ve unwittingly caused through a misunderstanding.

    God is good….

  9. Andy….God has such a great sense of humor and timing 🙂 I just got off the phone with a customer service agent and was polite but very frustrated and short with her. Not feeling peaceful about this started to pray, I didn’t read this post as soon as it was posted like I normally do, God was saving it for me today. Thank you!

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