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:
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
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Music by Kevin MacLeod