We’ve all known, and some of us have been, people who are hard to love. Some people send contradictory signals: “Go away” and “Come closer.” “Leave me alone” and “Why don’t you ever call me?” “I need help” and “Do you think I can’t do that myself? I heard one man described this way: “Loving him is like trying to hug a porcupine.”
Whenever I encounter someone who is frustratingly difficult to love, I try to remember the ancient wisdom of Philo of Alexandria, who said: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Sometimes, those who are hardest to love are the walking wounded, casualties of their own internal warfare. They have fashioned their fears into defensive armor, and they have also shaped and sharpened their pain into a sword.
Sometimes people aren’t hard to love because of something in them but because of something in us. Our fears hold us back from them. Maybe we’re afraid to know who she really is because her gifts and talents, were they fully known, would make us feel inferior or jealous or competitive in some way. To keep ourselves from feeling “beneath” or “below” her, we only let ourselves know a limited version of her—our caricature of who she is—rather than who she most wonderfully is.
Maybe we’re are afraid of his dreams. They seem too risky and adventurous. What if his dreams take him away from us?
Maybe we’re afraid that we have caused some of the hurt they carry or inflicted some of the wounds they bear, and truly loving them would push us to face the truth about ourselves.
Maybe their needs overwhelm us and we can’t manage the temptations either to do too much and make them dependent on us, or to do too little and not help them at all, so we just walk away and do nothing at all.
Maybe we’re afraid that love by itself won’t help them. We think we need a good cop and a bad cop, a carrot and a stick, a reward and punishment. We worry that love, by itself, isn’t enough. So, we try to boost and bolster love with stronger and sterner stuff. Trouble is, whenever we try to help love out this way, we end up shoving it out the door.
To love other people is to respect their dignity, honor their worth, and recognize their potential as God’s creations. As Jean Vanier, who has spent his life working with developmentally disabled people puts it: “To love someone means to reveal to them their beauty and value, to say to them through our attitude: ‘You are beautiful. You are important. I trust you. You can trust yourself.’ To love someone is not to do things for them, but to reveal to them their capacities for life, the light that is shining in them.”
To love others is to learn who they most truly are by listening to their stories, taking delight in their brightest and most joyful times, and weeping with them over their hardest and most hurtful times. Those moments of wonder and wounding are the moments when they are, were, most vulnerable and therefore closest to their deepest and highest identity.
To love others is to discover their dreams, their God-given dreams, and to support, encourage and cheer for them as they go after the fulfillment of those dreams.
“Perfect love,” the Elder John said, “casts out fear.” Once we realize that God loves us past our own fears, we can move past them, too, and love those hardest to love—including ourselves.