What I learned from this arrogant, irritable, angry man...
When I was in high school, I got a job at the movie theater in my little town. I worked with friends and got free popcorn and movies anytime I wanted. The theater showed foreign and art films--in addition to the mainstream stuff--and had midnight showings of exclusive directors' cuts and the Rocky Horror Picture Show. For the most part, it was a great teenager job.
My only problem—well, besides getting paid minimum wage—is that my boss was intimidating, highly critical, and seemingly perpetually angry about life, in general.
He was also a physically large and imposing, middle aged man, who owned the theater. So the power imbalance was extreme.
He could be a nice guy sometimes. But he was often dismissive and disrespectful in ways that came right up to the limits of what I was willing to tolerate. Maintaining my boundaries without triggering his fragile ego could be exhausting!
During that time, I attended a weeklong retreat at a Buddhist monastery, in the mountains south of town.
At the monastery we worked, prayed, meditated, and attended spiritual classes. At night we slept in tiny and austere little cells.
Except for asking questions during class, we maintained total silence throughout the time we were there.
Sitting alone in the temple one day, I lit a prayer candle and asked for clarity and guidance about my job. I couldn’t stand the way my boss treated me and my coworkers. I was stressed and irritated by his criticism, angry eruptions, and the tension that surrounded him. I loved so many things about my job but felt I needed to quit for my own peace of mind.
As I sat meditating in the temple that day, my mind quieted and calmed so that I was able to hear the subtle voice of intuition. And the guidance came clearly. I received the message that this man was “a gift” to me…
What?!? No way. That couldn’t be right. Alarmed, I hoped for clarification. An explanation. How could he be a gift? He was the most distressing thing about my life at that time.
I was guided to understand that, like all difficult people who would come into my life, this man was a teacher.
He was exactly who he needed to be, for me to learn what I needed to learn, at that time of my life.
This angry, critical, and intimidating man was in my life to teach me to trust myself in the face of unjust authority. To stand up for myself in a firm but professional way. He was giving me an opportunity to practice dealing with arrogant, self-satisfied, authority figures--while making it clear to them that they have no right to be dismissive, disrespectful, or ungracious—regardless of the superficial power imbalance at play.
Before my quiet time alone in the Buddhist temple that day, I was feeling confused and anxious. I was reacting to my grumpy boss's behavior like an emotional pinball. I couldn’t see any solutions because I was lost in anger, resentment, and feelings of disempowerment. I was just fighting for the survival of my own ego.
Once I was able to see it with more perspective, the challenge of working with this man gave me the opportunity to practice being a stronger, more mature, and emotionally intelligent young adult.
None of this excused his bullying behavior. He was being a jerk--no matter how you look at it--and that’s not ok. He was working through his own life lessons about anger, control, and fear, without much grace or self-awareness, and the people around him suffered.
I could choose to stay stuck in anxiety and frustration, or look for meaning in my difficulties at work. Just as in any difficult relationship, I had to decide whether to stick around—whether dealing with him and his issues was worth the aggravation. But I wouldn’t be driven away by my own anxious and confused reaction to a bully.
His bad behavior had nothing to do with me. It wasn't personal. And I had a choice about my response.
Have you ever had anyone like this in your life? Someone very irritating, aggravating, and/or infuriating who turned out to be a teacher? Who helped you become the person you are in a positive way? It’s usually easier to find the lessons you’ve learned from difficult people after some time has passed. And start small if you haven’t tried it yet!
What about that irritating coworker or passive aggressive family member who helped you develop your saint-like gifts of patience and forbearance?
Or the ex who forced you to find and develop the resilience to withstand and overcome betrayal and heartbreak, emerging stronger and wiser than before.
Or maybe, like me, it was an angry authority figure, who helped you learn to define and maintain the standards of treatment you require. I was only 17 years old then, so there would be plenty more angry, arrogant, self-centered, and disrespectful people to come.
This problem with my boss would turn out to be a rather small one in the big picture. But at the time it was distressing! The guidance I was given in the temple that day became a sort of philosophical template, which I used from then on--often in much more troubling and demanding situations.
The template: What if this person is exactly as difficult as they need to be for me to learn what I need to learn? ✪
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