I was visiting some friends recently and as I walked into their home, their dog began barking ferociously. I immediately froze in my tracks – convinced I was about to be attacked by some large, rabid, starving, trained to kill pit-bull. Nope. The dog turned out to be a small Boston Terrier. Fortunately for me, he was caged. When I approached the safely contained beast, it went nuts. This animal spent every ounce of energy trying to get out of that crate to “
eat greet me.” He was briefly released and I left shortly thereafter, grateful that all my limbs were still intact.
A few days later, I returned to the same scenario. In fact, every time I am in this dog’s presence, he goes stark raving mad. Initially, I was convinced he wanted to hurt me. Now, he just wants to play… I think. Honestly, I’m still cautious in his presence. “No sudden movements Rod,” I tell myself. I am never far from the “treats” in case I need a life-saving distraction.
His owner, used to this behavior, recently gave me some helpful advice: “Rod, you have to think of him like a dog with special needs.“
I laughed. A special needs dog?? Is that even possible?
The advice clicked. Ah, yes. The dog has special needs alright. He has a need to maul me. All dogs like to chew on bones. This one just wants to chew on mine, all 206 of them.
As I thought about this description, I found myself immediately possessing a bit more understanding. Instead of being frustrated at the dog’s inability to control himself or his over-enthusiastic desire to love (aka chew) on me, I began to change my perspective on him. After all, he was a rescue dog. He was hit by a car and left for dead. Perhaps he learned not to trust any humans? Maybe he was mistreated by an adult male with a goatee? Perhaps his capacity for love exceeds his capacity for self control? Clearly, something in his past is hindering his ability to relate to new strangers, especially males.
I thought about what would happen if we applied this same perspective to the difficult people in our life. What would happen if we changed our perspective on the following types of people that we all have encountered?
- The overbearing boss. Perhaps he grew up in a home where he was never praised? Maybe he has never experienced the powerful motivator of encouragement? What if he is treated the same way by his superiors and this form of leadership is all he knows?
- The rude neighbor. Maybe she has experienced previous neighbors who have disrespected her property or wishes? Perhaps she is suffering from a chronic pain unknown to people outside her family? Maybe your yard is nicer than hers and it makes her jealous?
- The “know-it-all” friend. Obviously, this person is struggling with massive amounts of insecurity. Perhaps she grew up feeling insecure about her intellect or academic abilities. Maybe she struggles with feeling accepted and this is her way of desperately trying to “fit in.” Maybe you intimidate her in other ways and this is an area she can feel better than you?
- The “black sheep” of the family. Every family seems to have a black sheep in it. It may not be an immediate family member but someone in the extended family is not like the others. Maybe their past has brought the family shame. Perhaps they presently struggle with some sort of vice? Whether it is an addiction, mental illness or just an annoying personality, this individual makes you want to run. Your family relation makes that impossible.
The truth is, there are a lot of special needs people out there and I’m not talking about those with mental or physical handicaps. In fact, you may be considered special needs to someone else and don’t even know it.
Think about it. The guy who cut you off in traffic today may not be a jerk after all. Perhaps he was rushing to the hospital to say goodbye to a passing loved one before it was too late? When you cut someone off in traffic, is it because you have hate in your heart? Were you trying to get the other driver to spill his coffee in his lap or give him a heart attack? No. You got distracted. You weren’t paying attention. Your mind was on your upcoming meeting. You know what you did was unintentional and yet it does not stop the other driver from letting you know you are the scum of the earth. Obviously, his perspective on you is not the same as your perspective on you.
Sometimes what we see or hear is not really the way things are. At times, there may be another perspective out there and too few of us are willing to take the time to look for it.
St. Francis of Assissi, the 12th century Catholic friar and preacher once wrote, “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” I have found that those seven words can radically transform relationships, when applied. I know they have helped me numerous times as I have encountered a difficult or even abusive person. Even when I’ve been hurt by a friend, I have tried to understand (in the midst of the pain) their perspective first.
What would happen if we did that, in each relationship we had? How might our relationships improve if everyone stopped long enough to ask the question, “What is going on in their world that caused them to say or do that?” Or “What happened in their past (today or years ago) that is making them act this way?”
I remember when I was working with youth, a particular middle school boy was acting out during one of our meetings. I had a good relationship with this kid, and yet on this one particular day – he disagreed with everything I said. If I asked the teens to do one thing, this kid would do another. If I was talking, he was talking. As I was giving instructions to the group, he was distracting other kids. Finally, after exhausting my patience, my frustration level was through the roof. I stopped the meeting and abruptly escorted him outside. I was on the verge of losing all self control and giving this kid a well deserved verbal lashing for his rude and disrespectful behavior. As we walked outside the room I was thinking about what to say. Suddenly and unexpectedly, I felt compassion for him. Something told me that something else was going on, under the surface. His behavior was being caused by something much deeper and THAT was the root issue I needed to address. My demeanor changed. I pulled up a chair and we sat down and I merely asked, “What’s going on? Everything ok?” The flood gates had opened. This tough kid who had spent the last hour of our youth meeting acting like a rodeo clown started to cry. Over the next 30 minutes he shared about his parent’s divorce and difficult home life. At the end of our time together, I wanted to cry. In fact, after hearing all that he was living through – I wanted to act out. No wonder he was behaving the way he was. I realized that though he was wrong to behave the way he did, I needed a different perspective on him. I needed to figure out a way to help him. That day, our relationship changed. I saw all future behavior through a much different lens and it helped me to handle him with more love and grace.
Do you need to change your perspective on certain people in your life? I know I do. Are you seeking to understand them before seeking to be understood? I find myself tempted to discredit anyone who doesn’t understand me. I don’t think that is what St. Francis had in mind.
I think this is why Jesus had the impact on people that He did. He saw what others could not (or would not) see.
- When people looked at Peter, they saw an uneducated, impulsive fisherman. Jesus saw a disciple, a leader, and one eventually equipped to lead His church.
- When people saw a leper, they saw an unclean man, unworthy of entering the temple. Jesus saw a man who needed to be healed and welcomed back into the community of believers.
- When people saw a tax collector, they saw a dishonest government employee. Jesus saw a person who needed forgiveness and a new way of doing business.
- When people saw a prostitute, they saw someone who deserved to be treated like the social outcast she was. Jesus saw a sister who needed someone to love her in her sin and give her the grace required to get out.
- When people saw the thief on the cross, they saw a criminal deserving of the law of death. Jesus saw a repentant heart and a man who desperately wanted a second chance at life.
How do you look at people in your world, especially the people who have hurt you? It’s easy to villianize them and keep our tainted perspective on them. After all, they lied/cheated/stole/gossiped/slandered/abandoned/hurt us in some form in the past. But is that the perspective we are supposed to maintain with them? Do you want your past to be remembered against you for the rest of your life?
I saw “Bumpy” again yesterday. In typical fashion, he went stark raving mad at the sound of my voice. When he was released from his crate, he came after me like a bullet. But now, my perspective has changed. He’s no longer a dangerous, mean, “special needs” dog to me. I’m learning to love this wild beast and learning how to let him love me.
Like it or not, there are some “bumpy” people out there and they want to be loved just like you do. They probably have a difficult past. They may respond to you from their wounded well. They might not have learned certain social graces yet. They may not act as sophisticated or righteous as you. They may not improve the quality of your life but I’m pretty convinced they can help improve the quality of your love.
God didn’t put us on earth to become more educated. He didn’t create us to be more politically correct. We aren’t here to make money or collect more toys. He created us to love Him first and others second and He intentionally puts us around the stark-raving mad bumpys of the world to exercise that love. Easy people are easy to love. Anyone can do that. (Matthew 5:46) It’s the difficult ones that require us to lean on His supernatural strength.
And before we can love some of the these people, we must change our perspective about them.
Some crazy dog is helping me do that.