A guide to dealing with people you don’t like

I still want to destroy my enemies. But now I’m trying to destroy them by turning them into friends.

Andrew Branch | Unsplash

“I never really liked you in college,” is what an embarrassingly large number of people have said to me (almost certainly with good cause) over the intervening years. I’m sure if you had met me back then, you wouldn’t have liked me, either. We all have growing up to do as we mature, but I had more to do than others.

Back then, I remember struggling to define myself, being somewhat angry at the world and prone to fits of depression. All these difficulties combined with a naturally difficult personality made for a wicked combination and I was prone to acting out, not so much in rage or outright meanness, but by being dismissive and thoughtless. In short, I fear I made a number of enemies in my past. Today, nothing makes me happier than having a chance to reconcile and begin a new relationship on a footing of friendship, and I’m grateful for these opportunities when they arise.

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It means a lot to me when people are open about problems they have with me, especially when it’s a way to put it behind us. It’s an action I admire and try to emulate.

It’s all too easy to be nice and accommodating to people we like, but if our generosity is limited to friends, can any of us say we’ve really gone above and beyond to make the world a better place? It’s much more difficult to treat our enemies kindly: the unfair boss at the office, the co-worker who undermines you, the neighbor who’s unkind to your children, the person who cut you off in traffic, the family member who causes trouble at every opportunity and ruins every holiday gathering. These people can all too easily become de-humanized in our minds as we label them as enemies and begin to treat them differently.

We should always conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend.” — John Henry Newman

One socially acceptable, popular option is to go ahead and destroy our enemies because, of course, they deserve it. We can put them out of our lives forever, hold a grudge as long as needed, or cut them down to size by gossiping about them. For doing this, we might even be cheered on by our friends and considered strong, as if the more we attack others the greater our victory. And indeed it can be gratifying to see an enemy brought low. But really, who wins? This seems to be nothing more than an adult version of schoolyard cliques and psychological bullying. As adults we’re better at justifying it—and I know my own first impulse is to claim that they hurt me first so my retaliations are fair—but in the end, the desire to destroy our enemies creates no winners. The one I attack ends up embarrassed and shamed, and after the initial excitement of vengeance, I end up with a healthy dose of guilt (no matter how I try to justify it) and one less person who will ever be my friend.

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I don’t know about you, but I need all the friends I can get. I’m trying to slow down and consider the way I treat people who’ve gotten on my bad side. The advice of the late theologian John Henry Newman is helpful. He says, “We should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend.” So instead of friends and enemies, it’s better to think of people as friends and future-friends.

For me, this perspective shift had made a big difference for several reasons. First, considering someone a friend even before they reciprocate can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once I make the effort to be kind to someone, their attitude shifts abruptly in return and, surprise, the person I thought was so horrible turns out to be a wonderful, interesting person (usually). I have to admit, I have learned this lesson most frequently when other people have been kind to me first and thawed my chilly attitude towards them. No matter though, even if the initiative wasn’t mine, I have still gained a new friend.

No grudges and enemies are allowed in heaven. Knowing this gives me a lot of incentive to make it right while I’m still here.

Secondly, even if I reach out and a person decides to remain my dedicated enemy, there’s psychological relief to letting go of my side of the fight, not only in that relationship but in my whole outlook. Once we stop seeing enemies all around us, it’s as if a weight is lifted and breathing space opens up to enjoy life. And it’s important not to give up, sometimes people just take a little bit of time to get over their shock, to forgive, or to be certain that you’re being genuine.

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One last consideration for those who believe in heaven: Our enemies may very well be in heaven right there with us so why wait? The people we don’t care for may be sitting in the pew behind us at Church. God loves that person even if I don’t. Somehow, someway, we will be friends; God will make sure of that. No grudges and enemies are allowed in heaven. Knowing this gives me a lot of incentive to make it right while I’m still here.

Don’t get me wrong, I still want to destroy my enemies. But now I’m trying to destroy them by turning them into friends.

Each week, Fr. Michael Rennier reflects on the Sunday Mass readings and pulls out a theme applicable to our daily lives. Today’s reflection is based on the Gospel for the 7th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Fr. Michael Rennier
Fr. Michael Rennier
Fr. Michael Rennier graduated from Yale Divinity School and lives in St. Louis, Missouri with his wife and 5 children. He is an ordained Catholic priest through the Pastoral Provision for former Episcopal clergymen that was created by Pope St. John Paul II. He’s also a contributing editor at Dappled Things, a journal dedicated to the written and visual arts.

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