Lion’s Roar editor-in-chief Melvin McLeod reflects on the practical and profound problem of difficult people, and the solution Buddhism offers, in the opening editorial of our May 2018 issue.
You might think that working with difficult people is just another of life’s routine problems. It’s about that pain-in-the-ass guy at work, that obnoxious relative, or that irritating habit your partner has.
But when you think about it, dealing with difficult people—and not being one yourself—is one of the most important challenges we face as human beings. Yes, as the Buddha pointed out, there is sickness, old age, and death. They’re big. But day to day, most of the suffering we experience comes from the difficulties other people cause us—and we cause them.
A practical and profound problem requires a practical and profound solution.
The problem of dealing with difficult people, and not being one yourself, is both practical and profound. It is practical because of the hurt we human beings continuously inflict on each other. It is profound because it raises the deepest questions about who we are as human beings and how we relate to each other. Solve it, and we transform ourselves, the lives of others, and human society.
A practical and profound problem requires a practical and profound solution. That combination is Buddhism’s speciality.
Buddhism addresses only one thing—the very practical problem of suffering. But effective solutions to big problems like suffering have to go deep. They require real insight into our basic nature, how our confusion operates, and the reality of this world we experience. These are things Buddhists have been investigating for 2,600 years.
The teachings in this issue address some of the practical issues modern psychology wrestles with—resilience, reactivity, hurt, strong emotion, and why we act so unskillfully. But they will also help you realize profound truths about things like emptiness, buddhanature, compassion, and the nature of samsara.
However, these teachings come with a couple of important conditions. Many of them involve working with your own mind, heart, and attitudes. They will help you deal with someone who is routinely difficult. They will help you work skillfully with the frictions and difficulties that inevitably arise in our close relationships.
But they are not intended to deal with people who are genuinely dangerous or abusive. If someone in your life is harmful to you, you need to apply a whole different set of principles, which are not necessarily discussed in Buddhist tradition. Then it’s not about working with your own mind or taking the blame yourself. It’s about protecting yourself, calling out abuse, and getting the support you need.
The other issue is that some Buddhist principles can be seen as blaming the victim. Traditional concepts like karma, or even the four noble truths, imply that we are the authors of our own suffering. In an ultimate sense, that could be true: if we were fully enlightened, we wouldn’t suffer, apparently. But in the relative, day-to-day world we inhabit, there is right and wrong and people do cause us suffering that isn’t our fault. Buddhism’s liberating insight that working with ourselves can have a tremendous positive effect on the lives of ourselves and others should not be taken to deny that reality.