I knew it was coming. I knew it! Didn’t I say last time this happened that it was going to happen again?
And didn’t I hope that I’d be ready for it this time? And I found myself not at all ready.
At this point, I’m wondering if I can ever truly be ready.
Those of you who are long-time readers can probably guess what I’m talking about. For the newcomers, welcome to my struggle to love the unloveable. It’s what God is currently working on with me. I failed big time in 2018…twice!
But as you may know, when God is working on a particular issue with you, He keeps sending tests your way until you learn your lesson.
After my last failure during my Baikal camping trip last summer, I knew the test would come again. It came twice more before the end of the year.
The first came through work.
Some time around mid-October, a new foreign colleague arrived. At first, he seemed fine but within a week we were all pretty much shell-shocked by his attitude. He complained about everything and was condescending, rude and disrespectful to just about everyone in some way.
As the Head Teacher, I tried to remain neutral, professional and helpful in order to minimize his unhappiness but that ground to a halt when he told me to shut up. To be fair, he didn’t say it in so many words but, “I don’t want to hear what you have to say,” and “You talk too much,” pretty much amounts to that.
So I shut up and left him to it. I remained cordial and polite, greeting him when I saw him, but I stopped seeking him out to ask him if there was anything I could help him with. I left it to him to approach me for any help he needed, which I willingly and promptly (and hopefully, professionally) provided as requested.
He tested my patience again on another day when one of our assistants was trying to talk to him about a class and he mistook her for a teacher. Her English isn’t very good and I could see that she was confused so I piped up and said, “She’s not the teacher, she’s your assistant,” and he snapped, “I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to her!” I looked him blankly, apologised for trying to help, shut my mouth and got back to work, afterwards bringing his foul attitude to the attention of my department management team. I blamed myself for that one because he had been pretty clear on the previous occasion that he didn’t want to hear anything from me.
As rude as he was to me, I know he was worse with other people. But to the credit of my Yakutian colleagues, as Yakutians do, despite his rude and disrespectful behaviour, they treated him neutrally and still tried to help him as he expressed the need. In many other places in the world, he would have been soundly shunned and left completely to his own devices.
A few days after the second time he told me to shut up, I realised that someone must have tried giving him a reality check because he cornered me in our break room, shook my hand and apologised for any offense he may have given me and any hard feelings that I had. It was sort of creepy and weird, actually; after his arrogant and condescending attitude of the previous weeks, this sudden humility rang false. Still, I thanked him for his apology and assured him that I had no hard feelings towards him.
I truly didn’t have any hard feelings because this time around I had found that my struggle wasn’t to not take personal offense at his offensiveness; my struggle was how to demonstrate love to his despite his offensiveness.
I just couldn’t figure out how to do it. I thought I should find ways to be kind and thoughtful towards him but the best I could do was to maintain a polite and cordial attitude while honouring his request to shut up. It didn’t feel like love, though, so I struggled. While I was struggling, I found myself feeling sorry for him. What had his life experiences been up to this point that had caused him to behave in this boorish way towards people who were trying to help him?
Soon, another foreign teacher arrived whose attitude was the total opposite and everyone treated him as they always do – they offered their help without him having to ask for it and they were lighthearted and talkative with him. I watched the rude guy watching an interaction between the new guy and some other colleagues and I felt even sorrier for him. He was so clearly standing on the outside and had put himself in a position of not receiving that kind of attention from the people with whom he had come here to work. By the time he left Yakutsk several days later (not surprising, he didn’t survive his probation period), I was sad for him but not at all sorry to see him go. He was a toxic element in our team who would have only brought discontent and unhappiness, and it was better for him to not be a part of it.
My final love test of 2018 started about thirty minutes into my Oymyakon trip. Our group consisted of fourteen people, including the tour operator and his wife plus our driver and his wife. So there were ten of us as paying customers on the trip. Of those ten, two of us were foreigners. It was the other foreigner who brought the test. This young woman had come to Yakutia specifically for this trip so she was brand new to the region. As our trip got underway, we started out by playing an introduction game where each person said the names of the persons who went before them then their own name. She was the last person up so we were all trying to help her recall the many names that had been called before it was her turn. She was sitting right behind me in the bus so I turned around and joined the chorus of voices telling her the name of our tour operator’s wife. At first, she ignored me then she looked me dead in the eye and snapped, “Stop patronising me!”
I’m sure my eyes widened in surprise. I felt it happen. The invective was so unexpected and startling that I immediately stopped speaking, turned around in my seat and wondered what the heck had just happened. Everyone had been doing exactly the same thing that I had – prompting her with the names – so I couldn’t understand why she would choose to say what she had to me. As we continued on the journey, I ruminated on the incident; I was well aware that this was a love test and I didn’t want to fail again. I looked within myself to see where maybe I had done something wrong. I know I can be bossy and I told myself that perhaps I had come across in a way that I had not intended, so I resolved to try to get her alone at our next rest spot to apologise for offending her. I had no desire to have our five days together tainted be with bad feelings.
So that’s what I did. I approached her at our next rest stop and said, “Excuse me.” She held up her hand in the universal ‘talk to the hand’ sign and said, “Wait.” So I sucked it up and I waited. Once she was ready to speak to me, I re-introduced myself to her and got ready to impart my apology. I was again startled when she flatly said, “Nice to meet you,” and walked off before I could get more than the introduction done. As I do not chase after people – man, woman or child – I decided to take the hint that she wanted nothing to do with me.
I sank back into thought as our journey towards Oymyakon continued. I prayed on it, rebuked the devil that was trying to get the better of me, and decided that I would not allow her attitude to affect my enjoyment of the trip. I was in the middle of fulfilling a yearlong dream and I wouldn’t let a snake slither into my garden. Over the next few days, she insulted and snapped at me twice more and, truthfully, I was more than ready to put my foot up her you-know-what. But I held firm to my resolve to not allow her to ruin my trip in any way, as I continued to pray it up and rebuke her.
Besides being determined to do better on this love test and to not allow my trip to be affected by her, I also knew that our tour operator had put a lot into making this trip an amazing one and I decided that I wouldn’t allow one stupid girl to ruin that for him either. So I kept my foot firmly in my reindeer fur boot and out of her you-know-what, threw myself wholeheartedly into every planned and unplanned event of our trip and had a whale of a time despite her. I also recognised that me talking about it would only bring discomfort to the situation for everyone so I kept my own counsel and didn’t give away a hint of her attitude towards me, save for briefly and in very broken Russian answering the questions of one person who saw what was happening and asked me about it.
In this girl’s case, I think I loved her by ignoring her. I know that doesn’t seem like love but I think in this case, it was. I had realised that she was determined to be offended by my presence so anything I said set her on edge. I tried telling her good morning as we were passing each other on our second morning in Oymyakon and she walked past me, studiously keeping her eyes turned away, and totally ignored me. Before you ask, we were passing each other in a narrow passage and there was no way she thought I was talking to someone else or that she didn’t hear me. Another time, she was blocking my way and I politely said, “Excuse me,” and she glanced at me then ignored me. I repeated it and she started swiveling her neck and saying, “Uh huh, uh huh,” like she was getting ready to curse me out for needing to pass by her. So I put my hands on the shoulders of the person she was conversing with and gently shifted that person out of the way so I could pass. I was not about to throw down with this silly girl in the middle of our host’s home.
These incidents told me clearly that no matter how I tried to approach her, she wasn’t having it. By this time, I was also convinced that she’s a closet racist because she was sweetness and light with everyone else on the trip except me. Since my rope is only so long, my loving her meant me honouring her demand to leave her alone one hundred percent. So that’s what I did.
Let me pause here to say that all of my negative experiences since I moved to Yakutia have been with foreigners. Every. Single. One. There hasn’t been one Yakutian who hasn’t been gracious and kind to me, or even just neutral. Even that one time when the drunk guy called me a nigger, he wasn’t Yakutian. I’m not making any assumptions or drawing any conclusions; I’m just stating my observation.
Anyway, as we made the return journey to Yakutsk from Oymyakon, I sat in my usual seat in the van with her behind me and I thought about Jesus and Judas. Jesus must have known that Judas wasn’t a good person and I wondered how He dealt with him on a day to day basis. This is what I struggle with. We’re all bad in some way. We’re human so we aren’t perfect and we occasionally, at least, say and do things that hurt others. But generally speaking, most of us are good people who don’t go around intentionally trying to be foul in our attitude towards others.
Then you have the people who just aren’t good. They don’t care that they’re rude, offensive or disrespectful and they get some amount of pleasure out of being that way. They get a thrill from the control they have over our emotions when they insult us. I don’t get this type of attitude and I’m still trying to figure out what love in action looks like when it comes to dealing with these people. Maybe it means not giving them that emotional control, allowing their insults to roll off me like water, and seeing them as wounded souls who lash out because that’s all they know to do. It’s sad, really, when you look at it from that perspective. And surely that perspective leads to kind actions towards them, despite themselves.
Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil.2 Timothy 2: 23-24
So in both cases I managed to not be quarrelsome or deliver a verbal beat down, and I endured this particular brand of evil. But I wasn’t particularly kind and I’m pretty sure I didn’t teach anything. In any case, I think I did better with these last two love tests of 2018 than I did with the first two, since I at least managed to not let any negative feelings get down on the inside of me and I was able to control my reactions and responses to them.
As to actively loving the unloveable, I guess I’ll wait for the next test to help me get started on that. I’m getting there, little by little.