Self-Perfection by Way of Difficult People

There is a “very specific quality that distinguishes [man from animal],” says Rousseau, “about which there can be no argument: the faculty of self-perfection.” A horse never strains to be a horse but every man strains to become something other than what he is. And while every person is in pursuit of perfection they never seem to even glimpse this perfection without the help of others.

Another quality that strikes at the very essence of humankind is communion. “It is not good for man to be alone,” rings the immortal words from the primordial garden. God’s being is communion (J. Zizioulas) and the human beings He creates are created in His image and likeness. He creates them to be communion as He is communion (the Holy Trinity – one God in three Persons). Without communion a person can never become his or her true self.

Taking self-perfection and communion, or relationship, as a person’s primary distinctive features means that a person reaches perfection only through others. What is less commonly known is that both good and bad relationships can push one to perfection, in fact, in many cases, bad relationships have the advantage of providing a short-cut.

There is nothing like the trials and torments of a bad relationship to make one aware of his or her deepest angst, fears, frustrations, anxieties, and emotional blind spots. The more one is aware of these things is the more one is able to reconcile them within. No awareness means no integration. Granted, it takes a large dose of emotional maturity to pull this off, but if one is able he will make far more progress on his journey than by the way of loving, kind, and affirming people. These good relationships are the joys of life; however, they can have the effect of helping one to ignore and defer dealing with the uglier parts of the soul. One need not simply put up with difficult people. One can learn to use them as an emotional trainer, a coach, whose power it is to teach one about oneself. The more difficult people one has in life the better.

St. Symeon the New Theologian put this concept in beautiful terms: “It is one thing neither to be stung nor angered by affronts and insults, nor by temptations and trials, and another to be pleased by them.” Learning to be pleased by them is the last step to self-perfection.

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