A priest friend of a friend once commented, “I could be a saint if it weren’t for the people!” I feel that way all the time. I’m so easily annoyed; it’s probably my worst personality defect. I’m like a grouchy old lady waiting to happen: just give me a cane and a rocker, and I’ll happily sit out on my front porch all day and complain about celebrities and politicians while shaking my fist at merrymaking neighbors.
My irritation is almost never with people I know well; I usually transform into a person with the attitude of an overtired two-year-old and the demeanor of a wet cat based on brushes with people in parking lots or grocery stores (what is with these people who walk right in front of me and then slow down?), things I read online, or stories I hear about politicians or celebrities. (This is probably an introvert thing as well. God designed people like me to be kept far away from society, but by some bizarre twist of fate I ended up in the suburbs instead of in a remote desert cave.)
So what do I do about this? When I was an atheist my answer was, “Avoid stupid people!” But now that God has given me the grace to see that maybe, just maybe, the problem is not with other people as much as it is with me and my attitude — and, indeed, that I am often one of the “stupid people” — I’ve been looking for practical strategies to avoid being so irritable.
I’ve been praying about it for a while, and then, the other day, I got an interesting answer:
I felt drawn to ponder how incredibly unlikely it is that any two people should encounter one another; to consider the truth that God destined each one of us to live at a particular time in a particular place, and that we share that destiny with only a minuscule number of people.
Demographers estimate that the total number of humans that have ever lived is around 105 billion. There are about 6 billion people on earth right now, and each of us will only encounter a small handful of them.
When you consider the staggeringly slim odds that, out of all of human history and all of humanity’s future all over the globe, God would have you and another person both end up in the parking lot of the HEB Grocery on 41st Street in Austin, Texas in the United States on September 7 of the year 2010 A.D., it’s really pretty mindblowing — even if that other person did just steal your parking space.
When I feel annoyed with politicians or celebrities, I consider this idea that God placed me here and now for a reason. He didn’t have me live under Emperor Hongwu of the Ming Dynasty, as I would have if I’d been born in China in 1377. I live in the tiny sliver of history along with Britney Spears and the entire case of The Hills, unlike people who lived in Sumeria in 5, 000 B.C. or Easter Island in 350 A.D.
I’ve come to think of it like if you were to be trekking through rural Mongolia, and saw a figure approaching on the horizon. You get a little closer, thinking it must be a local goat herder, only to realize with astonishment that it’s your next door neighbor. Even if the guy did get on your nerves, you’d be awestruck at the unlikeliness of it. There would be something sacred about his presence that would override any petty annoyances.
And so it is with all the people we encounter in our daily lives. Yesterday at the grocery store a woman was parked right in front of the milk section, laughing on her cell phone, oblivious to my gestures that I was trying to get something behind her (and clearly not recognizing the universal “I have four hungry little kids in this cart who are about to riot if I do not get moving” pleading look I gave her). I walked away annoyed. I trudged through the freezer section thinking all sorts of uncharitable things. But then I considered that if I could move freely across time and place, and see all the people who have ever lived, all across the globe, I’d feel a deep kinship with this rare soul who shared this unique moment in history with me. I would be lying if I said that that thought process instantly filled me with saint-like love for her, but it helped. When we passed in another aisle a few moments later, for a moment I forgot about whatever it was that had bugged me, and felt only awe at the sacred unlikeliness that our lives should intersect.