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  • Prayer for Difficult People

    Posted on October 3rd, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 4 comments


    The holidays are the highest stress period for those of us working as professionals in the Jewish world. Some of the most difficult people in our communities only show up once a year, but then they come en masse.  The people who are normally difficult show up more frequently. And throughout, the increase pressure and time commitments can deplete our patience. As the High Holidays of 5771, fade into the regular rythms, Rabbi Mark Sameth (HUC-JIR ’98) shares his thoughts on dealing with difficult people. Mark is a congregational rabbi in Pleasantville, New York, and tweets on Jewish Meditation from Fourbreaths.

    Rabbi Mark Sameth

    The rabbis taught – as if it might have escaped our attention – that everyone has a yetzer ha ra, and everyone a yetzer tov; everyone has an inclination toward the bad, and everyone an inclination toward good. It may sound defeatist, but the rabbis were optimists. The fact that the definite article ha appears in the term yetzer ha ra and is absent in the term yetzer tov was understood as meaning that, although we may incline toward the bad situationally, or predictably in certain specific interactions, the issue is not characterological; our general inclination is toward the good.

    Still, every once in a while we do meet someone who could be described as a toxic personality. It can be very damaging to be with such people. There are strategies and resources to deal with such destructive personalities. For readers of this blog – rabbis, cantors, and educators – one such very good resource is Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior (Alban Institute).

    Difficult people should not be ignored, cannot be ignored. But focusing too much energy on them comes at a cost. The unspoken needs of less obstreperous people who might actually benefit from our help can be overlooked. And focusing too much energy on difficult people comes at another cost as well, a very personal cost, which we would do well to be mindful of especially at this season. We can spend so much time and energy focused on a few difficult people and the teshuva they need to make, that we overlook our own need for cheshbon nefesh, overlook our need to make our own teshuva. Difficult people can keep us very busy – and the yetzer has no greater tool than busyness.

    Our tradition understands the yetzer as wily in the extreme. We need therefore to be even more artful in our own choice of responses. Sometimes the yetzer needs to be called out, confronted. Sometimes it can be reasoned with. Sometimes it responds only to threats. Sometimes it is susceptible to diversion. Sometimes it can be sweet-talked. Sometimes it will quiet down if we throw it a bone, or let it ride in the back seat. And sometimes it can be thrown off its stride if we can get it to laugh.

    In that spirit I offer the following prayer. Seriously. And may the coming year be a little less difficult for all of us, and for all of them.

    A Prayer for Difficult People

    O God, Creator of difficult people, bless me with the strength, fortitude, wisdom and equanimity of spirit to deal with the difficult people You have placed in my life. Grant me the ability to see the next disaster well enough in advance to dodge, divert, or otherwise disable it before it happens, or at least to minimize its ill effects. May my buttons be hidden from view so that Your difficult people may not so easily press them next time as they have done so very well of late. May You grant sufficient insight to Your difficult people in order that they may come to understand – speedily and in our day – how truly difficult they are, knowing they would surely turn from their difficult ways were they possessed of even the slightest bit of self-awareness. Open the hearts of these Your difficult people to feel compassion for the pain and stress which, sometimes by their actions and oftentimes by their mere demeanor, they have caused in my life, are causing in my life now, and without Your divine intervention seem inevitably ready to cause again. Open their eyes, O God, so that they may see the truth of the situation as You and I, O God, see it: that I am not fundamentally an unhappy person, and that my unhappiness therefore rests with them and with their oh so difficult ways.

    O God, Creator of difficult people, it has no doubt come to Your attention (through the prayers of others) in spite of all You know about my good heart, my good intentions, my good work, and my just overall basic goodness that I am myself at the moment considered a difficult person in the life of another one of Your creatures (maybe more; I didn’t get the whole story). Putting aside for the moment the irony of that one, causing pain and suffering is, of course as You know, the last thing I would ever want to do. Help me therefore, O God, to no longer be the difficult person in someone else’s life. Whether through my need to express myself, or my difficulty expressing myself; whether because of my tendency to criticize, or my need to say that everything is OK when it’s not; whether because I am perceived as expecting too much, or expecting too little; whether through my tendency toward compulsiveness, or toward inattentiveness; due to the way I express my anger, or to the way I express my love;  whether because I never seem to be there, or because I always seem to be there; whether because of my need for orderliness, or my need for spontaneity; because I feel the need to be alone more these days, or because I feel a greater need to be with people; because I always want to talk, or because I never want to talk; because of the way I express my fear, or because of the way I express my desire. O God, Creator of difficult people, help me – knowing so very well how it feels – help me to not be the difficult person in someone else’s life. Rabbi Mark Sameth


    4 responses to “Prayer for Difficult People”

    1. I love it! As the President of a group of 500 (Jewish) older women – believe me I needed this help – can I print it in our bulletin?

      Lee Stein

    2. As long as it is printed with attribution, feel free!

    3. Thank you It will appear in our December Bulletin – I’ll be delighted to send you a copy – but where shall I send it?!! Lee Stein

    4. Ina Bearak Helfand

      I love this prayer and believe it should be sent to every clergy person and president/leadership of an organization. Discussion of how we treat each other is so critically important in amintaining a healthy Jewsih community. Thank you Rabbi Mark

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