I was part of a women’s group in the 1990’s called Heart to Heart. A couple of friends and I wanted to provide a place for the women in our large church to get to know each other, so we got together and came up with a unique format that focused on relationship more than teaching. We met once a week, and for forty minutes one woman would share her life story. The rest of the evening would include fellowship, and a small amount of teaching or Bible study, but the main focus was to build relationships.
Week after week, I’d listen to women share deeply about the reality of their lives, and was amazed at the amount of pain, trauma, illness, and disappointments that colored each of their stories. A number of them were women I thought I knew, our children played together, and yet when they shared I was astounded. I learned that nobody gets a free ride. There’s no such thing as an easy life. Every one of them had personal struggles they wrestled with on a daily basis. I wasn’t the only one.
As one of the leaders of the group, I wanted everyone that came to feel welcomed. During the fellowship part of the evening when we had coffee, tea and snacks, I milled around and engaged shy women in conversation. Roberta, however, needed no prompting to talk. In fact, it was hard to have any kind of conversation with her at all because she talked nonstop. The women she cornered would be polite and listen for awhile, but once their eyes glazed over, I’d run interference and get Roberta’s attention diverted to me. After a few weeks Roberta just latched onto me directly, chatting away as she followed me around the room each Wednesday night. She had no clue that others found her tirade of information disconcerting.
I complained to my husband about Roberta and how challenging she was in a group setting. Unfortunately, while he sympathized, he also had become good friends with her husband and wanted us to have dinner with them. At that point I realized I needed to at least try to like her. My tendency was to not pay much attention to what she was saying because I was too focused on how annoyed I felt having to listen to her. In order to be friends, I had to change my attitude. So I gave up any expectation that she would change, got curious about what drove her, and decided to just love her for who she was.
Over the next few years we saw quite a bit of each other. My daughter was in between Roberta’s two children’s ages, so the kids enjoyed being together. Our husbands became very good friends, and unbelievably, so did we. Once I truly listened to what Roberta said, I realized she was a fount of practical wisdom. She had a sweet countenance that was often overrun by a hyperactive intelligence. But once she felt acknowledged, she could relax and really listen to others with compassion; and her advice was often warranted and useful. If I had a question about anything, I would call Roberta. It was like having a private secretary in pre-internet days. She would research and get back to me in no time with all kinds of information and solutions. I actually enjoyed listening to her prattle on over the phone while I cleaned house, or cooked dinner.
Roberta was my lesson in not judging others. Now when someone I have to interact with bugs me, instead of being annoyed, I become curious. What makes them act that way, and why does their behavior bother me so much? Sometimes I’m the problem, not them. But the most wonderful lesson I learned with Roberta was the power of acceptance. When people feel accepted for who they are they relax and often annoying behaviors fall away.
When Roberta and her husband eventually moved to Florida, I really missed her. She was a true and loyal friend, and I found my days a little boring without her.
There’s very little unconditional love in this world. If we truly knew the reality of other’s daily struggles for health, for acceptance, for freedom from fear, loneliness, or financial pressures—I believe we would all be better friends. And if not friends, than at least compassionate listeners instead of self-righteous judges.
So next time someone’s behavior bugs you—get curious and be compassionate. A little unconditional love goes a long way. Besides, who knows what they’re thinking about you!