Fancy meeting you here!

iStock 000013777277XSmall Fancy meeting you here!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.

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47 Responses to “Fancy meeting you here!”
  1. Megan says:

    Wonderful post! This is a fascinating way to think about our daily encounters with people. I also love to ponder how God sees the entire picture while we only see what’s immediately ahead of us, and I find it fascinating that we can pray for people and events in the past. God knew that in 2010 AD, Megan was going to pray for her uncle as he struggled with terminal cancer back in 1990, and God heard that prayer, and perhaps my uncle felt a greater sense of peace (no matter how small) because of my prayer. Fascinating and comforting.
    Megan recently posted..10 surprising things

  2. Peggy says:

    Lovely post! It reminds me of a “Peanuts” poster I used to have when I was 18 years old. (Showing my age, I know :-).) It showed Linus saying “I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand.”. I’d forgotten all about it. But your post reminded me, and gave me the response that Jesus would have given Linus (if Linus had addressed his complaint there). “Humanity does not put constraints on our time or our patience but people do. And it’s people, one person at a time, that you will encounter Me in.” Thanks for this. I’m a slow learner but never too late I guess.
    Peggy recently posted..Defending our Faith against the anti-Catholic media- jokes- etc

  3. Claire says:

    This sounds like me when I get all annoyed at the world and “rude” people. I mutter and sputter for hours after an encounter with rude and Inconsiderate people. I keep feeling nudges towards St. Therese of Liseaux (sp?) because I think I remember she too was annoyed by “little” things. I am beginning to think that there is a reason one of my God-daughters was named for her and this God-daughters parents are completely devoted to her. ;o)

    I am fascinated by the fact that I was born now–in this time and I wonder why. Then I think that perhaps so I can pray for a world that irritates me beyond reason. ;o)

    Excellent post…thank you.

  4. sara m says:

    “what is with these people who walk right in front of me and then slow down?” I’ll tell you. We sense the tension in your shoulders, the sharply indrawn breath, the sucking on your teeth, and so while we might have intended to zoom on by and get out of your way, your annoyance with us causes us to change our minds and just hang out right in front of you for a while. ;-)

    Actually, I’ve found that when I am unintentionally impeding someone’s progress through the store, making eye contact, smiling and saying something like, “I’m sorry. Am I blocking you?” (sincerely, not sarcastically) usually overcomes that anonymous I hate everybody thing. It seems like once you break through a person’s isolation bubble, they usually begin see you as a person and not just an annoyance.

    I think it’s similar to road rage and internet fights – people do and say things they would never do and say if they really saw the other person and knew for a fact that they were also seen.

  5. Very cool. Thanks for sharing this different way of looking at annoyances!
    That Married Couple recently posted..7 Quick Takes 44

  6. Now that’s a way to keep things in perspective!
    Heather’s Hodgepodge recently posted..WFMW- Write it Down

  7. Lauren says:

    Wow! I love that perspective! Thanks so much for sharing that. I will definitely keep that in mind as I am tempted to roll my eyes or sigh. Thanks, Jennifer!

  8. Amy says:

    Hmm. I’m sure you’re just saying that it was simply your personal experience that as an atheist you had a more negative attitude about people, but this piece seems to imply that having a Christian mindset makes people more tolerant, more patient, more kind, whereas atheists or nonreligious people are misanthropes. All one has to do is look on television occasionally to see droves of Christians that are anything but tolerant, patient, and kind, let alone interact with Christians in our daily lives. Some are considerate and a joy to be around, and some are rude, judgmental and downright mean.

    I pulled into the grocery store parking lot yesterday only to find I had chosen “senior Tuesday” to do my shopping. I hesitated for a moment before parking, considering just coming back the following day, so I wouldn’t have to deal with the crowd, the long checkout lines and the slow-moving customers. I decided that was a silly attitude to have, parked my car and did my shopping. I had to wait in front of the milk cooler while an older lady sorted through the jugs to find the one with the latest date. I had to wait behind some slow movers in the jam-packed aisles. I also ran into a friend and discovered that senior Tuesday is the best day to find the self-checkout lanes empty.

    That one has to feel there is a reason their path crosses with another in order to practice basic consideration doesn’t ring true to me. I try to practice kindness and consideration because it makes the world a more pleasant than does being unkind, both for myself and for those around me. No higher purpose to it.

    You attribute your changing of attitude to the realization that God destines certain people’s paths to cross, but couldn’t it just be that your attitude is changing as a result of maturity and experience?

  9. Julia says:

    Yeah, sometimes it’s a bummer that Christ didn’t say, “Put up with each other as I have put up with you.”

    I tell my kids that no matter where they go, they can be guaranteed that there will be at least one person who’s annoying. A lot of life is about learning to deal graciously with what you’ve been given.

    I think the root of being annoyed at others is that we assume that everything that happens to us is about us. It’s not. We can (and do) change lives when we add light to what could be a cloudy situation. If you think back on your life, you’ll probably find that most of the people who said something that turned on a light switch in your heart probably doesn’t even remember having said it.

    Case in point: many years ago, before children, I got on a crowded subway headed to work early in the morning. The train jolted, and my foot — shod in a high heel — landed squarely on the foot of another passenger. She screamed. The entire car-full of people froze, waiting to see if someone was going to get stabbed. I apologized profusely, and the woman looked at me, tears of pain in her eyes, and stuttered (in a lovely British accent), “Well…I suppose… I suppose that if this is the worst thing that happens to me today, it will be a good day!”

    Blew me away. Changed my life. I never saw that woman again, wouldn’t recognize her if she turned out to be my long-lost Aunt Tilly, and I’m sure she doesn’t recall having her foot stepped on 18 years ago. In the moment of that one interaction I grasped that *there’s always another way to look at it*. I learned that what I say when I’m in pain or under stress or wildly frustrated can change people’s lives *for the better*.

    So over the years I’ve tried to be more like that woman. The Lord’s given me AMPLE opportunities to exude grace instead of anger. I’m hopeful that I’m making progress. Slowly.
    Julia recently posted..Missing my girl

  10. CM says:

    I love this thought! I will try to keep it in mind, as I can also be easily annoyed by people. :)

  11. Eric says:

    Thanks for another great post. It makes me think of all the people that we see on a daily basis that may get on our nerves – like our coworkers. Maybe it’s not just coincidence that we are subjected to people whose personalities clash with ours (daily) but rather, an opportunity to teach us to love as Christ loves. If we could look at these situations as opportunities for growth rather than annoyances, we could be much more content.

  12. Rebecca says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    I’m a long time fan of your blog, but never had a moment to comment. Here goes:
    Your post reminds me actually of SO many of the saints, like St. Francis (who I like to call Captain No Pants, since it seems he was so fond of giving them up). You ever notice that one of the first things saints do once they decide to follow the Lord is run off to a cave somewhere? It’s pretty easy to figure out why. It’s way easier to stay sin-free when all you have keeping you company are rocks and squirrels.
    I often say prayers like this ‘Dear Lord, please finally change that &#^#* so he’s less of a !^%# and I don’t have to choke him. Also, it’s possible that I need some help on cursing and patience, but really, HE’S the one with the bigger problem, so you should probably fix him first. Amen.’
    Sadly, those requests are rarely granted.
    Unfortunately, I like things like Dunkin Donuts coffee and hot showers, so I won’t be living off of the grid anytime soon.

    PS love the blog

  13. Deborah says:

    The coincidence of finding this post in my reader after just encountering a shower of “idiots” is poignant to say the least.

    First there was the tall, heavily made up girl at the Mall who was wearing just enough material to be considered clothing instead of underwear, I found myself muttering that she looked like she belonged on a street corner and then I found myself flicking off a guy who thought he had right of way on a roundabout when he clearly did not and began honking at me. As I drove on, I just realised how incredibly selfish and un-Christian my thoughts and actions had been when I encountered those two people.

    It is not for me to judge that girl, nor should I have responded to a likely honest driving mistake with hostility and contempt.

    I think Julia makes a good point when she points out that it’s a form of self-centeredness. Humans are prone to narcissism and when anyone unexpected enters our little bubble of self-control we tend to get annoyed. The fact that we even consider ourselves in control of such things is laughable and I think the more we open ourselves up to the fact that God is in control, the easier it will be to overcome such personal imperfections.

    I do like your way of thinking about it too. Taking an atavistic stance on things can often show situations and people in a whole new light. Although I think this is something I will struggle with my entire life, but I suppose awareness is a step in the right direction! :)
    Deborah recently posted..On children and prayer

  14. Frank says:

    “sacred unlikeliness” THIS IS FANTASTIC!

  15. Leila says:

    Um, are we the same person? Cuz, I could have written this (but not as well). Really excellent post! Now, off to try to be un-annoyed.
    Leila recently posted..What the heck is so bad about rules anyway

  16. Marian says:

    Love these thoughts :)

  17. Young Mom says:

    I’m right there with you on the porch shaking my cane. I said the other day that I like the idea of christianity, I just don’t like christians. Someone said that there really is no difference between christians and any other people in the way they behave, maybe I should just admit that I don’t like people all that much!
    Young Mom recently posted..Saturday Evening Post 7

  18. I suffer from similar impulses, Jen. Here’s what I’ve found to be helpful:

    When I was in preschool, I remember looking in wonder at ‘big kids’ and be so delighted if they so much as smiled at me. When adults or anyone I didn’t know nodded to me on the street, I liked to imagine that they were time travelers who were visiting from the future, in which we knew each other.

    When I was older, I tried to remember to do the same thing for small children, waving and nodding at three-year-olds toddling along with their parents. It wasn’t til later I realized I had a parallel opportunity every time I met someone/shared a train seat, etc. I’ve tried to make sure that I can be a bright spot or at least not a further aggravation. In short, I try to look at every chance encounter as a fleeting opportunity to do a mitzvah.

    (Mind you, the three year olds are still easier to satisfy)

    –Leah @ http://www.unequally-yoked.com
    Leah @ Unequally Yoked recently posted..Back to School Update and Blog Rejiggering

  19. Gregaria says:

    I was just thinking: what if that woman knew you were thinking about the sacredness of her humanity while shopping for cereal. She was probably thinking about lettuce. Ha ha! I think about bigger life questions all the time, so I totally understand you thinking these thoughts while grocery shopping. I wonder, sometimes, what people would think of my thoughts if they knew what I was thinking. :D

  20. Danya Marvin says:

    Love this post! When my husband and I are annoyed about someone, we’ll look at each other shrug, and say: “There are many parts to the body of Christ!”

  21. Sarah Oldham says:

    Love the wet cat analogy. Ha ha ha! Anyway, the commissary (grocery store) is where I am the most uncharitable. This post struck a profound chord with me. I’m so dern ugly in my thoughts while pushing a shopping buggy! Most terrible and wretched. And, yet, I am certain I’m not alone in this vicious circle of thoughts . . . but I’m usually oblivious as to being the cause of anyone else charitable or uncharitable thoughts there or anywhere. Hmmmm. I guess I could stand to think about putting others before me, beginning my thoughts with acting charitably first . . . instead of continuing on the way I have and groveling before God in the confessional about it over and over again. Maybe I am the woman on the phone not noticing you need your milk.

  22. SB says:

    That’s “my” HEB. I’ve been lurking here for about a year and love your blog. I wasn’t your phone caller, but I could have been, I suppose. This is a random observation but I find that that store in particular is a place where a lot of potential contradictions collide — racial, economic, social, political. It’s especially worth it to put up with other people there, because one can learn a lot.

    Anyway, love your blog.

  23. Christine says:

    I have noticed that as I grow in my faith, my ability to see people with God’s perspective (thankfully) has grown too. I used to be easily annoyed and angered- at my kids, my husband, my mom, strangers who cut me off in traffic, etc.- and felt justified in feeling that way. But as I’ve found new understanding of grace and God’s ability to not be annoyed by ME for the little ways I disobey and disrespect Him daily, I’ve also found new appreciation for how my life touches and is touched by others’ and how the ways they annoy me are opportunities for God to refine me. I see others’ quirks and struggles as ways to help and connect with them more than I ever did. I am so thankful to be able to see with God’s eyes, even every once in a while, because it brings depth to my life and interactions with those around me. Great post and food for thought!

  24. This post made me chuckle. The grocery store is certainly the place to visit if you are trying to grow in patience! Great insights! :)

  25. syd says:

    I totally think we are twins. Your post is so me.

    I found Jesus at Easter this year. And I have realized that my road rage has significantly lessened. The other day I was waiting to turn left at a stop light, and when it was clear and as I was turning this car behind me started honking and the passenger flipped me off. Now, my pre-Christian self would have not only flipped her off too, but would have turned around and followed her honking and trying to figure out why the heck she flipped me off. But instead of doing that, I found myself not angry which surprised me; I was simply bewildered and felt sorry for the poor angry lady who doesn’t understand traffic laws. It was almost like I was outside myself looking down going wow, you are unusually calm – what the heck?

    No, not all Christians are perfectly behaving, and they never will be. That was the misconception I had that Christians should be perfect, but of course they are not and can not be. But I know that with Jesus I am learning to be a more polite person. Before I had the perspective of “I hate everyone”. Now, I stop and think — this is a child of God and I should treat them as such. I think about how sometimes people are just caught up in their own problems or thoughts, and I give extra room for that. I think about how getting worked up over a rude stranger is not worth my time or taking points away from my mental health meter which doesn’t have many to begin with.

    Now, I just wish my irritability would lessen around my children and husband…pray for me on that one!

  26. Sara says:

    Thanks for sharing! Definitely helped me to read that when I just got home from being very annoyed :)

  27. Rick says:

    I go to that HEB too! Now I’m going to be on the lookout for you.

  28. Ouiz says:

    As always, you wrote a great post!!!

    I was just blogging (somewhat) along the same lines — that is, that we are to make every encounter with others say (as best as possible):

    “I delight that you exist.”

    Each person is reflecting something of God’s glory that no one else can. I have been trying to keep that in mind as I’ve talked to people in stores and my family here at home.

  29. Susan Haggerty says:

    Our priest talked about annoying people we meet and talked about how one of the saints (sorry I don’t recall which) said annoying people are like sand paper placed by God for us to love to smooth our rough edges……..

  30. Now there’s perspective for you. Nice thoughts, Jennifer!

  31. Rivkah Cohen says:

    Thank you for sharing your humanness. God loves us so much in spite of ourselves doesn’t he!
    Your post encourages me and helps me in allowing Him to be in charge of my human weakenesses.
    Rivie
    Rivkah Cohen recently posted..Conversion Diary-Fancy Meeting You Here

  32. Lisa says:

    When I find myself getting impatient at the grocery store, or frustrated with humanity in general, I typically try to distract myself with my own life– talk with the kids and enjoy the moment, think about the good things in my life, or say a quick prayer for a family member or friend. The impatience and annoyance pass and I stay in control of my life, without allowing circumstances to force me into negativity. Don’t get me wrong… this only works 3/4 of the time. :)
    Lisa recently posted..Winner Winner Make your own Chicken Dinner

  33. Jill says:

    This really resonated with me. Sometimes a shift in our perspective makes all the difference in our ability to cope and function within this world. I love history, and am in awe that we are put on this place, at this time for God’s determined purpose.

  34. Laura says:

    This reminds me of the time we were walking down the sidewalk, and a lady stopped suddenly right in front of this. I hate this too, so naturally I became immediately irritated (and often when this happens, my day is soiled). But then she realized we were behind her, and turned around to say, “Oh, I think I’ll just stop right here in front of you!” (in a funny way, obviously…we included it in our quote list) and moved aside. Most people, I suppose, aren’t even thinking about where they are in space and though I usually try to stay out of the way, knowing what’s going on around me at every degree can be tiring.

    I’m still trying to find my reason for being here in Virginia in the 2000’s, especially when sometimes it seems like I belong in the 1970s/80s!
    Laura recently posted..B’chol l’vavcha uvchol nafshecha uvchol m’odecha

  35. Victor says:

    I want to apologize for all who I have annoyed. =) Good Post Jennifer.
    Victor recently posted..Annes flirtation with Rome

  36. Alice says:

    I (like many of the others commenting here) share your frustration, particularly in the grocery store and on public transit. My meditation for dealing with this is to think about the (sometimes, literally) incredible fact of God’s love for all the people frustrating me, and his desire to see all of them– all the commuters blocking my way in the subway station, all the people in line at the grocery store, even the unutterably slow grocery store checker– in heaven, with him, forever.

    That usually corrects my perspective. That, and I’m trying to drink less coffee before I start my commute. Fewer stress hormones and all that.
    Alice recently posted..Seven Quick Takes- Volume- er…um…

  37. Jules says:

    What a post. It kind of just blew my mind.
    Jules recently posted..B is for Bread

  38. 'Becca says:

    Great post! I like this perspective.

    I’ve found that my tendency to get annoyed when other people are in my way has diminished significantly as I get used to it through daily experiences of crowded sidewalks, packed city buses, driving in heavy traffic, shopping in a smallish yet very popular supermarket, etc. I purposely choose these experiences over staying home more or moving out of the city because they are good for my soul and because population density is better for the environment than sprawl. Learning to love the crowded world has helped me to overcome some of the anti-population-growth biases I learned as a child, and I think that is an important point for pro-life people to consider: If you want more people born, you have to be willing to make room for them. By being crowded, I have learned how little space I really need, so I feel less threatened by other people.
    ‘Becca recently posted..Spaghetti Sauce- August 29 Version

  39. Marie says:

    Kelley, one thing that really irritates me is other people who are in town don’t consider that there are other people shopping within proximity around them. For instance, people leaving their grocery carts in the middle of the aisle, and the rest of us can’t get around them. Or the people that walk out of the grocery store and barge right out the doors, and walk right in front of your car! They never even look to see if it’s safe to cross the parking lot.

    Of course, I was always praying for patience, but I forgot that God gives you “incidents” to practice that patience! What if I used these annoyances to practice patience? What if I actually said a quick prayer for them, smiled at them, and didn’t get irritated with them? What if I went into the store knowing that I would try to extend patience to three people while there? I would help 1 elderly person reach for something, I would smile at someone who was blocking the aisle, and I would tell one harried mother with whiney kids, “You have a beautiful family”. Suddenly my worst part of the week, (grocery shopping) became my favorite time as I tried to see who I could find to extend grace to. I’ve been doing this for the past 2 years, and it has changed my life.

    Yesterday I read this article, and it reminded me of my experiment.

  40. TeaPot562 says:

    Check Acts 17:26. If Paul intends this verse to apply universally, it means that God has a REASON for me being here, now. And if God has a reason for me being here, then He also has a reason for other persons whom I encounter. If I cut someone off in traffic, I have missed an opportunity to help someone else. Maybe the Lord intended me to help that person.
    When I see someone driving in a hurry, I try to pray for that person, that God will provide protection from mistakes he (she) may otherwise make when behind the wheel, or perhaps calm that person to slow down & be a bit more deliberate in his/her driving.
    Pray for others you meet, particularly if they seem rushed or upset. Couldn’t hurt.
    TeaPot562

  41. People say a lot of irritating things, including myself, but this I can understand. It is when people are flagrantly sinning in public places that I get worried and want to be like John the Baptist and warn them to repent. I can get pretty hot under the collar when either I or someone else sins or if injustice prevails. Other thn that, I just let things people do and say ride by without even a comment. I always remember that I am irritating, too. I remember what St. Therese of Lisieux said, and I paraphrase: no one knows really if he is worthy of love or hatred. We must be the person we want to be around.

  42. What usually keeps me in place is thinking of all those times I have annoyed and wronged others (and there are plenty). I know that when I begin to complain about others and insult them that there is a humiliation sent from my loving God just waiting for me around the corner. Matthew 7:1-5 – I never seem to really get the whole log out of my eye!
    Wade St. Onge recently posted..Theology of the Body Debate- III Conclusion

  43. Oscar says:

    It is truly a gift that you think in this way about things so ordinary. You are blessed to have that, and all your readers through you.

  44. Jennifer, you are so insightful.

    I heard a very holy priest once say, if we rid ourselves of our neighbors who try our patience, we are ridding ourselves of the Way, the Via Crucis – the means (and the only means) to Heaven. God put those people in our lives to strengthen in us patience and charity.

    I’ve always loved Fr. Basil’s words here…hope you do too! :)

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