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Absence makes the heart grow fonder

By - May 27, 2013 - Category Practice - Print Print - Version française

Rafael, Madonna Sixtina - détail

If you are like me, there are certain people whose company you seek and enjoy, and then there are all those whose company is a burden and awakens negative feelings within you. But what causes such feelings? And what is the best way to deal with them? Here is the result of my personal introspective analysis.

A closer look at these negative feelings quickly led me to the conclusion that they were morally “suspicious”. To put it simply, I observed that they were often—if not always—the consequence of my own moral failings. There is no doubt, for example, that my strongest aversions are caused by feelings of rivalry or injured self-esteem. All it takes for me to want to punch a person in the face, is a smile or a comment I interpret as condescending!

However, as I claim to be trying to “improve myself”, I rarely let it stay at that. I tell myself that feeling hostile toward others is “not good”. I get a guilty conscience and then try to alleviate it by whatever means I can. After having tried in vain to make others carry the full burden of my aversion (“if I can’t bear them it’s because they are unbearable!”), I may in time want to try to overcome the feeling. And because I consider it unworthy, and in particular “unworthy of me”, I decide to treat it the hard way and try and do the opposite of what I feel inclined to do. Despite the fact that the only thing I want is to stay away—to stay away from this person I consider annoying, condescending, a brag—I make it my duty to actively seek out their company, believing it is the only way to subdue my aversion. So I throw myself, unwittingly, body and soul, into the lion’s den.

Why is that? Because I set too high expectations both for others and for myself. Indeed, kindness toward someone who for example looks down on me will not make them in turn kinder. By seeing me in a position that could be interpreted as submission they could even become more condescending. Most of all though, being forthcoming toward someone who injures my pride does not make me ipso facto immune to their condescension. On the contrary, condescension is all the more difficult to bear when it is a reaction to a gesture of friendship.

In a nutshell, by wanting to eradicate a feeling, I have made it only worse and what started out as slight irritation has become an allergy.

What to do, then? The idea is not to run away from people I don’t like, but rather to find a way to avoid the pride that pushes me to seek out situations I am not always capable of dealing with. Self-knowledge means admitting that there are situations I am too weak to deal with, it is accepting that there are people I sometimes can’t stand, because their presence gives rise in me to feelings that I consider morally objectionable (resentment, jealousy, etc.). Therefore, instead of looking to face those who irritate me and pretexting that if I am trying to “improve myself” I should not be irritated by them, it would be wiser to take some distance for a while—but not just any kind of distance.

Taking a step back should help me look for the cause of my annoyance within myself instead of finding reasons in the other person only. Keeping that distance—not only physically—should help me stop useless brooding over the other’s faults. The purpose of this distance is to help find clarity and has nothing to do with the distance we sometimes inflict on friends and family in order to punish them, which is basically a form of revenge.

It is a well-known fact that when a person exasperates us, we associate that person entirely with this exasperation. All we see is their weakness, as if their whole being were reduced to it. We are so over-focused on those creatures that have been turned into real monsters by our own emotions that we find ourselves incapable of feeling any love for them: one cannot love what is unlovable.

But if I remove myself somewhat, and put my ego at a safe distance, I calm down. If the person’s fault was the illusory product of my emotions, then this distance will be enough for it to disappear. If the fault really exists, I will continue to see it, but little by little, it becomes one trait among many in the person, whose qualities become perceptible again. With time, and if I try to see within myself the imperfection that irritates me so much in others, I might even come to understand its origin. I may then clearly identify that the behaviour I found so offensive is indeed merely the visible sign of a deeper spiritual imbalance that this person feels helpless toward. My awareness of my counterparts’ weakness which also sheds light on this trait in me, eventually leads me to feel compassion for them, if not downright tenderness. This is how, by taking some distance, I can overcome aversion, and little by little find my way back to friendship or at least gentle indifference.

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  1. P2 May 29, 2013 8:21 am 1

    Thank you for this great article. I find it a gentle reminder of my “allergy” towards someone I used to be friends with (never too close but in the same social circle). I echo the point that it is not entirely the other person’s fault for what you feel inside. I too may have felt resentment and jealousy for this person without being aware of it. However, after trying to rectify the tension between myself and this person, their behavior toward me changed but they continued disrespecting and hurting those close to me. No matter how logically I wanted to look at this situation, I was bound to feel anxiety due to proximity. I distanced myself, but the kind of distance I am not interested in closing because I am so confused as to what I should do in order to stay true to myself. I can be civilized and put on a smile, but the feelings inside me are hardly manageable when it comes to this particular person. Even though I no longer live in the same city with this person due to job relocation, I still feel guilty about my inability to cope with the situation.

    I would appreciate any suggestions or comments 🙂

  2. Haleh May 29, 2013 5:38 pm 2

    I have experienced this twice. It has completely worked. Now, in cases where I have a choice, I accept people’s company only when I feel good being with them (for example when I can help them in a way or learn something from them or just have a pleasant time with them). In cases where I do not have a choice (like neighbors, coworkers or family members) I try to keep the distance as much as I can. This way I analyse my thoughts and feelings and try to find the best reaction for the next possible situation. As all of us know, there are cases that we cannot even keep a distance, which is a totally different combat! 🙂

  3. Holly May 29, 2013 11:07 pm 3

    Thank you for this article. It couldn’t have come at a better time in my life than now! I have been feeling confused for a while about maintaining a link with a few people – I sincerely believe that it’s sometimes wiser to take a step back – think, check intentions, check acts / actions, evaluate and then take a step forward. As, in the past, I usually used to be the first person who would try and step forward and pretend that “all is good! ” I used to think that it was my duty to forgive and be the bigger person! But I have been so misunderstood and felt absolutely awful – so nowadays, I tend to simply keep my distance from those who make me feel uncomfortable and focus my energy on those who need extra support.
    I still am polite and carry out my duties towards those who I’m not so keen on – but make sure that I have a clear distance and a clear head when it comes to mingling with them!

  4. A. May 30, 2013 6:28 pm 4


    Interestingly, one can react as described above even with people who have done a lot for us. For instance, recently I paid a visit to my mother (now aged 73) to pick up the youngest of my children (who had spent ten days with my parents) to take him back home.

    For some very trivial reasons (my shoes were worn out and I had a stain on my pants even though I was supposed to see some customers for work, in the city where she lives) my mother went on and on with a very unpleasant, soft shrieking tone about how I looked like a street bum, shabby, etc. .. since she went on and on and her reaction seemed completely out of proportion with my “misdeed” (if it can be called a misdeed) I became really upset and was obsessed with this trait of her personality.

    Even though I did not show it and on the outside I looked only depressed, I wanted to leave with my son immediately instead of staying 24 hours as originally planned. Finally I did stay 24 hours and sort of managed to keep calm on the outside – but I was able to see things in perspective only several hours after I got home. Only then, did I see my mother as she really is and again became aware of all the things she has done for me in my life.

  5. Photon Jun 02, 2013 10:55 pm 5

    The idea is not to run away from people I don’t like, but rather to find a way to avoid the pride that pushes me to seek out situations I am not always capable of dealing with. Self-knowledge means admitting that there are situations I am too weak to deal with…

    Thank you very much for this article and the two sentences above really stood out for me. This is something I am learning. There has been time I have been nice to those who were mean and they took it as a sign of weakness. In reality, being nice to someone that is mean does not work most of the time. At the same time I have tried to think of good qualities those people had in order that resentment does not enter my heart.

    Also I am also learning about how pride pushes us to seek situations we cannot handle. Not only in dealing with people but in relationship to many other things including dealing with myself.

    Thanks again.

  6. Charlie Jun 06, 2013 6:12 pm 6

    Thank you so much for such a practical article. It came at a good time for me. For almost all my life I concentrated on trying to force myself to ‘enter the lion’s den’ until recently when frankly I became tired of it. At about the same time I was faced with a colleague who seemed to go out of her way to block my way to take up a voluntary role within a partcular organisation – for no apparent reason. I felt hurt and confused. I fought against the anger and then started thinking of how it must all be my fault and tried to seek her company so that I could fight my imperious self. However, I had not calmed down sufficiently to use my reason. It was sheer fatigue that led to me to think: I cannot do this, I need to reflect, I need time. At first I felt guilty but after a few days I slowly began to see things with more clarity. I wanted the role for its prestige despite not being up to it; I was jealous of my colleague’s energy and objective attitude; she obviously could see what I could not, which hurt my ego; and the work I needed to do on myself did not necessarily mean that I needed to trouble her with my company (which also hurt my ego!). I felt so much happier and lighter, with much more energy to actually take some practical steps to fight the weaknesses I had seen in myself. I still was not absolutely sure that this was the correct way to treat the situation and since then another similar situation has arisen with a family member! This article helped me step back a bit to try to clear some of the fog which is preventing me to see the situation clearly – not that it is easy to do, particularly as the more I reflect, the more I can see my own weaknesses, including jealousy. Thank you so much for this article.

  7. naghme Jun 10, 2013 11:13 pm 7

    Forgiveness is not a matter of exonerating people who have hurt you. They may not deserve exoneration. It means cleansing your soul of the bitterness of ‘what might have been,’ ‘what should have been,’ and ‘what didn’t have to happen’. What’s past is past and there is little to be gained by dwelling on it. There are perhaps no sadder people then the men and women who have a grievance against the world because of something that happened years ago and have let that memory sour their view of life ever since.
    That is why we have to make room in our lives for people who may sometimes disappoint or exasperate us. If we hold our friends to a standard of perfection, or if they do that to us, we will end up far lonelier than we want to be.
    There is a saying that good people will do good things, lots of them, because they are good people. They will do bad things because they are human!!!!

  8. Shahla Jun 13, 2013 6:30 pm 8

    Thank you Naghme, bravo .

  9. s Jun 17, 2013 8:45 pm 9

    I don’t see this article as being about forgiveness, but rather about seeing things more clearly, moving away from a vision colored by one’s emotions, seeing things as they are, no more, no less. To understand is to accept, but not necessarily to forgive. To believe that we can forgive before we are ready to do so is pride and it will come out in the form of a complex instead. The beauty of this article is this: to understand your own shortcoming of not being able to forget or forgive straight away. Acceptance of your own shortcoming will bring acceptance of the shortcomings of others, and then that may or may not bring about forgiveness one day. But I believe that the message here is to be honest with oneself about one’s own abilities and to do what is required at one’s own level—not to try to lift the heavier stone first, but to build muscle gradually.

  10. kbld Jun 24, 2013 12:49 pm 10

    I also found the first paragraph of naghme’s comment very enlightening. Thank you for this lesson!
    It’s a personal rule to forgive everyone. But it doesn’t mean to be silly and let everyone wrong you.

    There are some people at my work who very much despise others because of their position: they are doing a PhD and we are just the year below. They even asked the Professors at the University to have the library (about 20 seats, but a huge quantity of books for us) reserved just for them (four people!). In the library, some of them almost scream when they talk to each other. I’m not often in the library and they had been doing this without me for months, but one time when I was there I kindly told the “leader” to please whisper. They were shocked because nobody had dared telling them that before, but he did as I asked, and then the other ones did too.
    They have tried since then to ridicule me: they watch my every move when I’m there and if I do something that is not within the rules, they come and replace things the way they should be placed (we use old books, there are procedures to respect). It happened twice. The second time, because for a moment during my long use of some books I forgot one detail, one of them got up and placed it like it should be. At that moment, I didn’t say anything, or thank you. Nobody really understood, she even had to explain a little. I personally clearly understood why she had done that. I had to go. After a while, I started thinking about things I could have done to ridicule her back (because she was really ridiculous). But in the end, I thought about this very hostile environment, where people feel bad and her only satisfaction was this ridiculous action. Such thoughts could have been contempt, and they had been in the past, but not this time. I saw how close to me she was: there are billions of billions etc. of inhabited planets, there have been for billions etc. of years, time and space are so huge it’s beyond our imagination, and we, two creatures of God, are on the same planet at the same time. She was so close to me! I felt that she was like a sister who had decided she didn’t like me: what a pitiful situation for two people so close to each other like us! I really and sincerely felt pity for this girl and even love (not love in a romantic sense, but like toward a sister), sympathy. I naturally didn’t have any bad feelings toward her.
    But it didn’t mean that I would let her do whatever she wanted. I have to defend my rights, and I do (I try). In this situation, it was so pitiful, that there was nothing to say. But for example for the loud talking, I said something.

    I think I understood there what the Christ meant when he was speaking about turning the other cheek. It doesn’t mean at all that one should do it externally. It means internally, don’t have any bad feelings about the wrong someone does to me. He encourages me to be ready, accept and be grateful for other wrongs, but not toward other people, toward God. We have to see further, to look at situations with our deep conscious self and to see them only as situations brought to us by God in order to educate us. If we understand this reality, we accept the next blow with pleasure. But from God—the person in front of us is only a means to educate us.
    People misunderstood this saying of the Christ by thinking that we have to physically do it, toward others. If we take the example of Muhammad, we see that “although an advocate of peace, when he received a divine command for the holy war to preserve Religion, he did not abandon his responsibilities” (The Path of Perfection, p. 152, note “Muhammad’s battles were solely defensive in nature”).
    But there is a huge amount of stories that show how Muhammad or his son-in-law ‘Ali were fair toward the enemy and refused categorically any unethical behaviours during the battle even when their enemies (who were always the ones attacking them!) acted evilly. But externally, they fought anyway. For example, at the battle of Siffin, ‘Ali and his troops had been denied access to water (in the desert) by the “enemies of God”, but when they gained control of the water supply, he told his faithful men: “Don’t deny them water. These are the methods of ignorant men. I do not set my hands to such acts. They are human beings and though they have acted inhumanely, I cannot follow their example and cannot refuse a man food and drink because he happens to be my worst enemy”. Another example: during the Khaybar battle, the case of the slave Yâsar Abyssin, who belonged to a man fighting Muhammad. He went to Muhammad during the battle and joined him. Muhammad asked him to give the sheep that were entrusted to him back to their owners (even if they were evil people). There are hundreds of stories like that. Moreover, they were always looking for peace, and tried at all times to obtain it before defending themselves by other means.

    Who are we to decide who we forgive or not? We desperately need the forgiveness of God. Are we in a position not to forgive people who are just a way for God to educate us? The responsibility of others only concerns God and them. Dealing with our own spiritual account is enough.
    Like naghme wrote, not to forgive is pride: we think we deserved a different situation. It reminds me of what Malek Jan Nemati said: ”We should completely avoid praising ourselves for being this or that, for what is there to praise when we have an imperious self like a sewage tank?” (MJN, p. 134)
    But once again, this is all a question of heart, it is within us. Externally we have to defend our rights, when it’s worth it (see The Path of Perfection, p. 115) and with justice and uprightness.

  11. Maryam Jul 07, 2013 7:03 pm 11

    This is such a great and useful article.
    I have been facing a lot situations where i had to face a person I had negative feelings toward and I almost failed every single time.
    My approach has always been to ignore the person and to stop my relationship with them, but that has made everything worse. I had never delved into myself to find out what the cause of this feeling was!!
    After reading this article, I know now that i should first look back at “MYSELF” and find out how and where the feeling has started, and once I have analyzed the root, i can then slowly start healing the relationship.

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