One winter vacation, our family went skiing in beautiful Park City, Utah. While in the ski lodge taking a break, I saw a woman wearing a shirt with the following sentence written across the top: I’m difficult. A picture of a black diamond appeared just below those words.
I thought it was cute and didn’t think much more of it. But later, back on the slopes, I wondered: How does the mountain resort determine if a slope is green, blue, or black diamond-level? What are the elements that make for a difficult terrain? How do they measure such levels of difficulty?
There are, in fact, three factors that determine a slope’s degree of difficulty: how narrow the path is, how steep the mountain is, and how many moguls and bumps there are. Black diamonds are known to have icier patches, and the run may be groomed less often, on purpose.
As I thought about that woman’s shirt, I realized it wasn’t such a bad analogy for human behavior. Difficult people are, in fact, quite like black diamonds!
Difficult people may be inflexible and narrow-minded. They might have dramatic highs and lows, resulting in bumpy personalities; their anger might be very steep, with a short fuse. Ultimately, these people will trip you up when you least expect it. They are unpredictable. And let’s not forget, they may ice you out at a moment’s notice.
While reflecting on this, I couldn’t help but muse: I certainly fit into some – or all – of those categories at times!
When it comes to labeling people as “difficult,” we often want to keep people in their place. If she is the difficult one, then I am absolved from all responsibility. Although we are quick to point fingers at others’ difficult behavior, sometimes we ourselves are the difficult ones in a given situation. We all have moments of inflexibility; we all have our ups and downs. And who hasn’t succumbed to the steep territories of anger?
I’m not saying we should wear these traits with pride, but no one is perfect. And just as it’s helpful to develop strategies to deal with difficult people, when we are the ones who are difficult, we must learn to manage ourselves.
One Shabbos afternoon, I was walking with my children and a few of their friends, pushing a double stroller. At one point, the sidewalk in front of us was blocked by a huge Nerf gun lying on the ground. Nearby, a young boy was perched on his front stoop, watching our approach. I watched his eyes land on his Nerf gun, which was clearly an obstruction to our path. Without missing a beat, he stood up and raced towards the toy, picking it up, and said politely, “Good Shabbos.”
Wishing him a good Shabbos, as well, I thanked him. “That was so helpful!”
However, as we continued walking, one of the children said to me, “That was nice and all, but he’s usually really mean.” She almost wanted the other person to stay difficult.
Children do this often, but we do it as adults, too. Why? Because if the other person is as difficult as we make them out to be, then we can simply throw our hands up and walk away without exerting ourselves – guiltlessly. However, if we see a commonality between us, that they have a good side as well as a bad one, we have to take some responsibility and set to work to improve the relationship.
How, then, do we begin to manage our own inner difficultness?
On the ski slopes I noticed a sign that said, “Be a control freak,” and another that said, “Stay in control.” We must find the inner strength to be in control of ourselves at all times, regardless of the terrain.
Recently, I watched a show called The Crown, a TV series about Queen Elizabeth II. Seeing the interactions of the royal family with each other at all times was humbling. I couldn’t help thinking how difficult it must be to always speak properly, eat in a refined manner, and constantly be “on.”
I thought to myself, Goodness, they always have to be in control of themselves. They can never eat with their fingers or say something out of line. Every aspect of their lives has to reflect regal decorum.
We, as humans, are the children of G-d. G-d is the true King of the universe, which makes us all princes and princesses. Just like Queen Elizabeth must abide by etiquette that requires tremendous control, we too are expected as Jewish people to be a light unto the nations – by behaving at all times in the proper manner.
This concept is beautiful to watch but very difficult to execute. Sarah Yocheved Rigler gives us insight into how to practically put this into play. “We have zero percent control over input,” she writes, “but one hundred percent control over output. We control nothing in our lives except how we react. What comes into our life: no control. But what we put out: total control.”
She came to this conclusion when interviewing a holocaust survivor. The woman said to Rigler, “Auschwitz wasn’t a bad place.”
“Wait, did I hear you correctly?”
“Yes. It wasn’t a bad place because a bad place is where you can’t do mitzvot. We have no control of our environment or another person’s behavior, but we have total control of ourselves.”
Contrary to popular belief – barring any major psychological disorders – the average, emotionally healthy individual has a lot of control over oneself. We hold the reins when it comes to our attitude and reaction to others. Stay in control, and we will have the power to tame our inner demons.
Having control over our tempers doesn’t mean being a pushover. If my children are acting with chutzpah, I don’t say, Oh well, I have no control. I’ll give up trying to control how they behave.
No! It means stating my desired outcome from my children, while sticking to consequences if they do not comply – without lowering my own dignity by screaming or reacting with anger. We can remain calm in the face of the difficult child, friend, or relative, yet consistent with our values.
Just like tumbles down the ski slopes happen, tumbles down the slopes of life happen, too. But we can get back up, shake it off, and regain control! That’s the beauty of being a human: We are expected to mess up, but have an opportunity to improve each time. One day, we master the black diamond; on another, it masters us. Life is difficult, others can be difficult, and we, too, can be difficult.