Years ago, I attended a 12 Step meeting for relatives of alcoholics. “Rick” also attended the meeting. At any good 12 Step meeting, you’ll find one or more people like Rick. When people like Rick speak, people listen. His sharings were humble, candid, and insightful. So one meeting, Rick shared what he’d learned about “Practice People”.
Rick talked about people in his life who really rubbed him the wrong way. They were annoying, or overly talkative, or domineering, or self-absorbed, or whiny, or arrogant, or terribly needy. He at first wondered why his Higher Power saw fit to put such people in his life. They were flies in his ointment, bringing out his worst qualities.
Eventually, Rick realized that these difficult individuals were Practice People. Rick saw that the Practice People in his life helped him to practice the 12 Steps. The 12 Steps teach group members to recognize their powerlessness and turn things over to God as they understand him. The Steps emphasize taking personal responsibility. I am not to “take somebody else’s inventory” – that is, figure out how others are supposed to change. I am to take my own inventory instead.
Practice People caused Rick’s faults to boil to the surface so that he couldn’t ignore them. They forced him to look at his own impatience, tendency to judge, difficulty forgiving, and lack of assertiveness. “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Prov 27:17). Practice People helped rub off rough edges that Rick didn’t realize he had.They pushed him to rely more on his Higher Power to give him the qualities he lacked. Only with God could he could deal with such people gently and generously.
I tend to be a perfectionist and on the high-strung side. For example, I once told a friend one of my pet peeves. He responded affectionately that I seemed to have a whole menagerie of them. So I tend to encounter lots of Practice People in my life. I need lots of practice to rub off lots of rough edges.
I encountered a Practice Person the other day when I was buying a suit for my son’s upcoming wedding. “Julie” was the head salesperson at the clothing store. She had a grating voice and bossy manner. She was the kind of person who answers questions quickly without really listening, and then somehow makes it the other person’s fault when misunderstanding ensues. There was a pleasant male clerk, new to the store, to whom she gave orders – “Do this! Do that!” – without a single “please” or “thank you”. That kind of rudeness scores high in my menagerie of pet peeves.
I so wanted to correct her, or at least to commiserate behind her back with the put-upon clerk. Instead, I found a book for sale on how to raise one’s son as a gentleman. I wandered through the store, perusing it. I tried not to listen while Julie continued to fire orders and overexplain cash register procedures to her mild-mannered subordinate.
I fully realized that this was a situation where the Christian rubber met the road: “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? (Mt 5:46)” It’s so easily to like likeable people, and to love loveable people. I do that all the time. But with this Practice Person, I just had to distance myself. The best I could do was to avoid “setting her straight”or gossiping with the male clerk under the pretext of offering him moral support. I did make a point of thanking Julie and the clerk as we left. She had, in fact, given us a great deal on our purchases and devoted a lot of time to the complex transactions which that had involved.
Meanwhile, my wife Mary had stayed close by Julie to answer questions about the purchase as they came up. Mary later told me that Julie had been grating on her, too. But then Julie shared a few personal stories from her life – Mary is a great listener and tends to evoke that from people – and Mary realized that Julie had had a pretty tough life. As she got to know Julie as a person, she found it easier to look past Julie’s faults.
On the drive home, Mary and I processed the incident. We talked about a number of Practice People that the Lord had at various points put in our lives. Unpleasant as it is at the time, it is always a humbling and enlightening experience. It quickly dispels any illusions of perfection or saintliness one might entertain. Practice People, more than any other factor, help me realize yet again that “I have miles to go before I sleep.”
This isn’t a bad thing. It’s good to know that Jesus takes the trouble to send such people into our lives, to form us as a potter does clay. How else can we learn love and mercy? How else can we grow in the fruit of the Holy Spirit – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5:22-23)”?
A few days later, we got together with my son and his future father-in-law. Ironically, they had encountered Julie at the same store only a month before. We compared notes. They thought she was great – knew her stuff, directed them well, and got them a great bargain. I wonder who their Practice People are. Not the Julies of this world. Maybe people like me.