My son pushes open the heavy office door of the dentist’s office, and the four of us walk in, relieved to be on the other side of freezing temperatures. This dentist appointment is the kids’ six month checkups, and soon a hygienist emerges from behind another door to take James first and then Ethan for their exams. A short time later, a second hygienist, one I haven’t met, calls Faith’s name . Knowing Faith’s stomach performs back handsprings at the dentist (she gets those nerves from me), I walk back with her. As the hygienist preps her for the examination, I lean over to the neighboring exam area and see Ethan is almost finished.
Now, my Ethan excels at countless things, but teeth care isn’t one of them. What he labels as “brushing” his teeth looks to me like a half-hazard introduction. His teeth and the brush might shake hands, but that’s as far as it goes most days. And while James does better, he isn’t as diligent as he could be. So when we visit the dentist, I almost hope for cavities and let some consequences speak for themselves.
Looking at the hygienist, I ask, “What’s the report for the boys?”
The hygenist gives her typical response,
“Oh just fabulous! They both look great!”
I laugh quietly. Figures.
I settle into the corner chair next to Faith, her mouth open as the hygienist begins to poke around. Now my daughter cleans her teeth with more regularity and intention than most doctors clean their hands before surgery. She sets her timer and brushes for two whole minutes. She flosses religiously. She swishes mouthwash every night. So, I assume her exam will be easy breezy.
Ya, I assumed wrong.
Just when I lean back in the stiff leather chair, Ms. Hygienist straightens up, narrows her eyes at Faith, and says, “So are you brushing your teeth?”
Faith fervently shakes her head up and down.
“Yep! I brush them every morning and every night.”
Ms. Hygienist looks up at me warily. I reply,
“It’s true. She brushes them more diligently than most adults.”
The hygienist looks back down at Faith.
“Hmmm, well, let’s just see how right you and your mom are, shall we?”
I’m a bit dumbfounded at her tone that seems dramatic for a dental checkup.
She proceeds to show me the spot where Faith’s toothbrush has consistently missed. I nod, willing to accept that my ten year old – diligent at teeth care though she may be – still has room for improvement. But since the other 75% of her teeth looks just fine, I assume we’re done with the drama.
Ya, strike two for me.
The hygienist continues to peck at Faith’s teeth with instruments while pecking at her teeth brushing habits with her words. The lecture goes on and on and on. After what seemed like decades, Ms. Hygienist concludes the exam and proceeds to brush and floss Faith’s teeth with such vigor, I wondered if she suspected Faith of holding government secrets. It’s then I see tears sliding down Faith’s cheeks.
The hygienist must have seen them too because she stated impatiently,
“Now Faith, no need to cry. I’m barely touching you!”
And with that statement, Mama Bear, who had been waiting just outside the exam room, burst through the door:
“You know what?” I say as I lean in, “ While I’m certain this isn’t your intention, you are clearly doing more than ‘barely touching her.’ She needs a lighter touch and a more gracious tone from you right now.”
Insert uncomfortable silence.
We made it through the rest of the appointment with cordial manners and all ended well, but I left wanting to dine on a self righteous hygienist for breakfast.
As I thought about the whole encounter later, I was thankful I kept my words gentle and even. But what I didn’t like was how my thought life ran with images of me telling her off with more gusto.
More than once I’ve wished God called us to love the lovely rather than everyone. Love difficult people, too? I’m not sure there’s anything harder. Generally, I want to hide from them, not love them.
“Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” ~John 13: 34-35
I fervently believe that the best way I could love the hygienist in that moment – and certainly my daughter – was to ask for a little more grace. But I need to not only behave lovingly, I need to have my thought life do the same. Both are what makes us stand out as Jesus followers.
So when I meet the cranky hygienist, the difficult mom at the kids’ school, or the unrelenting family member, I remember a couple things:
I love from what Jesus provides rather than what Kristen provides. On my own, I want to eat rude people for breakfast. But when I draw from the love of Christ in me, I am able to love from a place far more capable and whole. Then when I deal with difficult people, it’s really Jesus that deals with difficult people. I love difficult people because of Him.
Difficult people in my life have a purpose of working out something difficult in me. Something undesirable in me. I use the opportunity to take those frustrating feelings and throw them heavenward in a vertical fit with God so I can get them outside of me. I make Him my confidante and trust Him to show me how to protect my heart while still loving well.
Valentine’s Day will be here soon. On this holiday and always, may we better love those that aren’t easy to love. May we remember to love all people well.
How do you love difficult people well?