People are Complicated

Hear Brandon Booth read this post to you:

People are Complicated

Brandon Booth
Brandon Booth
June 24, 2024

Dear friends, as Liv and I get closer to finishing our new book (we have a hard deadline of July 31st to send it to our copy editor!) I thought it would be fun to do a few posts revisiting my previous book: Changing the Conversation, How to dance instead of fight in everyday conversation.

The book was an “apologetics” book, written to support an audience who was excited about doing social and cultural battle, but with a twist. The premise of the book is this: if you argue to win, you’ll lose every time. In other words, if we do social and cultural battle in all our relationships, we’ll end up with a scorched earth.

There has to be a different way. A way of clear-headed and deep-hearted compassion. The way of Jesus. That’s what I tried to unpack in the book: a practical way to make real progress in conversations with difficult people about difficult issues.

Today I want to share an excerpt with you. It’s from the chapter titled: “People are Complicated.”

She slammed the door so hard it shook the house. I stood there red-faced and seething with anger. How could she! How could she ignore me like this? She was the one being irrational! It was all so simple and obvious, but she refused to listen to me! I had done nothing but demand that she stop feeling angry at me and see the plain truth of the matter. I was right, damn it!

My wife and I have had some epic fights. This time I don’t remember what we were fighting about, but I remember being utterly convinced that she was stubborn and emotional while I was open-minded and rational. I remember believing this right up to the bitter end when, to get away from my demanding attempts to control her emotions, she left the house and slammed the door in my face. That’s when the truth dawned on me: “It takes two to tango.” It’s true for fights and for loving conversation.  

Two things, above all others, keep me from being a good conversational dance partner: pride and impatience. I succumb to these character flaws in the middle of hard conversations and think, “If you would just listen to me,” or “if you would just stop doing that, then everything would be fine.” I even say to myself, “it’s all so simple and obvious! Why can’t you see it!?”

Pride tells me I know all the answers; that I see the whole situation; that I’m an impartial judge. Pride leads to impatience. “Why can’t you just be rational? Why won’t you just stop doing whatever it is you are doing and do things my way?” Impatience always leads me to anger and attempts to control.

Ironically, it’s easy to think the solution is to “just stop being prideful.” I thought this for years! But it takes more than willpower to escape pride. It takes knowledge and practice.

The most important thing I had to accept was that people are complicated. That may sound obvious, but bear with me. Once I accepted it as true and put that knowledge into practice, it revolutionized my conversations.

A Little History

The first century Greek philosopher Epictetus believed he had discovered the secret to human happiness, and many great thinkers since have agreed that he did. Epictetus said there are only two things under our control: our thoughts and our actions. Trying to control anything else is futile and only results in failure and disappointment. Happiness consists in seeking to control only what we can, our thoughts and actions, not what we can’t, which is everything else. In short, happiness comes through self-mastery.

But Epictetus was wrong. 1,800 years later, psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung discovered something revolutionary. We humans are far more limited than Epictetus understood. And all the evidence we’ve gathered since then proves this basic truth: we are only in control of some of our thoughts and some of our actions. We humans are complex and dynamic beings whose minds are obscure and whose behavior is inexplicable even to ourselves. Self-mastery is almost as elusive as mastery over the external world.

A small amount of honest self-evaluation convinced me of this truth. When I honestly asked myself why I have the habits and feelings I do, I discovered that I am a mystery to myself. I quickly realized what Paul meant by crying, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.... Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

What Epictetus understood in part, and what took nearly 2,000 years to discover by scientific observation, God revealed in a few short sentences: people are complicated, conflicted, and contradictory. We control very little in this life. Indeed, most of the time we cannot even control ourselves…

The Moral of the Story

Why did my wife slam the door in my face? Why did she do whatever made me angry in the first place? Why did I get angry, and why did I respond so poorly throughout that whole fight? These are complicated questions with complicated answers.

The one thing I know for sure is that I didn’t think it was complicated at the time. I was self-righteous and arrogant. I thought I had it all figured out and that I had the right to demand that she see things the way I did.

Here’s the moral of the story. I should have been a lot more humble and showed much more mercy. A healthy respect for how complicated my wife is, and how complicated the whole situation was, would have helped me do both.

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