The Trouble With Others

On getting along with other people:

In a fallen world where sin and self reign supreme, the fact that we can get along with others at all is a bit of a miracle. We are sinful beings from birth. As Chesterton once put it (in his marvellous volume Orthodoxy), “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”

Any parent will know this from experience. Put a group of toddlers together in a room and soon squabbles and fights will break out over toys: ‘Its mine!’ ‘Give it to me!’ They do not need to learn selfishness – it is built in to them. What has to be learned is how to become unselfish, to share, to get along with others.

Every child, a savage in this sense, needs to be civilised. Parents and society at large hopefully can help children to grow up to be considerate of others, learn how to deal with differences, and become useful members of polite society. Some kids will do better than others in this regard.

But it is still said that the number one headache most folks go through in life – at least in the West where our basic needs are pretty well met – comes from their relationships with others.  Be it family members or neighbours or work colleagues, interpersonal relationships can be among the most difficult things to navigate.

A quip – also from Chesterton – is fitting here: “The Bible tells us to love our neighbours, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.” The truth is, countless people have quit their jobs – or their marriages – because they just could not get along with others. In its extreme form we get the sentiment of someone like the French existentialist and atheist Jean Paul Sartre who wrote: “Hell is other people.”

Perhaps we all can feel that way, at least for brief moments. The Christian of course is called to be a people person. The chief commands Christ gave us are to love God and to love others. The latter is much harder for some of us than for others. If you were not a people person to begin with, it may take some time and work via the Spirit to move in that direction once you have become a Christian.

But so difficult can interpersonal relationships be that one can understand how some folks much prefer to live as a hermit. Such self-imposed isolation might be a lonely way to live, but at least it is thought that there will be no annoying people that have to be dealt with.

As with so many issues, one can find much in the writings of C. S. Lewis that deals with these matters. One collection of his essays that I have turned to again and again is God in the Dock (mine is the 1970 Eerdmans edition). All 48 of the essays found therein are great reads, but let me discuss his piece called “The Trouble With ‘X’,” first published in August 1948.

Image of God in the Dock
God in the Dock by Lewis, C. S. (Author) Amazon logo

He begins by saying that most of us mere mortals have troubles getting along with others. And he mentions that even if circumstances changed, the person you have difficulties in living with or dealing with would likely still be a pain to be around. He might win the lottery, but still be an unsufferable creature.

The rest of his essay looks at how God has to deal with us, and how we therefore must learn to deal with others. Here is the rest of the article in full:

It is a great step forward to realize that this is so; to face the fact that even if all external things went right, real happiness would still depend on the character of the people you have to live with – and that you can’t alter their characters. And now comes the point. When you have seen this you have, for the first time, had a glimpse of what it must be like for God. For, of course, this is (in one way) just what God Himself is up against. He has provided a rich, beautiful world for people to live in. He has given them intelligence to show them how it can be used, and conscience to show them how it ought to be used. He has contrived that the things they need for their biological life (food, drink, rest, sleep, exercise) should be positively delightful to them. And, having done all this, He then sees all His plans spoiled – just as our little plans are spoiled – by the crookedness of the people themselves. All the things He has given them to be happy with they turn into occasions for quarrelling and jealousy, and excess and hoarding, and tomfoolery.


You may say it is very different for God because He could, if He pleased, alter people’s characters, and we can’t. But this difference doesn’t go quite as deep as we may at first think. God has made it a rule for Himself that He won’t alter people’s character by force. He can and will alter them – but only if the people will let Him. In that way He has really and truly limited His power. Sometimes we wonder why He has done so, or even wish that He hadn’t. But apparently He thinks it worth doing. He would rather have a world of free beings, with all its risks, than a world of people who did right like machines because they couldn’t do anything else. The more we succeed in imagining what a world of perfect automatic beings would be like, the more, I think, we shall see His wisdom.


I said that when we see how all our plans shipwreck on the characters of the people we have to deal with, we are ‘in one way’ seeing what it must be like for God. But only in one way. There are two respects in which God’s view must be very different from ours. In the first place, He sees (like you) how all the people in your home or your job are in various degrees awkward or difficult; but when He looks into that home or factory or office He sees one more person of the same kind – the one you never do see. I mean, of course, yourself. That is the next great step in wisdom – to realize that you also are just that sort of person. You also have a fatal flaw in your character. All the hopes and plans of others have again and again shipwrecked on your character just as your hopes and plans have shipwrecked on theirs.


It is no good passing this over with some vague, general admission such as ‘Of course, I know I have my faults.’ It is important to realize that there is some really fatal flaw in you: something which gives the others just that same feeling of despair which their flaws give you. And it is almost certainly something you don’t know about – like what the advertisements call ‘halitosis’, which everyone notices except the person who has it. But why, you ask, don’t the others tell me? Believe me, they have tried to tell you over and over again, and you just couldn’t ‘take it’. Perhaps a good deal of what you call their ‘nagging’ or ‘bad temper’ or ‘queerness’ are just their attempts to make you see the truth. And even the faults you do know you don’t know fully. You say, ‘I admit I lost my temper last night’; but the others know that you’re always doing it, that you are a bad-tempered person. You say, ‘I admit I drank too much last Saturday’; but everyone else knows that you are a habitual drunkard.


That is one way in which God’s view must differ from mine. He sees all the characters: I see all except my own. But the second difference is this. He loves the people in spite of their faults. He goes on loving. He does not let go. Don’t say, ‘It’s all very well for Him; He hasn’t got to live with them.’ He has. He is inside them as well as outside them. He is with them far more intimately and closely and incessantly than we can ever be. Every vile thought within their minds (and ours), every moment of spite, envy, arrogance, greed and self-conceit comes right up against His patient and longing love, and grieves His spirit more than it grieves ours.


The more we can imitate God in both these respects, the more progress we shall make. We must love ‘X’ more; and we must learn to see ourselves as a person of exactly the same kind. Some people say it is morbid to be always thinking of one’s own faults. That would be all very well if most of us could stop thinking of our own without soon beginning to think about those of other people. For unfortunately we enjoy thinking about other people’s faults: and in the proper sense of the word ‘morbid’, that is the most morbid pleasure in the world.


We don’t like rationing which is imposed upon us, but I suggest one form of rationing which we ought to impose on ourselves. Abstain from all thinking about other people’s faults, unless your duties as a teacher or parent make it necessary to think about them. Whenever the thoughts come unnecessarily into one’s mind, why not simply shove them away? And think of one’s own faults instead? For there, with God’s help, one can do something. Of all the awkward people in your house or job there is only one whom you can improve very much. That is the practical end at which to begin. And really, we’d better. The job has to be tackled some day: and every day we put it off will make it harder to begin.


What, after all, is the alternative? You see clearly enough that nothing, not even God with all His power, can make ‘X’ really happy as long as ‘X’ remains envious, self-centred, and spiteful. Be sure there is something inside you which, unless it is altered, will put it out of God’s power to prevent your being eternally miserable. While that something remains there can be no Heaven for you, just as there can be no sweet smells for a man with a cold in the nose, and no music for a man who is deaf. It’s not a question of God ‘sending’ us to Hell. In each of us there is something growing up which will of itself be Hell unless it is nipped in the bud. The matter is serious: let us put ourselves in His hands at once – this very day, this hour.

[1796 words]

3 Replies to “The Trouble With Others”

  1. Thanks Bill as needed a reminder of this:- A quip – also from Chesterton – is fitting here: “The Bible tells us to love our neighbours, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.” The truth is, countless people have quit their jobs – or their marriages – because they just could not get along with others. In its extreme form we get the sentiment of someone like the French existentialist and atheist Jean Paul Sartre who wrote: “Hell is other people.”

    Also, what comes to mind in Day Care Centres today compared to my infant days playing with my brother, is that they are teaching children to ‘share’ at a young age, probably because there would be numerous fights throughout the day if they didn’t, so my little grandson when he was a bit over 2 years old and could just talk had been taught to say ‘share’ eg after playing with his little drum set he said ‘share’ which meant I had to give him the sticks so he could drum, then he would give me a go again until he said ‘share’ – I was amazed that a 2 year old knew how to share.

  2. There will never be total unity in this current present fallen world. There will always be conflict and division in this current present fallen world. Unity comes from God and division comes from Satan. God wants people to be united and Satan wants people to be divided.

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