My Best Teachers Are People I Cannot Win

My Best Teachers Are People I Cannot Win July 16, 2020

I want to win everyone. I suppose it’s a fairly common problem among pastors. But there are two layers to this for me and they are very different. On the one hand, I have a sense of vocation about “winning people over” to experience the incredible joy I have discovered in my strange mystical journey in search of salvation and spiritual completion (though I’m way less interested in convincing people of one right set of beliefs than I was as an evangelical). At the same time, I also want to prove that despite the fact my autism has made me feel like an alien my entire life, I am in fact a likable human being who relates to people well.

The latter layer to my need to win people has probably been my greatest spiritual struggle in life. It has made me a very bad pastor at times. I have desperately needed the affirmation of others to know that I am not utterly socially inept and unqualified to have any job other than programming computers, which was my first career. The most painful experiences I’ve had in my quest to win others have also been the best lessons I’ve received. My best teachers in my journey have been the people I absolutely cannot win.

What do I mean by someone I cannot win? I mean the person who will not offer me any affirmation whatsoever or any indication that I have impacted their life. Maybe they’re specifically telling me to fuck off. Maybe they’re just busy. Maybe they have issues that have nothing to do with me. Maybe I’m playing a role in their life where I’m just permanently the asshole no matter how sensitive I am or responsive to their feedback.

One of the things I’ve realized is that because I’m a white man and because of the weight of what white men throughout history have collectively done, I will always be untrustworthy to some people. They won’t necessarily say or do specifically hostile things, but I’m not going to receive whatever confirmation my angsty autistic brain wants to receive to know that I’ve made it into somebody else’s heart.

Honestly, I have no idea how to distinguish between my mental projections and what other people are actually communicating implicitly to me through terseness or non-communication. I create all kinds of crazy stories in my mind about what’s going on with other people when they ghost me or respond to me stoically, which probably feels more constant than it actually is because of my autistic inner monologue.

But here’s the story I’m trying to tell myself about all these relational misfires and subtle chemistry clashes that used to fill me with so much shame because I always assumed that my too-much-ness was the problem. I’ve come to believe that human relationships are perpetual role plays in which how someone else sees me has more to do with the archetypes they’ve developed and superimposed onto me for my role in their story than with what I’m actually doing (unless I’ve been a major character in their story for a long time).

In other words, in situations where I feel unfairly demonized by other people, they’re often not actually judging me as a person, but judging an amalgamation of identity within their experience that I’ve been included in, whether I’m the White Male Asshole or the Arrogant, Overly Intellectual Pastor From Duke Divinity School or the Emotionally Needy Human or whatever. It’s not actually me; it’s the archetype in their story whom I happen to embody at that point. I don’t have to accept their criticism (or imagined criticism) entirely at face value. I just need to examine whether my behavior is causing them distress, and if it is, then adjust what I’m doing in order to trigger them less.

Do you see the difference? Maybe it’s subtle. When I receive others’ negative feedback (which is usually my interpretation of implicit communication since I’m hypersensitive whenever anyone responds to me less than enthusiastically), I can respond with compassion to whatever need of theirs I can discern, rather than responding out of shame to a perceived judgment of my behavior or character.

I’m not sure how to convey how huge a realization this is for me. And I never would have gotten here if it hadn’t been for the people who have not let me win them, because they were the ones who cost me hours of emotional energy pouting and ruminating on whether the judgments they seemed to make about me were fair and on-point.

Accepting that I will never win certain people helps me understand that I actually cannot make it my purpose to win people and I cannot evaluate myself based on how many people I have won, which is basically the continuous evaluation my autistic brain is making ever day. Is this working? Am I being a likable human today? Am I getting the right response to what I’m saying and doing? Well Jenny didn’t respond to my text, so clearly I’ve fucked up again. I guess I’ll never be a real human.

Instead, the thought can actually be I hope Jenny is doing okay and if I get feedback from her that helps me care for her better, I can adapt. And then I can just put the relationship in a box that only needs to be opened up again if Jenny actually communicates something or I discern specific about how I do things that I know I need to fix.

But the greatest gift of the people who have rejected, demonized, and/or simply not noticed me is the degree to which I’ve been able to connect to God. God speaks as a voice in the wilderness. I don’t hear God’s voice when I feel adequately affirmed by other people. It’s when I really feel like a nobody or like I’ve been judged unfairly that I go to the wilderness with a heart wounded enough to be touched by God. And God gives me wisdom and poetry like manna all over the ground when I go to God in that state of dejection and emptiness.

So it really hit me today that instead of winning everybody, I can actually just try to be as compassionate as I’m able to the people who are in my life. Some people’s trauma history means I cannot be part of their lives in any way that isn’t painful to them. Others will not trust me because of past experiences with people I remind them of. And if I just stick to compassion insofar as I’m in relationship with people I cannot win, I can spend my mental energy trying to figure out the most healing response, even if it literally requires just walking away. I can make peace with myself even if they will not give me any confirmation that my best intentions were seen and received well.

It feels like a breakthrough, even though I imagine this is how most people already live.

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