Optimism in the Face of Difficult Relationships

A reflection on Luke 9:28-36 (The Transfiguration)

I used to have a coworker who had a reputation for being a real pain in the neck.  He had a temper, would easily get frustrated with others in a way that would often lead to conflict in the workplace, was often late for meetings, and not very reliable.  He liked to do things his own way and was not much of a team player.

Then one day I began volunteering at a local food bank.  During one of my first days I ran into him.  Surprised, I asked how long he had volunteered there.  He said he had volunteered there for years.  He described how he had grown up poor and this was his way of giving back from all that he had been blessed with.

In that moment, I went from seeing this man as someone I would rather not associate with to a companion I would work with to help create a better world.  I remember thinking how good it was to see this side of my coworker. After a while of working together to help the fight against hunger, we ended up becoming friends.

Sometimes we can live or work beside someone without really getting to know them.  Then, one day, something happens and we discover a completely different side of that person.

I thought of this story as I reflected on the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36).

Peter, James, and John had walked with Jesus and gotten to know him as a person and a teacher and a mentor.  Then, at the Transfiguration they are for a moment given the opportunity to see who Jesus really is.  As they did, they receive a glimpse of the power of the God who reigns supreme over all.  They not only discover the presence of the Son of God in their lives, they also find hope of a better future.  

The experience is so good they wanted to remain there.

God is showing up all around us every day, often through the people we encounter.  Are we open to discovering that presence as God chooses to reveal it to us, even through the people and circumstances we would least expect?

I did not expect to ever see that side of my coworker nor was I ever optimistic I would. I would never have imagined God would unite us around a mission that brought so much good to our neighborhood as that food bank did.

I would call Saint Augustine an optimist when it comes to relationships with others. The Rule of Augustine and way of life it advises were oriented towards seeing the potential for unity in the midst of diversity and reconciliation in the midst of conflict. Elsewhere, he offers us this wisdom about remaining optimistic when facing difficult relationships:

We may never reject the friendship of anyone who wishes to be our friend. Certainly, we are not obliged to accept everyone immediately in friendship, but it should be our wish to accept everybody as our friend. Our attitude towards others should be such that the possibility of taking them into our friendship remains open.

Saint Augustine (On Diverse Questions 83, 71)

We all look forward to that day when there will be no more epidemics, no more wars, no more poverty, no more politics.  However, we do not have to wait for the Second Coming to discover the presence of God already at work around us, often in people we have not yet gotten to know and even in people we would least expect.

If we reflect on those people in our lives that we are least likely to call a friend, are we at least optimistic of the possibility? What a gift this could be to a world that has seemingly become more divided and more pessimistic about the possibility of unity than many of us would have imagined ten years ago.

As the Savior comes to us in the Eucharist today, may we pray for the grace to see our Savior already present and at work in our midst.  Let us pray for the grace to rely on that vision as our source of hope as we leave the Church to share our reason for hope in the midst of the division and conflict we see in the world today. We might make a new friend in the process.

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