Sunday, February 14, 2021

Ask Aunt Dorcas: The Person Who Liked Everyone But Me


Aunt Dorcas pretends to be interested in her
daughter Jenny's snail.

Dear Aunt Dorcas,

How do you grieve for someone whose relationship brought more pain than anything else?  A close family member recently passed away and the death did bring a certain amount of loss, but mostly relief that the stress of trying to keep working on the hard parts was over.  There were moments of joy in our relationship but mostly pain and hard. I feel sad for other family members who lost the one they loved so much, but little sadness for myself.  

Another dynamic to this relationship struggle is that most other people really enjoyed being with the deceased.  This person was fun to be with, the life of the party.  So I am also grappling with the idea of what is wrong with me?  Why could everyone else get along, but not me?  Was it my fault or the other person's fault? What could I have done differently? I have never felt free to discuss the dynamics of this relationship, nor do I wish to air every piece of dirty laundry.  That brings another question to mind: How do you talk about hard relationships without gossiping or slandering or making others think less of the person?


Struggling in the South

Dear Struggling—

I like to answer questions dealing with issues I’ve already experienced, wrestled with, and found answers for or solutions to. Talkative children, for example. I experienced it, learned a lot, survived, and got the t-shirt.

This is not one of those questions. I chose to examine it because it’s current for me. Maybe not the grief so much, specifically, but the mystery: how was this person this way toward me and that way toward everyone else? What does that say about both them and me? What’s wrong with me if they were awful to me but nice to everyone else? How do you process all that, especially after they pass on?

In a broader sense, the Christian/Mennonite world is regularly slammed with a new revelation of a respected leader who influenced many to follow Jesus but was found to have a slimy, hidden side that caused enormous damage.

We know that we ourselves are complex and multi-dimensional, a mix of good, bad, and in-between, and often we don’t even know what lurks in our own hearts until a chance reaction exposes it.

Also, as you explained so well, we show different faces to different people, so you and I can have entirely different impressions of the same person.

Who of us knew their true self, you wonder, sitting at the funeral listening to the eulogies and tributes. How is it possible that no one else heard and saw what I did, or was burned so deeply by their cruelty? “I don’t want to imply she was perfect,” they say at the funeral, and we think, “No kidding.”

When I was about fourteen, a young man taught my Sunday school class like no one had ever taught me in my life. Instead of predictable, sleepy parsing of chapters and verses, he challenged us to memorize the book of James. Then he had us take turns teaching the class. For the first time, I spent Saturday nights sitting on the bedroom floor, surrounded by commentaries and concordances, diving deep into Scripture.

Years later, I met this man’s teenage daughter. Of course I gushed and exclaimed about her dad’s impact on my life, but she seemed oddly unimpressed. Later, she shared that her dad had struggled with mental illnesses, and his family suffered through years of chaos, fear, and isolation.

My experience happened. So did hers. They were both valid. I don’t know how to square this with the verses from James 3 that I memorized at this man’s urging:

Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter? Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.

What about the influential minister who sexually assaulted a number of young men, including one I knew whose life was utterly ruined by the experience? Much later, at a gathering of young people, the minister’s grandchildren raved about him. Such a Godly man, so loving, so funny, so caring, such a great Bible teacher.


Then there was the woman who crossed my path when I was young, floundering, and incredibly vulnerable. She would regularly upbraid me in the most shameful and spiritual terms, slicing down to the most fragile part of my soul, making me wither in burning self-hatred for days.

Her grandchildren loved her. Such a sweet, caring woman.

Contrary to James, these fountains yielded both salt water and fresh. So which was real and which was fake?

Like you, Struggling in the South, I assumed the problem was mine. I was so bad; she was so spiritual.

I no longer think it was my problem.

Maybe everyone is like this, but I think people who survived childhood abuse have a few specific reactions to this dichotomy in character.

--We have a hard time with nuance and contradiction. We experience someone in a specific way, so we slot them into a category. Nice or nasty. Honest or lying. Safe or unsafe.

--We have a hard time evaluating someone at arm’s length. “Hmmm. They seem to be bitter and angry. Interesting. I wonder why.” Instead, we feel it’s about us. “She is bitter and angry because I provoke her. It is my fault.” Or “Maybe I didn’t cause this, but it really bothers me personally that she is this way. I resent it.”

--Integrity is everything to us. We needed to know if people were safe or unsafe, so we developed a German Shepherd’s nose. One whiff of pretension, hypocrisy, or arrogance, and we promptly slotted them into the file of people we can never relax around. Even as adults and supposedly in charge of our lives, we still do this.

I think that as we grow older and receive healing, we act less out of self-preservation and more out of grace and truth.

First, grace. We recognize the incredible complexity in each of us, and we realize people do what they do because of what’s in their hearts. It’s all about them, and it has nothing to do with us. We have less of a passionate need to sort everyone into safe and unsafe and are able to see shades of gray between black and white. We see patterns—people hurt and humiliate out of the pain that festers inside them. We are able to see more objectively and give more grace. We don’t know the whole story, and we get to choose who we’re going to be no matter how they treated us.

But we also love truth. We realize how often we were bamboozled into believing everything was our fault, and we lose patience with hypocrisy, with foolishness, with cruelty in spiritual disguise. We call it like we see it and no longer worry that it’s just us being weird. This is not ok. You don’t shame and harangue the little schoolteacher even if she’s a bit silly. That’s just mean. Sexual abuse is evil and comes from an evil heart, no matter how kind the grandfather might be or how many were taught by the minister.

Back to your specific situation, Miss Struggling in the South:

I want to validate everything you’ve been through. You really felt and experienced what you felt and experienced. You are not crazy.

When you seem to be the only one who didn’t get along with a person, it makes you feel just as you described: alone, weird, at fault.

It could be that something about you triggered a reaction in this person. That doesn’t mean it was your fault. It means there was something in their heart that was exposed when you arrived. This was their chance to thank God for that revelation and repent and change. Instead, they kept making the relationship miserable for you.

That was their choice.

You have much to grieve here—the relationship that could have been, the isolation, and the burden of silence.

“How do you talk about these things?” you said.

You are wise to be cautious, but please find one person who can hear the truth. Carrying these contradictions inside without voicing them will only add to your grief.

I can’t tell you when and how and what to Tell because I’m constantly grappling with it myself. Secrets untold can grow into cancers that destroy us, but sometimes Telling brings more problems than it solves. I believe the truth will set us free, yet I also believe in discretion, and I would never tell the granddaughter, for example, that her beloved grandma nearly spun me into mental illness.

However, difficult as it was to find out, I am glad for his daughter's sake that I learned how my favorite Sunday school teacher turned out. Her story deserved to be told and heard. I try to see both her experience and mine as valid and true.

I wish we could all become more accepting of the complicated truths about people, far beyond the eulogies and "But they weren't perfect" at funerals. Whenever and whatever you tell, some people will hear and affirm you, and others will shame you for saying anything at all and accuse you of holding grudges. Because we are all complicated and different people.

But I pray that you will eventually be vindicated and validated. Truth, like a little sprout from a seed buried deep in the garden, has a way of coming into the light when the time is right.


  1. And this is why I value your voice so much. The way you touch on pieces of myself tucked away for later and the thoughtfulness of other viewpoints to consider. Thank you!

  2. This is powerful .
    Thank you ,Dorcas.
    Mary Yoder

  3. I learn so much from you! I have much to think about here. I tend to be a black and white thinker by personality and I'm learning the nuance as I get older. I deeply appreciate your thoughtful examinations of problems we are all living through - thank you.

  4. This truly touched me.
    There is someone in my life who has a reputation amongst their peers as a wonderful person, yet whom I have always had a difficult time with. It came as truly a giant surprise to me when it surfaced that they were intimidated by me, and all of our conflict and my “not getting” how they had this super holy sweet reputation with others was probably rooted in that. They are twice my age and more, mother of many grown children, and yet apparently (according to them!) colossally intimidated by me - a young second gen woman and young mother who was raised from birth to homemake and homeschool and therefore to whom it comes a little more naturally, I guess?
    It had never occurred to me that this much older woman was seeking my approval and apparently desperate for my validation as well as my encouragement and my seeking their advice.

    Among their peers they seemed confident; with me it was a clash and “competition”. It didn’t end up helping us relate, but it did help me understand how they had one reputation with the older women and very young women, and a completely different “reputation” with me and another woman like me.

    1. That is super interesting and a great illustration of how we can unwittingly unleash a bizarre reaction in others. As they can in us as well.
      I'm glad you got more information on the dynamics here, although it didn't fix the situation.

  5. This is profound -I want to read it again and again. Please consider writing a book with your Ask Aunt Dorcas entries. Thank you!

  6. I second Anonymous. This is profound.

  7. Yes! Thank you for saying this. I wish it was common knowledge. Don't you actually agree with James? the verse right before the one you quote reads, "Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be." The fountain analogy could be an ideal, or a contrast, or something else.

    Matthew 7 is harder:

    15 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

    16 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?


    20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

    Maybe this could refer to individual roles? It certainly seems that a true prophet could be a false friend, and so on. Surely it can't mean that all true prophets are sinless! Who would ever claim that about the Old Testament prophets, or any other?

    1. Thanks for sharing these verses. I don't really have answers for your questions, but you share some good things to consider.

  8. Yes. It is so true that something in me can trigger something in them. I've experienced that and it was helpful in figuring out my responses back. I am more able to have compassion and grace toward them even though they seem to want to hurt me. I also found it helpful then to turn it around and realize that some people trigger something in me as well and dig to find out what is going on in my own heart making me react to them. Often it's helpful because I can search those hidden corners and realize where this response is coming from! And then when I feel that trigger I can say, "wait a minute! I need to stop and think about this!"

    1. Exactly! I've learned to examine that reaction in myself and explore what's behind it.

  9. Dear Aunt Dorcas,
    Perhaps much of what you said here applies to my question, although I wonder if you have any additional thoughts on....

    How does one grieve well the loss of someone who is still living? Grieving....because said person should have been protective and nurturing. Instead, said person was very very abusive. Now that we are adults and the truth is out(even though there are skeptics) and I have boundaries with said person, it still feels like a huge loss. Defensive is generally more common than repentance here. If this person had died, my grief would be more recognized. I feel like its a silent grief. From your storehouse of wisdom, what thoughts do you have for me? -Grieving

    1. Dear Grieving--It feels like a huge loss because it IS a huge loss. When someone who should have protected you was abusive instead, it completely skews your perception of who you are and how the world works. The damage can take a lifetime to undo. Then, when your experience isn't believed, recognized, or talked about, you grieve in silence and wonder why it's such a big deal to you when it doesn't matter to anyone else.
      I am so sorry you are going through this.
      The truth is your friend. This happened to you, and it's hard. Don't minimize that. Also recognize that you were given the power to be who you choose to be, and to create a beautiful life for yourself. Even if they don't repent, and even if you're not believed.
      Pray, especially, about the lies that were planted in your heart. Ask God to show them to you. Pursue healing and truth. It will get better.