When They’re At Their Worst, You Have To Be At Your Best
If you would have known Kyle back in high school, like I did, you would barely recognize him today.
I mean, he still looks basically the same. Same size, same hair, same energy. He even has the same thick Texas accent.
But I’m telling you, he’s a whole different guy now.
The Kyle I knew back in high school had grown up in a tough neighborhood and was a tough dude. He talked tough and acted tough. And honestly, he was kind of tough to get along with.
His thing was basketball. That’s how I knew him. He took trash talking to a whole new level.
One time we were playing a pickup game at the church when his leg somehow bent the wrong way and his knee popped out of its socket. He crumpled to the floor in pain, grabbed the knee, and uttered a few choice words.
The knee looked disgusting—it was literally dislocated. I’m not doctor, but that knee looked messed up.
His younger brother Keith—soft spoken, but also tough as nails—looked at it and said, “Quit your whining. Pop it back into place and get up so we can play.”
And he did.
So, yea. Kyle was tough.
I lost track of him about 15 or 20 years ago, then last year I randomly ran into him while attending church with my in-laws in Meridian, Idaho—1,600 miles away from where we both grew up.
We exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes—nothing substantive—but even in that short interaction I could sense that something was different about him. He seemed to have a softer edge.
Then a few months ago Kyle called me out of the blue seeking some business advice.
Turns out, Kyle now specializes in helping families with autistic children cope with the stress and chaos of dealing with their challenging situations.
As we talked, he told me his back story. He and his wife Shelly have six kids—five boys and a girl. Two of the five boys are on the autism spectrum.
I’m not an expert on autism, but as I understand it, there are different severities of symptoms, ranging from mild and nearly fully functional… to extreme cases where the person suffers from severe social deficits, communication difficulties, repetitive behaviors, and sensory issues.
Kyle’s sons are both considered “mid-spectrum,” meaning that while functional in many ways, they were still extremely challenging to deal with.
He told me how agonizingly difficult it had been raising these boys; how he loved them to death, but the stress of it had been tearing his family apart. He told me how, among other things, when his oldest boy hit puberty, he became very aggressive, to the point where his wife was scared to be left alone with him.
In short, it was a tough life for a tough guy.
When things got hard—and they often did—his response was to try to control the situation by controlling his sons. Sometimes that meant physically restraining them. Sometimes that meant yelling at them. It wasn’t always pretty. Whatever his response, there always seemed to be another knock-down-drag-out battle right around the corner.
One Saturday morning, things took a turn for the worse.
His oldest autistic son went into meltdown mode; he was running through the house screaming and kicking and punching and knocking things over. The standard coping methods of restraint and yelling and pleading weren’t working.
Normally a meltdown could be expected to last anywhere from 10 to 90 minutes.
This one lasted four hours.
His other kids were cowering in fear. It felt like the house was on fire, being hit by an earthquake, and being struck by a tornado all at the same time.
By the end of the episode, his son had rammed his head through a glass window and Kyle and Shelly’s nerves were somewhere between frayed and fried.
That’s when the real trouble started.
Each of the boy’s parents took turns lashing out at the other; blaming and pointing fingers.
“If you would have done this, he would have calmed down faster.”
“If you would have done that, he wouldn’t have had the meltdown in the first place.”
The accusations flew and tears fell until Kyle couldn’t take it anymore.
He grabbed his car keys, went out of the front door onto the lawn, and stared at his car through puffy, tear-welled eyes.
“I never signed up for this,” he raged in his mind. “I can’t handle it. I’m going to get in my car and drive… and I’m going to keep on going. I’m done. I can’t live this way.”
And then, suddenly, a memory popped into his mind.
He recalled a conversation he’d had with his dad years ago after he had made a stupid mistake in a ball game that had cost his team a sure victory. Humiliated and embarrassed, he told his dad that he wished the ball had never come to him; he’d rather the burden of victory or defeat fall to somebody else.
“No,” his dad told him. “If you’re going to fail, fail on your own terms. Don’t run and hide. Fight.”
Humbled by the memory, he turned to God. He knelt down and poured out his soul—right there under a pecan tree in the front yard. He told God that he was willing to stay and fight, but that none of the methods or solutions he had been using worked. What could he do differently? Was he destined to a life of hardship and misery?
God’s simple answer: The problem isn’t your sons. And it’s not your wife. It’s you.
He went back inside and apologized to Shelly. He vowed that from that day forward, he would fix himself—and let the chips fall where they may with his autistic sons.
And surprisingly, when he started looking for the right solutions, he found them.
He knew that his autistic sons lacked the capacity to understand how to control their emotions and make sense of their world. He knew their lives were every bit as frustrating as his—probably even more.
But then an important revelation: He realized that when his sons went into meltdown mode, it triggered a “fight or flight” response in them. Usually fight.
And more importantly, he realized that when his sons melted down, it triggered the same “fight or flight” instinct in him. Again, usually fight.
In other words, their meltdowns were triggering his meltdowns.
When they fought, he fought back.
That’s what tough guys do. Right?
The difference – He had the capacity to choose his response. They didn’t. At least not at that time.
He read dozens of books and scoured the scriptures looking for any methods, techniques, principles, examples, and mentors he could find.
He prayed for the patience of Job.
And it was given to him.
At one point, his son had a meltdown, during which he took a swing at Kyle. He was able to duck out of the way, but the punch still caught him in the ear—hard enough to draw blood. Fireworks of pain went off in Kyle’s head, and the familiar anger started to boil over.
But this time he caught himself.
He made a choice.
He refused to get sucked into the conflict.
Instead of striking back, he looked at his son with tears in his eyes and gently said, “Please don’t hit me. I love you.”
It was a turning point for both of them.
“Loving somebody when they are coming at you with fists is the hardest dang thing in the world,” Kyle told me. “But it’s the only solution. Otherwise, you automatically lose.”
Then he summarized his philosophy in simple terms anyone can understand: When they’re at their worst, I have to be at my best.
That’s how you love the unlovable.
Which is a nice story.
But what about when the kid isn’t autistic?
What if he’s just a belligerent jerk?
By choice. Or by habit.
Or what if the kid isn’t a kid?
What if it’s your business partner? Or your brother? Or your spouse?
After all, the world is full of difficult people.
If it’s a neighbor, you can move. If it’s a boss, you can find a new job.
But when it’s somebody you are supposed to love—but who is making it really, really hard to love them—that’s when we see what we’re really made of.
The Savior’s advice on this subject couldn’t be any clearer:
Matthew 5:44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
46 For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
47 And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?
Bless them that curse you?
Do good to them that hate you?
Pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you?
Man, that’s tough medicine to swallow.
A few years ago I was helping a friend through a struggling marriage. He droned on and on and on about how terrible his wife was. How she blamed and provoked and agitated and tormented him.
It had been going on for years, and he was convinced she would never change.
So I asked him this question:
“If she manipulates you, and flogs you, and hangs you on a cross, and stabs you in the side with a spear… can you still say ‘Father forgive her, for she knows not what she does?’”
This is the essence of Christlike love.
Yes, I know this is hard in real life.
But real life is the only life we have, and the only life that matters.
If something happened 5 or 10 or 25 years ago, most of us are pretty good at forgiving. Eventually.
But how do we deal with these kinds of difficult relationships right now—while we’re still in the relationship, and while the other person’s fists are still balled up and ready to strike?
How do we deal with the drug addicted daughter?
Or the pathologically lying business partner?
Or the child who steals and lies and cheats and uses and abuses?
You can probably think of at least one person in your life who fits into one of those categories.
Here is an answer:
The operative word is compassion.
Compassion is ongoing forgiveness, in the moment, while the offense is still fresh.
Or still happening.
Putting yourself in their shoes and trying to figure out why on earth they are acting this way.
Yes, we want to gently nudge the behavior back to the center, but we also have to look at the why.
Why is the behavior his way?
Why does this person feel compelled to act out?
What wounds do they have? (Click that link; read the story about the hunting dog. Seriously, do it.)
What demons are tormenting them?
Are we focused mostly on treating symptoms… and beating them up because of them?
Or are we compassionate enough to look for and help heal the underlying wounds?
One father who was dealing with a wayward teenage daughter came to this realization:
I used to think the challenge was to keep this child on the path. Then, at some point I realized the real challenge wasn’t about the child at all, it was about keeping myself on the path. The challenge was to be kind and loving to someone who was neither; it was to feel the Spirit before, during and after the screaming. It was to sincerely pray in family prayers while there is snickering and snorting and derision during the prayer; it is to be who Christ intends for me to be regardless of what another mortal does – especially one in my home.
In other words, when they’re at their worst, you have to be at your best.
Don’t make the way you treat people contingent on the way you wish they would behave.
Treat them the way the Savior would have you treat them.
Ironically, the answer to loving the unlovable is… LOVE.
Hard as that may be, it’s the only answer.
I can hear it in Kyle’s voice over the phone.
You can see it on his face in the videos he posts to help other parents of autistic children.
He’s not a tough guy anymore.
And it changed his life.
It changed his sons’ lives.
What about you?
This is not an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.