Insults rate pretty high on the list of things that bother us.
I’d rather be insulted than lose a limb, certainly. But given the choice between receiving an insult and standing barefoot in the snow for ten minutes, I’d probably take the snow. Physical pain can very often be more bearable than dishonour and indignity.
The ability to receive insults with grace, then, is a rare but awe-inspiring quality.
It’s good, in a way, that insults rankle us as they do. That’s how we’re built. It’s not only sinful pride that motivates us in those moments of feeling stung — there’s an appropriate sort of human instinct that’s revealed by our fierce aversion to being insulted.
We might call it self-respect. We might call it dignity, or confidence. It could just as easily be characterized as aggression or insecurity, and all of those characterizations bring us closer to what it is.
We hate to be insulted because we love humanity.
When we cast insults, we don’t mean to bring down human nature, only some accidental defect or shortcoming we find in the particular human being before us.
But when we receive insults, it is hard to see them as anything else but a strike against our very self, and that self is worth defending because it is human, because we know that whatever it means to be human, it is something good and dignified. It is something worthy of respect, if anything in the world can be.
The irrational and insatiable rage that rises in us at the words of an insult is a magnificent champion of human nature. That force, channeled well, can bring untold goods and glories.
And yet, as I said, it’s also true that the ability to transcend that reaction is itself a marvel. How so?
Just as it is true that the person who gives insult does not mean to denigrate human nature, so also, that person is not benefited by the anger of the one insulted. The anger will always appear somehow disproportionate, unmerited, to the one giving insult, and so the two people will be drawn downward into an endless cycle of misunderstanding and offending.
How, then, can we take an insult well? I have some thoughts about this question, although I am far from having perfected the practice myself.
First, we can be grateful for the anger that springs up in us. It is a beautiful thing, in its way.
And secondly, we can accept that the insults we hear do tell us something true about ourselves. Maybe the truth is not precisely what the insulter thinks is true, but we do well to assume that if the people around us are seeing smoke, there is probably within us, somewhere, a fire.
The person who calls you a coward, with a sneer and a laugh, could be doing you a favour, if you receive it rightly.
It amounts to the same thing as when a trusted friend sits down with us and gently says that we might want to consider whether we ought to be bolder and more courageous in certain circumstances. Our enemies and our friends offer us the same help.
The difference is, it’s much easier to receive that help from our friends. It takes someone truly strong, and truly wise, to receive such help from the people who seem like enemies.
This is truly one of the most difficult teachings I’ve ever attempted to embrace, but whenever I get this even partly right, it is a great blessing.
It’s said that if you rebuke the wise, they will love you for it. Be like the wise. That is how to defeat an insult.