Imagine this, readers: let’s say you are selfish. And let’s say all you want out of a relationship is attention and the knowledge that people think highly of you. Or maybe you want them to do you favors, favors you know they wouldn’t consider unless they were tricked into doing so by illicit and devious means. How would you acquire these things that you want so desperately?
Being the upstanding person you are (one hopes) you most likely do not lie awake at night and devise answers to this question. You are probably not a parasite on the public weal, and so you are stumped. You say to yourself, “What,” you say, “is Andrea getting at this time?” I’ll tell you. If you were the unpleasant character described above, you would not use fear, the tool of manipulation that we discussed previously and the one that people usually think of if they are going to force another person to bend to their will. You would be smarter than that. You would be smart enough to use the chink in almost everyone’s armor, the weakness most easily exploited.
You would use pity.
Shocking, isn’t it? Yet true. Pity is the second tool of manipulation, and though the two are massively differing, it is just as effective as fear. And I’ll tell you why:
In the first place, pathetic manipulators are very good at what they do. I call them pathetic manipulators because that is what they appear to be: sad, underprivileged, lonely little waifs. Pitiful. They work assiduously to cultivate the image that they are struggling bravely, but at the same time they are lost and depressed. The fortunate ones have ready-made sob stories at their disposal: maybe something terrible really did happen to them, or perhaps they really do have a disability of some sort. But these people are good at milking those circumstances for all they are worth, and they can do it for years, far past the time when they should have been back on their feet. If, however, they were not graced with a highly traumatic past, they can always alter their personalities so they appear to be people who just need caring for. Sometimes we have a feeling of repulsion mixed with our pity, but pathetic manipulators usually seem to be able to avoid that sort of image. They are very clever at looking brave, but with their subtle wiles they are certain to remind us constantly of what they have gone through. Often we have great respect for these people because they present such an attractive image of touching courage.
And it works, too. It works beautifully. One thing that makes humans different from animals is that we have compassion in our souls. Instead of zeroing in on the weak and weeding them from our numbers, we usually like to give these people extra. Extra attention, extra money, extra love. Pitiful manipulators are, like the rest of us, intelligent enough to recognize this; but what really sets them apart is the unscrupulous audacity to take advantage of it. And the beauty of it all is that even if you come to the realization that this person is using your pity to manipulate you, you are usually too sorry for him to think ill of him! It’s a vicious circle. Pathetic manipulators are so rarely called out because nobody wants to condemn someone pitiable. It feels so mean. In a strange and inexplicable twist of fate, we often reason that people who have gone through (or are going through) hard times are automatically stronger or better than the rest of us. We feel, oddly, that circumstances make the man, that one who has had rough experiences surely learned from them and become better for it. But too often they don’t. The reason it’s called a desperate time is that so few make it out alive. Many people don’t actually learn from their hardships, preferring instead to crumble and ride on the pity of others. You know people like this, and so do I. We just don’t like to admit it.
Neither did Elizabeth Bennet. Ladies and gentlemen, the return of Mr. Wickham! Do you remember his conversation with Elizabeth during which he revealed why he was in the military (a pack of lies, as it turned out)? That conversation was really what endeared the girl to him more than anything else. She felt so sorry for the poor man! “I had my heart set on joining the church,” he says. (quoting from the Focus Features movie because I don’t like any other motion picture version and I don’t really like the book). “But,” he continues, his face a mask of the perfect combination of touching misery and courage, “Darcy ignored his wishes and… gave the living to another man. So now” (another sad smile) “— I am a poor foot soldier. Too lowly even to be noticed.” “How cruel!” breathes Elizabeth. And it was at that moment, more than any other, during which she really became attached to poor Wickham. Pity, more than any sort of admiration for his good character, moved her to believe his words. She was, like most of us still are today, immensely disinclined to believe that he would be trying to manipulate her through pity.
I think it’s because most of us are determined to think well of our fellow man no matter what, and we really don’t like the idea that a human being would use such a low tactic as appealing to pity, especially if that person is a friend of ours. I mean, seriously? What kind of person does that? This tool of manipulation is only difficult to spot because it feels so nasty to think of someone this way. It’s somehow hurtful to our own egos to belong to a race which also includes people who will ride on our pity. And, as I said before, pity is blinding. We cannot think ill of or do harm to someone we pity.
It’s hard to get past this manipulation. The only way is to have a ruthless commitment to truth. You have to be willing to plow down your own comfort zone and pass harsh judgments. You can handle the truth! It’s just hard. Difficult to accept that someone you may have liked or felt compassion for is really a selfish deceiver. But do it. By all means, do it! All you need to do is open your eyes. Just take the blinders off and be sure you are not going to be the host for his parasitic behavior. This feels mean for a while, but it’s liberating not to be trodden upon. Oh, yes it is.
Very much so.