I moved to Springfield, MO 30 years ago to become the senior minister of a large Christian Church that had just harassed the former pastor into resignation after a very short tenure. The associate pastor, administrator, secretary, and janitor all left at about the same time, fleeing what had become a toxic environment.
I was foolishly confident that this would not happen to me. After all, I had served three other Disciples of Christ churches, and each time I had followed ministers who had been fired and, in each case, I had managed to stay longer than my predecessors and left on my own terms. I was used to managing organized opposition and was sure that I could do it again.
But when the same people who had needled my predecessor into leaving Springfield like a Dominoes delivery driver with a 29-minute-old pizza, started taking me out to dinner and trying to become my closest friends, the wise old chairman of the board took me out to lunch and gave me a bit of sage advice that I have never forgotten.
When he raised the topic, warning me that they might try to do the same thing to me that they had done to the previous pastor, I assured him that they seem to be quite friendly towards me, he said, “A snake doesn’t have to bite you to be a snake.” That advice has turned out to be one of wisest and most important pieces of advice that I have ever been given, and every time that I have ignored it, eventually, I have been very very sorry.
One of the foundational truths of psychology is, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. We can be very narcissistic about these things. We all tend to interpret the universe from our own experience, judging everything as if it was just a flavor of ice cream or a kind of music. One person likes vanilla, and another likes Rocky Road, but it isn’t that one of them is right and the other is wrong. One person likes classic Rock and another likes Country music and, well . . . that one doesn’t work as well, clearly, anyone who likes Country music is just wrong . . . but you catch my drift.
We want to believe that just because this person I am very attracted to cheated on her first husband, and then cheated on her second husband, that she will be faithful to me because she really loves me. We may want to believe that but it is not rational. A snake doesn’t have to bite you to be a snake.
And yes, people can change . . . if I stop believing that, I really need to give up on preaching and counseling. People can change. But they rarely do and when they do, it is because of a powerful and costly commitment to change. People don’t change easily, or quickly, and they usually don’t change much.
We who discovered our spirituality within one of the major world religions, all treasure the value of forgiveness, of mercy, of second chances but the same one who the gospels tell us taught us to love our enemies also cautioned us not to cast pearls before swine.
Compassion is a primary value of spirituality but that does not mean that a narcissist will not see your compassion as a weakness to be exploited. Get real, you are not some kind of Harry Potter/snake charmer. If you have seen a snake bite someone else, even if they have not bitten you yet, don’t kid yourself.
The famous Maya Angelou quote may have been repeated to the point of exhaustion, but it is none the less true, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that forgiveness without confession is cheap grace. Sociopaths, both narcissists and people with anti-social personality disorders, will lean on your spiritual instincts to be, not only forgiving and accepting, but to be downright amnesiacs, pretending that what you saw with your own eyes, what you heard with your own ears, what you experienced in your own flesh, did not happen, or at the very least, it did not matter . . . don’t fall for that kind of gaslighting.
In 1983, then President, Ronald Reagan, naively referred to the Soviet Union as being the “evil empire.” With much more wisdom and maturity of thought, the Russian novelist, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, replied:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
There is a paradox here. I have spent more than 40 years talking about ethics, character, personal choice and almost always with the binary assumption that good and evil exist and yet, trying to simultaneously encourage people to suspend judgement, be forgiving, tolerant, accepting, and even loving. I want to encourage the good in human potential and discourage evil and yet, try very hard to fully acknowledge that the line between good and evil runs right through every one of us.
Rather than judging others, we preachers try to encourage people to examine themselves, to root out the evil in their own character and try to fertilize and encourage their better traits. Ironically, like Michael Jackson’s song, “Man in the Mirror,” in which he sings:
I'm starting with the man in the mirror
I'm asking him to change his ways
And no message could've been any clearer
If they wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and then make a change
After it became unavoidably clear to me that Michael Jackson was guilty of child molesting, I was asked if I would still use this song in our services. If you had to answer that question, what would you say? The message of the song is spot on, to make the world a better place, focus on changing the guy you see in the mirror, although I believed the artist famous for recording the message, had not done the most important changing that he really should have done…. Should I ignore that and use his music without at least some disclaimer to put some distance between our church and an alleged pedophile?
No one is perfect. No one is innocent. But how far does a person have to go down the path of imperfection and sin before they become, if not irredeemably evil, then, at least, predominantly evil?
There have been a plethora of sci-fi movies in which time travel was possible in which they discuss going back in time and killing Hitler in his infancy . . . in fact, I may even take it as proof that time travel is impossible because if anyone had managed to make time travel possible, they surely would have already killed baby Hitler, and since no one has ever shown up in time to do that, it stands to reason that it cannot be done.
But we are not here to talk about time travel.
My point is that some people are bad people, even if they have some redeeming qualities, we tend to think of them as being bad. And almost all of history’s true heroes also have feet of clay. Many of our nation’s founders, whose faces we chisel in gigantic stone relief, were slave holders, womanizers, and self-dealing greedy people . . . who also did a lot of good, if not downright brilliant things.
Gandhi, near the end of his life, had teenaged girls sleep with him. Martin Luther King, Jr. had dozens of affairs, abused alcohol, and was often terribly egotistical. Dorothy Day’s closest associates seemed to think that she was as much a narcissist as she was a saint. As awkward as it can be we have to be able to tell the difference between a Hitler and a Martin Luther King. Hitler was a pretty good artist. Fidel Castro was a pretty good baseball player, but in balance, we do not remember Hitler as a painter or Castro as a pitcher. Just as we do not remember Gandhi as a predator or King as a philanderer.
It is not always easy to categorize history’s heroes and villains. Consider the fact that it has taken us* nearly 200 years after the Trail of Tears to realize that Andrew Jackson was a horrible human being. We just recently stopped calling the annual Democratic Party rally here in Greene Co, “Jackson Days,” and now it is just called Democrat Days because they didn’t want to pick any one person to honor because, well, it took them 200 years to figure out that Andrew Jackson’s ownership of slaves and promotion of genocide were not honorable, so they didn’t want to make that mistake again.
So, here is our paradox: We want to emphasize, as Gandhi famously suggested, that we embody in our own lives the changes we want to see in the world. We want to make the world a better place by focusing on the person staring back at us in the mirror each day. We want to suspend judgement, be tolerant, forgiving, loving, but we don’t want to pretend that ethics doesn’t matter. We don’t want to deny reality.
As we always counsel the family members of addicts, don’t try to act like you believe their lies. That doesn’t help them. In fact, it enables them to continue to abuse drugs or alcohol, while they run through the family’s resources trying to gaslight everyone else into believing that they are causing the addict’s substance abuse.
Let me say this clearly: There is no such thing as unconditional love. Your Sunday School teachers lied to you! If love were ever unconditional, then it would be entirely arbitrary. It would mean that we loved everyone the same. I would have no reason, for example, to love my daughter more than I love a stranger walking down the sidewalk. That is too absurd to even consider. I obviously love my daughter more than I do strangers.
That doesn’t mean that I hate strangers, it just means that I do not award them a place in my heart, in my home, in my last will and testament, that is equal to the place that my daughter holds. You may be forgiving, tolerant and generous but love always happens within a behavioral context. If you continue to love and support a violently abusive spouse, that doesn’t make you a saint, in fact, that just means that you are both sick.
We have all had close friends with whom we have had a falling out. People like me try to discourage that. We talk about reconciliation, tolerance, forgiveness, but there are ways and times when people cross a line. Sometimes, to an outside observer, that line seems to be kinda silly and indefensible, but, we all have a line in every relationship that represents our boundaries of just how much bad stuff they can put into the relationship before we decide that we need to end the relationship . . . whether that is a marriage, a friendship, or even a parent and child relationship.
If you will give me permission to say this in a very crude way, a way that will make it easy for you to remember. After many years of doing both individual and family counseling, I concluded that just about everyone will be just as much of an asshole as the people around them will allow them to be. I haven’t patented it yet but one day, psychologists and sociologists will discuss Roger Ray’s Asshole Theory. What keeps almost any of us from becoming emotional terrorists and manipulative monsters is because of the people in our lives who push back. Who won’t let us get away with being dishonest, with being entitled, arrogant, and abusive.
The famous psychiatrist, M. Scott Peck, said that the only reason to get married is for the friction! And you should know that in spite of his brilliant writing and teaching, by his own admission, I have heard him say it, Peck was deeply flawed . . . he had myriad psychosomatic illnesses, he smoked, he drank alcoholically and worst of all, he was a serial philanderer and a terrible husband, but God only knows what a miserable human being he would have been without Lily who spent most of her life with Scott Peck, trying to keep him from being a complete asshole.
The point of my theory is not that you need to be able to label someone a snake and then remove them from your life forever. It says, “Everyone will be just as much of an asshole as the people around them allow them to be.” Don’t ignore it when someone you care about is abusive to someone else.
I am indebted to the comedian, Dave Barry, for this salient observation:
If the person you are with is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, the person you are with is not a nice person. For example, my daughter is beautiful, intelligent, and popular, but during her early adolescence as a middle school and high school cheerleader, I repeatedly had to emphasize that even though she is beautiful, intelligent, and popular, that there is no excuse for being rude or dismissive of people who were less intelligent, less attractive, or less popular. . . even if that person happens to be your father.
Scott Peck wrote a book about human evil, “The People of Lie” but in the introduction to the book he warned that the book itself might be evil if people used it to label everyone who annoyed them, disagreed with them, or simply rubbed them the wrong way, as being evil. I emphatically believe that we do have to push back on family members, friends, co-workers, and those who sit in the pews with us, and those with whom we serve in community organizations.
Racism is not acceptable. We should not tolerate homophobia. Poverty in the presence of wealth is a sin. You can love someone while not ignoring their addictions, abuse, narcissism, or dishonesty. In fact, we only become better people if our peer group has some moral expectations of us.
It is not unlike our standards in the world of academics. You may be one of the smartest and most innovative researchers, writers, scientists, inventors, but if your work has not been exposed to peer review, critical thinkers will not pay much attention to you. I don’t want to name names, but some of my favorite scholars became too self-confident late their careers and began to publish books that they had not shopped around to professional peers, and they ended up publishing rubbish.
No one less than Sigmund Freud, in a letter written to a friend in 1889, said, “I have examined myself thoroughly and come to the conclusion that I don't need to change much.” I suspect that even his beloved daughter, Anna, would have had something to say about that! If you have not recently apologized for something you have said or done. If, at this moment, you cannot thing of something about your character that could stand some correction or improvement, then you too just might be a malignant narcissist!
When humans mostly lived in small tribes and villages, you could not easily escape those who would give you a good peer review, perhaps more often than you really wanted. No one would have gotten away with saying that they had thoroughly examined themselves and found little that needed to change.
But now, few of us live near the place we were born. We are not surrounded by people who have known us well all of our lives. Friendships come and go. We change careers, neighborhoods, states. We can be isolated or self-select a group of associations who never provide the kind of friction we need to be sincerely self critical.
Now we have to choose to be in community and we have to choose to be vulnerable enough to both invite and take criticism seriously. And you cannot turn a blind eye or simply ignore egregious moral failings in the people that you love. A snake doesn’t have to bite you to be a snake, but maybe that person doesn’t really want to be a snake . . . maybe they need for you to love them enough to encourage them to become their best selves.
Although no one has ever seen a dragon, virtually every human culture in every century has had an image of a mythological dragon. Jung speculated that dragons are an archetype in our unconscious reflecting human potential. A dragon is, after all, a snake that can fly. And that, men and women, is all of us.
As Solzhenitsyn correctly observed: the line between good and evil runs right through the middle of us. We all have the potential to be a snake. We all have the potential to soar like angels. Most days we do some of both. Every day we should be self-aware enough to try to soar more than we slither.
Dr. Roger Ray
*Editor's Note: The author of this piece used the pronoun "us" in this paragraph in a manner that minimizes or erases the existence of indigenous people and Black people in the life of Andrew Jackson. The people Andrew Jackson forced to walk the Trail of Tears as well as the people he enslaved were very much aware of his cruelty as were many others including large swaths of their descendants.