Thursday, April 27, 2017

Those charming, charismatic kids - or Lessons from Jane Austen, Part II

       In all but one of Jane Austen's books there is a character who is absolutely charming but who turns out to be a scoundrel and the ultimate villain in her books.  In Pride and Prejudice it is Wickam.  In Sense and Sensibility it is Willoughby.  In Persuasion it is Mr. Elliott.  In Emma it is Frank Churchill.  In Mansfield Park it is Henry Crawford.  In Northanger Abbey it is Captain Tilney.  All of them have similarities.  They are charming. They are charismatic. They are entertaining. They are romantic. They are popular. They have skills and resources in abundance.  Some are good looking, some are rich.  But whatever else they have, their primary quality is that because of their charm, their charisma, they are easily admired by everyone around them. And because of all of that, they are used to getting what they want. People bend over backwards to be with them. Even smart, intelligent characters are fooled by them and would do anything for them.  But they have one other thing in common as well.  They have no morals, no compass, no true empathy for others, and they use and abuse others cruelly to get what they want without remorse or regret. They charm their way through anything and everything and still come out smelling like roses, even after they have devastated the lives of those around them. They smile, they nod their heads, and they move on to charm and then devastate other people. No matter who they have hurt or in what way, they still come off well, still end surrounded by people who admire them and want to be with them, still can get whatever they want through their charm and charisma. The conflict in many of these stories comes at the point at which someone says "no" to them.  Because they never hear "no", they deal with it poorly, usually by seeking revenge on the one who has seen through them.  Their revenge has the potential in each of these stories to ruin the main characters of the books.  My sense is that the only reason it doesn't is that these are stories, stories with the intention of happy endings.
       As I said in my last Jane Austen blog post, Jane Austen's gift is that she is able to capture accurately so much about human nature, and this is no exception.  Unfortunately, these charming, charismatic, delightful scoundrels are real. They charm and then use and abuse. They devastate lives, but do it with a smile and an "explanation" that is nothing but lies, but is also so seductive and inviting that most people are fooled and continue to want to be around them and give them whatever they want no matter what kind of damage they have done to others. They seek revenge when they hear "no" and do so with such charm and finesse that only the wisest see them for what they are, and those who are hurt by them often suffer multiple injuries since their version will never be believed when the charmer puts forward his own story. As Lizzie said in Pride and Prejudice, "And if I endeavour to undeceive people as to ... his conduct, who will believe me?"  Lizzie was respected and well liked, but she did not have the charismatic charm of Wickam.  She knew, then, that people would only really see him for who he was when he injured them directly.  And in the mean time, his previously cruel and vengeful behavior would have to go untold.
       I found myself reflecting on all of this this last week in regards to several different situations.  I have a friend who works with very young children.  She was sharing with me that one of the girls she works with has already begun this behavior.  She is cruel to the other children, but so charming when she chooses to be that everyone wants to be her friend.  She fools her parents and other adults, but when she believes she is not being watched, she says unspeakable things to the other children, and seeks revenge on any child who does not give her what she wants, primarily by socially alienating them. Through her charisma and charm she has the personal power to do that successfully and she uses it to bully, control and devastate children who have dared to exercise their own personal power, have dared to say "no" or have dared to do anything other than what this one girl wants in that moment. My friend has tried to encourage the other children to choose different children to play with. But this little girl has an amazing gravitational force that the other children simply don't know how to step away from to choose something different. Even in her best moments she is insensitive, unaware of the other kids' feelings, and hurtful as a result. As I listened to her story, I thought that since the parents and most other adults don't see it and aren't willing to try to correct it (my friend being the exception), this is a child who will continue to act this way, will have no reason to develop empathy for others and will no doubt become like one of the villains in a Jane Austen novel - charming and devastatingly cruel.
       Similarly, my youngest two children were talking about kids at their schools who behave like this.  By late elementary and junior high these behaviors have been honed in those who learn them. They are better about "sneaking" their cruel behavior while charming the adults or others with power who could challenge it or protect the other children hurt by it.  They form "cliques" of the popular kids who have that same gravitational force that draws others to want to be with them, want to be near them, even when they exclude, are unkind, or sometimes are truly cruel.
        I wish that this behavior were outgrown.  And I think that for some it is.  By college, I think most people do have some kind of empathy and conscience that kicks in.  But unfortunately it just doesn't for everyone.  If you were never forced to develop empathy as a kid, it may not be possible to develop it as an adult. Narcissistic personalities tend to be charming and without empathy. Psychopaths go a step further. They, too, are usually extremely charming and often viewed as very trustworthy, though they are incapable of truly empathizing with others (they are very capable of pretending empathy), and so their behavior is often cruel, especially when it serves their own purposes (see, but again, often in a "hidden" way so that it does not become apparent to other people and they never have to experience the consequences of their cruelty. We still know adults acting in this way, we still find people using their charm to be cruel.
      As I've listened to the news over the last year, I have been struck by how many of these people have made it, through that charisma and charm, but without any empathy or morality, into very successful public lives: Several politicians in response to the massacres in Oregon and in Orlando saying, "stuff happens" (clearly incapable of empathy), that shop owner who rejoiced over the shooting in San Bernadino because as she said it, "killings always result in more gun sales!" (again, no empathy), other prominent figures, with their complete inability or desire to understand people who are different from themselves, different backgrounds, different classes, different cultures who are seen as disposable and whose deaths are not counted. Why do people listen to them?  Because they are seductive, they have a certain "charm". We hear about charismatic pastors on a regular basis who abuse that power with children or with their congregants. They are so loved by their congregations that even when they do truly unspeakable stuff, the charismatic leaders are usually defended and often fail to be held accountable.  I am certain that there are many who never get caught at all for the same reason.  "Who would believe it?" I hear Lizzie say once more. Rather than be victimized again by telling their story to people who would rather believe the charming, charismatic leader, many victims choose to remain silent.
      The point?  I guess the point is that we have to look deeper, always.  And that being seduced by charming, charismatic folk because it feels good to be around them rather than really looking at their behavior or their words for substance or lack there of leads to pain, if not for ourselves, then undoubtedly for others. That listening to those who aren't as charming or charismatic for their take on a story is more than important: it is vital.  That charm can be dangerous and seductive and one should be careful about trusting it: those who have it are used to getting their way and often have not learned how to handle disappointment with grace, nor to be sympathetic to other people's needs or experiences. And finally, that if you do find yourself the victim of one of these charming charismatic people, know that you aren't alone. That your seduction by their charm was a normal, natural, human reaction. Hopefully we learn from those painful lessons to look deeper the next time. And we can pray and work so that others aren't hurt in the same way. Perhaps the first step is simply to name it for what it is.