The Chain of Manipulation

There are not many religions or spiritual paths active in humanity today which I would say I oppose out of hand.  There are facets of many religions and spiritual paths which strike me as singularly destructive and damaging to people, to humanity as a whole, however.  

Evangelism and mission work is one of those facets.

I wrote a few days ago about how easily the act of helping or accepting help can be twisted into manipulation, and mission work is just about the most blatant example.  I have a really hard time with the idea that any spiritual outcome is so important that it justifies holding a real need in front of another human like bait, luring them to your beliefs.  

It didn’t take much searching to find a blog post by someone committed to missionary work, talking about their experience and drive to engage in it.  The post goes in depth about the motivations for mission work which, clearly stated, boils down to the need to convert others and turn them from their existing spiritual beliefs in order to save their eternal souls.  There is no beating around the bush about it, either.  The fact that the missions experience detailed in the post was to earthquake-devastated Nepal and the idea that we should be called to lift others out of poverty and starvation were only mentioned in passing.  The physical help, the actual work of healing the sick and feeding the hungry and housing the homeless is just a means to an end.

How can we not be troubled by the idea that, when huge disasters happen in the world, groups of people swoop in to tell the victims that the state of their eternal souls is far more important than their physical life?  How is it okay to provide help to those who obviously need it and, in the process, try to undermine the spiritual underpinnings of their lives?

The blog post I linked above had one particularly troubling passage which described how, because the writer felt uncomfortable “darkness” while in a Buddhist chanting room, he decided that his long-held opinion that other world religions were harmless was clearly wrong.  This uncomfortable feeling reinforced a conviction to use the needs of the world to manipulate others into listening to religious propaganda.

Help should be provided when needed, when we are able to provide it, and never as a means to a different end.  Feed people, clothe people, give people shelter, teach people skills not because they might then come to agree with the way you think or because you get a reward out of it, but because they need it.  Simply that.  No strings attached.

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Give and Take

I’m fairly sure nobody makes it through life without needing help from others.  By the same token, most of us follow some kind of philosophy or tradition which calls upon us to offer help to those around us who need it.  One thing that we have finally started to understand, however, is that those who offer or accept help aren’t always giving and/or getting the help needed.  What masquerades as help is sometimes manipulation, either on the part of the helper or the person in need.

We all know that, when we are really in need of something, our willingness to bend our own personal standards and preferences increases.  I remember once after I lost my job and was extremely short on funds that I suddenly found myself willing to go on dates with a guy I honestly could barely stand being around just so he would buy me dinner.  It happens to all of us.

Still, knowing that we can all be pushed pretty easily to that point, we have a tendency to use that knowledge to get what we want by putting our desires between someone else and something they need very much.  

On the other hand, we’ve all had times when our compulsion to help others causes us to give beyond what we think is appropriate.  Our relationships with others become leverage which allows others to tip our hand.  I think this mostly happens in dating relationships or marriages, when our love for someone else makes it difficult to say no.  

And yet, even though we’ve all been in a position of feeling coerced into giving more than is reasonable or healthy, we’re also prone to using our relationships with others to get more than we need from those who simply desire to help us.

How do we achieve a good balance between not using our ability to offer assistance as a way to manipulate others to do what we wish and not allowing a person in need to twist our generosity into enabling behaviors?  

First, I think we need to disconnect the call to help those in need from the call to change the hearts, minds, and behaviors of others.  The stronger we feel about how others should believe or act or think, the more likely we are to justify using an offer of help to manipulate those in need.  Second, we all need to get better at saying no when we know we ought to.  

Sometimes help means not giving someone what they think they need.  And sometimes really helping someone means not getting what you want in return.  Maybe if we were better at drawing a line between wants and needs, between giving and exchanging, we’d not struggle so much with achieving balance.  

Why You Never Want To Be Alone in the Lead

We all have ways in which we manipulate others to do what we want.  

My wife does this thing where she pretends to be so helpless that other people will feel compelled to help her out when in reality she’s totally capable of doing whatever it is herself.  Like when she’s trying to make the bed and seems to have so much difficulty with the fitted sheet that she could be starring in an infomercial for a miracle bedsheet product.  Eventually, she knows someone will either have so much pity on her (not me) or get so frustrated with her lack of progress (that’s the one) that they’ll take over the task.  

Me, I developed a knack for asking for things in ways which put some kind of social pressure on the person to give in.  For instance, if I know my wife isn’t going to be super excited about going somewhere, she’s far less likely to object if I bring it up around friends who will seem excited about it because she won’t want to be the whiny one in front of everyone else.  

One of our cats does this thing where, if he wants something, he’ll dig it out of its hiding place and eat it.  Later he pukes it up on the floor.  

But I suppose that’s irrelevant.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we all learn something similar.  Those methods we develop for getting what we need (and eventually what we want) are rooted in our early years, and by the time we’re adults they are second nature.  

What we don’t learn until we’re closer to adulthood is how to react when other people try to bend us to their will.  It might even be that the better we become at manipulating others, the less equipped we are to function when the tables are turned.  If my wife and I are typical, our natural inclination is to kick the manipulation up a few notches until we either give in or get what we want.  

But what’s the point?  

People who always get their way are absolutely horrible to be around, and those who always give in aren’t any better.  

The thing is, these skills are useful.  We learn them for a reason.  But another thing we don’t learn right away (and some people never seem to learn) is that there is a time and place to break out the big guns.  Generally speaking, you don’t win points for always being the one to decide where you’ll eat dinner.  Your chances of gaining respect and admiration are better if you’re always the one who stands up for the rights and dignity of others.

You’ll know you’re on the right track when people you admire stand with you, rather than resist you.