People Who Use People

June 2, 1996


People Who Use People

I remember the twins from Enid, Oklahoma — Leslie and Larry Owens, a pair of brilliant young men who became research partners with a scientist working on a nuclear project who murdered them when they decided to bow out of the partnership. An uncle of the two boys, a professor of psychology at the University of Houston, described the killer “a people-manipulator.” Since he did not really care about the boys, and was only using them, when they stopped being useful to him they stopped having any value at all, and in anger he shot and killed them.
Something I saw recently, unrelated to my life in this church, reminded me of some of the ways in which we use people, or — as the Houston prof said — “manipulate” them. I looked at that familiar word for a moment last week and then (once a pedant always a pedant) decided it might be useful to check its Latin origin and its extended meanings as a way of getting started this morning. As you might guess, the root word is manus (hand), and the basic, innocent definition you get from a dictionary is: “To operate or control by skilled use of the hands.” Mechanics, surgeons, woodworkers, typists — all of them are manipulators. With trained hands they work on physical objects. But by extension, the word manipulate came to mean also the use of the mind to work on someone else’s mind, so that you find a second definition in the dictionary: “To influence or manage shrewdly or deviously, for one’s own advantage.” This is the meaning that fits my topic this morning because who has not felt at times that he was being manipulated — used — by someone else for selfish reasons? And which one of us — to spread the guilt around a little — has not used a relative, a friend, a stranger for personal benefit in ways that were not quite honest and straightforward?
We forget, of course, our own manipulating, but we are keenlysensitive to being used by someone else. How many times have you silently asked yourself, “I wonder what she really thinks?” or “I wonder how they really feel?” — and wished people could be more often honest? Stop pretending to like you for yourself, if they really don’t, and come right out with the plain truth about what it is they really want. I’ve thought sometimes how shocked I’d be if I were looking at an item for sale and the guy selling it said, “Listen, I’ve got a good product here if you really need something like this, but don’t buy it is you don’t need it. It’s too costly for that.” Some person of rare integrity actually does that occasionally, and if you don’t faint you probably stand with your mouth open for a moment wondering where this person has come from. Because that kind of honesty is in short supply. From school to church to government, it seems somebody is forever manipulating somebody else, for selfish reasons, pretending to have the other person’s best interest at heart when it isn’t true at all.
The poet e. e. cummings did not exaggerate much when he said, “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you somebody else, means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight….” Almost from birth we are subjected to forces that tell us what to do and how to do it, pushed and shoved into molds we did not cast for ourselves. We desperately need some of that, of course, from people who love us and would create us into real human beings with dimension and depth. But we have too much of it from individuals and institutions that don’t love or care for us, but only pretend to while they exploit our support, our vote, our pocketbook.
I confess to worrying about the ultimate effects of manipulation on a medium so widely watched as television. You’ve all heard the staggering number of hours the average child will have watched TV by age 15. Think of the thousands of commercials she will have seen by that time, created by clever minds and presented with fascinating visual and verbal genius, all of them aimed at manipulating the viewer into buying something whether he really needs it or not. Almost every one of them pretends to speak intimately to your personal situation, and that is essentially dishonest because the people who write the ads do not know you. They are paid to stretch, exaggerate, distort, and persuade. They study diligently to know your weaknesses, your dreams, and to appeal to them by whatever clever means they can think of.
It would be foolish to pretend that the result of their work is always harmful. What they do, often, is too obviously silly to fool anyone with a thimbleful of common sense. Chew this brand of gum, girls, and lean, handsome college boys with bright futures will come bounding down the steps of the Student Union and kiss you like the sweet winds of Spring. Use this after shave, gentlemen, and you’ll have to hire bodyguards to fend off all those adoring women who cannot resist Old Spice. That kind of nonsense, and Grandma smuggling the Charmin when she goes to see her grandkids, or the 270-pound pro football tackle whose hands are so greasy from using the wrong hair oil that they won’t let him in the huddle — is so completely idiotic that it’s mildly amusing, and may actually be more entertaining than the show it sponsors.
But not all the manipulation on TV or elsewhere is harmless. College administrators and faculty — I have reason to know — have to fight the temptation to use students instead of serving them, and they do not always win. Students cry out that they are turned into numbers, pushed into courses and programs they don’t want, and taught by some professors who seem not to care who they are or what they end up with in the way of either knowledge or values. Not many, but some. In politics we are constantly fed distorted information, a form of manipulation each party denounces….and each party goes right on using! Even the church sometimes resorts to fraudulent promises and cheap advertising and entertainment tricks to attract and hold people. Even the church, to whom its Founder said [modern translation]: “Happy are the utterly sincere, because they are the people who experience God.”
I thought of that Beatitude one day when the phone rang in my office in another church and a voice too unfamiliar to be as quite sweet and friendly as it was, said, “Goo-o-d morning, Doctor Meyers! You’re the minister at Riverside, I understand?” I confessed that I was. “Well, well,” he said breezily, “how’s everything going there with all you good people?” I say, “Fine, thank you,” but little alarm bells are going off because, like you, I’ve learned to be wary of strangers who love me too soon. The honeyed voice says, “Say, I’d just love to come over this afternoon and talk with you about the Lord’s work there, and about our mutual interests — I’m an ex-minister myself.” I’m still considering how I want to respond to this invitation when he says, “You have children, I understand.” I say, “Yes, three” and wonder why this should be important all of a sudden. “Well, that’s wonderful, Dr. Meyers. A real blessing! And I know — I just know — that someone like you wants to take good care of those children, both now and later on.”
I make the expected response, “Well, certainly,” but by now I begin to feel in my bones what’s coming, even before I hear the words. “Well, Doctor” — and the voice is now more a mix of honey and sugar than ever — “I just know how you must love those kids of yours, and one of the things we might talk about this afternoon is an insurance program for them.” When I explained that I was completely satisfied with the coverage I had, the honey and sugar suddenly vanished and a new brisk, impersonal voice said “Thank you,” and hung up. The professed interest in my church, in our mutual problems and experiences, was all a fake. What the man wanted was to sell me a policy. What he used was a gimmick to get his foot in the door. You miss my point if you think I am indicting people who sell insurance. I would not have felt manipulated if this man had said, “Good morning, I’m John Smith. I understand you have children and I wanted to ask if you feel they have adequate insurance coverage. If not, and if I might be able to help, I would be pleased to discuss a program with you at your convenience.” No slippery stuff about mutual church interests, no intimate and cajoling voice created for the moment — simply a frank, sincere statement of the real reason for calling. That would appeal to me. Manipulation….. doesn’t.
One of the occupational hazards of my profession is meeting people, occasionally, who adopt pious manners and profess far more interest in religion than they really feel in order to get something they want. They make me wish sometimes that I were as quick and blunt as Mark Twain was when a hypocritical merchant in the community tried to impress him that way. “Before I die,” the man told Twain with vehement piety, “I mean to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I want to climb to the top of old Mount Sinai and read the Ten Commandments aloud!” Twain looked at him, thought of his notororious cheating and thievery, and growled: “I have a better idea. Why don’t you just stay right here at home in Boston…..and keep them?” But you see, that would have included the one that says, “Thou shalt not steal,” and it is much easier to make a pilgrimage, or go to church, than it is to stop using people if the practice has made you rich.
How many of the following manipulators have you met? The one, first, who keeps you feeling hopelessly in his or her debt all the time? I knew a woman once, in another place, who volunteered for every job there was, visited the sick, took food and clothes to the poor……and who never stopped telling us about it. She kept us all feeling so sorry for her, and so guilty for not doing more ourselves, that we were ripe for instant use whenever she needed to use us. And then there’s the “puppy dog” manipulator who says, “I’m such an clumsy idiot compared with you. Gosh, everything I do turns out wrong. But you’re fantastic! I mean, I really admire you.” Well, watch out. By this time you are standing ten feet tall, but you aren’t ten feet tall. You are being led to believe a falsehood by a person who isn’t sincere but who means to soften you up and use you to tell him what to do, or to do it for him.
How about the martyr manipulator who enslaves you with his courageous self-pity? “Look, up go ahead now and have a good time. I don’t want you to worry about my silly little headache. And I don’t mind staying here by myself. So, I’m alone….it’s no big deal. You go ahead.” So you either go on, in which case a ball-and-chain have been attached, or you surrender to the controlling gimmick, but in either case you’ve been used. How many times has this one worked on a moonlit night: “Well, dear, I won’t be around much longer and then it’s off to Viet Nam or the Gulf or Bosnia. Lonely over there….long time gone, they tell us. I know you want to show me how much you love me.” Or the wife who says, “No, you go on and bowl. Have a good time. I mean, so what if I stay here with the kids? I do it all day, I’m used to it.” Or the husband who says to her, “Go on to the bridge game. Don’t worry about me. I can probably dig up something to eat.” Guess who’ll have indigestion when you get back!
You learn to hear the nuances, the real meanings, behind the words of a manipulator. Ever run into the Apple Dangler? He says to the kids, “Take out the trash, and we’ll see about upping your allowance. Do the yard, and I’ll get you a private phone for your room.” Who hasn’t been an Apple Dangler at times, in sheer desperation, but it’s a sorry trick, all in all. And of course the kids learn to play it, too. “Let me do my thing, or I’ll get into trouble, and you’ll be sorry.” There’s even the manipulator who uses love itself as a weapon, and that’s especially sad because if anything should be what Jesus called “utterly sincere,” it’s love. But this controller of your life will arrange to have things the way he wants them by saying, “If you really loved me you would do this, or you wouldn’t do that” — one of the saddest of all manipulative tricks.
The ways we have of using people are so many and sometimes so complex that no single sermon can do them justice, but I saw a phrase last week in a magazine article that made me think of one more. A still-young English writer and editor who had suffered a severe stroke was describing in one paragraph the different kinds of people who came to comfort him. As I expected, he named parents and siblings, wife and friends and colleagues, and then he mentioned what he called “compassion junkies,” a phrase which struck me as brilliantly descriptive of one way of manipulating people. I’m on dangerous ground here, so please listen carefully. There are few things in life better than compassion, and I do not intend for a moment to disparage it. I have never been more deeply moved than when it was extended to me, and most people who show it are absolutely genuine. But in the course of a long ministry I have met now and then a “compassion junkie,” someone who even as she pours out the generous balm of her pity makes you feel, somehow, that she is really quite caught up in how good it makes her feel to do it. It’s not a conscious thing, and there’s no malice — compassion junkies are simply so addicted to the pleasure of showing sympathy that you start to squirm a little. I have felt awkward trying to describe it, but I think some of you will know exactly what I mean.
I am reminded now of what may be the most famous thing Socrates ever said to his disciples in Athens: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The hour we spend together in worship may comfort us, instruct us, sometimes inspire us, but it should also in some moment make us squirm, prompt us to examine our lives, to ask more searching questions of ourselves than we have had time to do in the past week’s rush of work and play. This particular sermon has only a single test question for those of us willing to examine our lives: In what ways do I sometimes use people?

We leave this beloved room, gracious God, with a painful
question. Grant us the honesty and courage to answer it,
we ask in His name to whom truth was more important
than life itself. Amen.