Sociopaths in Paradise — Part 1

Back when I was in politics, one of the side effects of running for office was that I had a lot more people in my face.

If you’re used to your small private life, especially if you’re an introvert like me, you have no idea how much you treasure your time in your own home pursuits, until that time is threatened, or vanishes.

Give you an example: It’s years and years back, and I’m running for town council. This necessitates talking to a lot of people. Not in speeches or TV appearances, but just in everyday life. You’re rolling a grocery cart down the aisle of the supermarket, and people stop you to talk about politics. You’re standing in line at the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, same thing. You’re out on a job site, ditto. You’re riding a horse for recreation along a mountain trail, another rider approaches — bang, politics.

There was a slightly crazy gadfly in town who went to council meetings and often got up and addressed the council. I don’t have the slightest memory of what this guy would talk about, but it was generally agreed it was crazy shit, a waste of time for both the 5-man council and the members of the public attending the meeting. Conspiracies? Mind control rays from the nearby airbase? Bears dirtying up his jacuzzi? The newspaper being thrown too far away from his door? No memory.

So here I was one nice day raking my yard. Strangely, I had discovered at the age of 40 or so that I had this hugely domestic streak when it came to yard work. Just growing grass was deeply satisfying to me, and I spent considerable time on my knees coaxing my dianthus and marigolds to grow, watering and lovingly tending the patch of lawn I’d put in for my dogs to rest or roll in (this was a high-altitude mountain town with snow and winter lasting literally half the year, and most yards were just dirt, or gravel), or just futzing around outside looking at things, thinking about how I could make it look better.

A truck pulled up in the yard – in my yard! – and Gadfly got out. He proceeded to bend my ear for a good 45 minutes, with me standing there holding my rake and nodding and smiling, before I could break away. Because when you’re running for office in a small town you can’t just say “Get away from me, you dopey fuck, this is my private time. And get that damned truck off my grass.” Not to anybody. Because word would get around: This town council candidate is unapproachable. He doesn’t like to listen to people.

I wanted to say that. I wanted to just walk away from him and go inside and shut the door and wait for him to go away. But I stood there and appeared to listen. He talked and talked, probably believing I was seeing him as large and important and interesting.

But in fact, the only thing I found interesting about him was the effect he was having on me.

I’d been watching myself during this whole town council candidate process, and what I observed was that while I still treasured interactions and input from friends and family, and while I always found fascinating the machinations of my enemies, and while I was forced to have a healthy regard for the power players in town – the local publisher, the TV reporters, the owners of big businesses, the vocal activists and volunteers of various local organizations – everybody else was somehow receding from me.

All the “side people” were becoming less important. Less interesting. Less … human.

I did not like it. I was becoming one of “Them.” You know, those people who run things and don’t know you exist? Who consider you a necessary (sometimes unnecessary) evil, a diversion from whatever it is they consider their real business?

But I didn’t know how to stop it. Here was Gadfly, barely more important to me than his namesake buzzing around my head, the human symbol of this process of mind that was making people things to me, and some part of me was okay with it. Whether I was tired that day or what, I just couldn’t bring myself to listen to him, or care about him. If he’d walked out into the street and gotten squashed by a passing garbage truck, part of me would have gone “Well, that’s ONE way to get out of an dull conversation!”

(I know what you’re thinking, and stop it. I’m not really like that. In real life I would have rushed out and kneeled over his poor squashed, leaking corpse, torn at my hair and cried to the heavens “Oh, bitter woe! That one such was taken from us so young! Oh God, how could you have ended this golden life! Such promise, such vast potential! Lost! Lost for all time! The world will be a poorer place for this untimely death! Oh woe indeed! Gadfly, we hardly knew ye!”)

ANYwayyy … that whole “side people” thing was very disturbing, but also very, very interesting. I looked at my fellow “center people” and observed the same thing.

In your comfortable private life, you probably have only these two fuzzy categories: “People In My Life” and “Strangers.” You work to give everybody equal time, equal attention and care. You have a rule in your head: “Everybody matters. Everybody deserves fair and equal treatment from me.” Even the bum on the street can catch your attention and tug at your heart long enough for a dollar to change hands.

(And yes, I said “bum.” Get over it. Hey, I had you give the guy a dollar, didn’t I? Besides, I know for a fact he has a huge inheritance sitting in the bank, and the only reason he’s out here, all stinky and dirty, is to bust the balls of suckers like you.)

Even if you have no time to give to someone who walks up to you, you will with good will and patience take the time to explain that you have no time. Because you have at least that much respect and caring for them.

But the thing is, most of the people you come across as a private person are busy enough with their own lives that they don’t come up and pester you, because they have other things to do too.

But when you have Power, or get close to it … you’re a sudden lamp in the darkness, and the moths flock to you. You are an irresistible draw to large numbers of strangers who will want to come up and carve out a bit of your time, corral a bit of your attention, shave off a teeny bit of that Power to serve their own needs.

To own you, it will seem, just a little bit.

To the only-human mind subjected to this barrage, there are some likely side effects, one of which is: You will become defensive about your time and attention. To some extent, your mind will come to divide people into categories: Important. Less Important. Unimportant. And probably even Anti-Important – the selfish dregs and drags who will deliberately try to steal away the time you need to devote to more important things.

There’s a statistical effect that comes into the thing. If you’re one of those naturally compassionate people – like me, of course! – you will resist the pull of this tide. You will be appalled, horrified, that it is happening. You will struggle against it in your own heart. But you will also look around to see how much it’s affecting the others on your same political level.

If you’re not a naturally compassionate person, you will give in to it. To the extent you give in to it, you will become, in at least some small measure, and in regard to the “side people,” a sociopath.

Don’t believe me? Look at the faces in the windows next time you go to the Motor Vehicle office to renew your driver’s license. Get a job at a supermarket and observe how the store manager treats you when you try to suggest an improvement. Go to jail for the night and see how the guards treat the inmates.

[ — Continued — ]

Print Friendly

About Hank Fox
  • F

    Absolutely.

    And I really enjoyed the parenthetical paragraph.

    I think the only thing you can do is to treat all these others as human, without stopping treating yourself as human. Sometimes you have to draw limits. Sometimes treating another as a human is to tell him to get the fuck off your lawn, even if you have to make it jocular and friendly. Thing is, politically, if you don’t stop cranks from doing their thing (and the entire council obviously should have done this long ago), the derail the entire process. Make it a part of you standing for something, in the political/platform-ish sense. You represent reason here. Plus it’s just goddamned impolite to park your truck on someone’s lawn. And very likely illegal.

    No, I’m not terribly adept at this sort of thing, either. Sometimes it is practically painful to tell someone, “Look, really, I gotta go.”

  • Bert Chadick

    I too am a recovering politician. Trying to be a mayor, run a business, maintain a relationship with my wife, be a volunteer fireman and raise two small kids leaves no time for going to the bar and spending the evening being everyone’s friend. I gave it up after losing one election and deciding I’ve had enough.

  • mikey

    Of all places, cracked.com has an interesting essay on a closely related topic, the “monkeysphere.” It touches on the difficulty feeling empathy with out-group members.

    http://www.cracked.com/article_14990_what-monkeysphere.html