Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University
February 4, 2016
She wanted a boyfriend in the worst way, but the cards seemed to be stacked against her. She had frizzy red hair, wore floor-length peasant dresses, and was a little odd looking, even by the standards of college students in the early 1970s. And she was shy and socially awkward. So the guys, who comprised half of the population of the residence hall in which she and I both lived, tended not to approach her. I can’t recall her name any more, and I sincerely hope she has long since forgotten mine, but for the purposes of this essay I shall call her Juliette.
One day Juliette asked me, in her diffident way, to come to her room: she wanted to ask me a personal question. I was puzzled by this, as I can’t recall having had any but the most superficial conversations with her in the past. But I went. She closed the door and asked me to sit down with her on the floor. She was quiet for a minute, evidently trying to pluck up her courage. “Rick,” she finally said, “I’m lonely. Oh, I have plenty of friends among the other women students, but guys never give me the time of day. I’m nineteen years old and I’ve never been kissed. Everybody else around here is pairing up. But nobody pays any attention to me, and I’m feeling just awful about myself. What should I do?”
Now I was really confused. Why was Juliette telling me all this? I certainly wasn’t a ladies’ man, nor was I the go-to person when other students had personal problems. Was she really asking my advice, or was this conversation intended as a subtle romantic come-on? As it happened, I was bumbling my own way through a relationship at that time, and didn’t need to complicate an already shaky situation by cheating on my on-again, off-again girlfriend. And even if I had been “available,” I wasn’t particularly attracted to Juliette—though I do remember really looking at Juliette for the first time and finding her quite pretty, if still pretty odd. Over the past forty years I have come to realize that all people are beautiful, if you know how to look for their beauty, and if you’re not so driven by your hormones and fantasies that you confuse beauty with sex appeal. But I was twenty at the time, and still prone to such misidentification. And while it would have gratified my male ego to learn that Juliette was making an oblique bid for my affections, I was in no position to take advantage of such an opportunity, even if I had been inclined to do so. So I chose to take her plaintive speech at face value, as a request for help in finding some other guy to be her squeeze. But what did I know about advising women on matters of the heart—or other men, for that matter? Nor did I have a list of fraternity brothers whom I knew to be looking for a frizzy-haired, fashion-challenged girlfriend.
At that moment, a thought occurred to me that I blush to record here. But I will record it, because it illustrates as well as anything in my subsequent experience the dangerous power wielded by those in whom others confide their needs and weaknesses. And those of us who exert such power, whether as friends or parents or teachers or pastors or therapists, would do well to abstain from doing what I did next, which was to use that power for my own kicks. What I said was, “Juliette, I have no idea how you can get some guy to fall for you. But I can tell you this: whenever I see a girl wearing tight jeans and spike heels, I automatically assume she’s trying to attract guys.”
Juliette took the bait, as I somehow knew she would. Every day for the next two weeks, I would see her in the dining hall, wearing jeans and heels. She was trying hard, but she was still unsure of herself. She’d sashay past the tables where the guys were sitting, and then glance over her shoulder to see if any of them was watching. And I was sitting nearby, viewing this pathetic little drama with a wry smile on my face. True, I never told my guy friends that Juliette was desperate for love or pointed out to anyone the sudden change in her wardrobe. Nor did I ever ask her if my suggestion had “worked”—thereby adding a humiliating dig to her loneliness and self-doubt. And, who knows, maybe some guy did notice the new sway of her hips and ask her for a date, in which I might even be said to have done her a favor. But I had humiliated her, even if she never felt humiliated. And the fact remains that I took a kind mischievous pleasure in seeing that she had followed my suggestion—so apparently well-intentioned, but so profoundly devious and self-serving. I may not have injured Juliette, but I am deeply ashamed of myself for the way I “helped” her.
I noted above how cautious those who hold the souls of others in their hands must be in exercising their power. But now I would add that those who lack such caution, and who manipulate the vulnerable for their own gratification or amusement, turn out to be just as weak as their “victims”—though differently so. They may have uncanny insight into what makes others tick. They may exhibit the kind of self-assurance and aplomb that draws others into their orbit. They may show great cleverness in getting those who have sought their counsel to do their bidding. But beneath this veneer is a nagging need for mastery, an anxiety-ridden will to power. That need may prompt them to engage in overtly predatory behavior, such as sexual seduction or financial scamming, or in less directly harmful but still emotionally parasitic conduct, such as I had engaged in with Juliette. Yet either way, the driver is the neediness of those who dominate, which feeds upon the neediness of those who appeal for their help. Indeed, in one respect those who need to dominate others may actually be needier than those whom they dominate. For the latter at least own their neediness, whereas the former blind themselves to the terrible emptiness in their souls by the very efforts they make, and are in constant need of making, to fill it.
I don’t know how to protect those who know themselves to be weak from those who suppose themselves to be strong, or to reveal to those who suppose themselves to be strong how weak they really are. But I suspect that misplaced shame on both sides is what perpetuates the problem. Perhaps when the “weak” learn to accept their weakness without regret or resentment, and when the “strong” learn that their strategies for dominating others spring from needs they have been afraid to acknowledge to themselves, the vicious cycle can be broken, and healing can begin.