Writing is like being able to put life into a snow globe. It takes the things that are too big and scary and reduces them into a form that I can put away when I want and look at from a distance. It also takes all that’s good in life and captures it into something I can take out when I want and look at close up and keep forever. It makes the bad things into something I can hold…and the good things into something I can hold onto. Both help so much that I need that little souvenir of life.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Pierced by the Thread

A while back my blog friend Jules wrote a post titled “Who Sees the Common Thread?”  about how upset she and her mother were after the shootings in Arizona. Though they viewed the tragedy from slightly different perspectives, Jules and her mother were both moved to tears by putting themselves in place of some of the people more directly affected by the crime. I was deeply touched by the empathetic responses that Jules recounted. Appropriately enough, guess what someone who doesn’t have empathy or conscience is called? According to Martha Stout, PhD and author of The Sociopath Next Door, this is all a sociopath is.

Sounds like almost a small thing, doesn’t it? Like a minor flaw. But without empathy, people not only can’t judge good and evil, they don’t care. Without conscience, people’s evil has no “brakes” and careens out of control, wantonly destroying whatever is in its path, no matter how undeserving. Sociopaths care only about getting caught. They ironically see themselves as superior to normal people, see others as objects to be manipulated—and are proud of their ability to con, trick, deceive and lie. They attack good people not merely in spite of their goodness, but because of it; kindness to the sociopath is only vulnerability, one more trait to exploit. They cling, need and use, but they don’t love. They seem blissfully ignorant of ways they’ve hurt others. When caught in the act, they lie with surprising alacrity. They are the victim; the person who accused them is the cruel one to say such things! Yet when they think honey will catch the particular flies they happen to be after at the moment, their personalities are more honeyed than any you’ve ever known. As Stout says in the book, “…charm…is a primary characteristic of sociopathy.”

Although many criminals must be sociopaths in order to commit the crimes they do, not all sociopaths are criminals.  In fact, most are not—simply because they can be so talented at avoiding justice. According to Stout, four out of every one hundred people is a sociopath. One out of twenty-five. One in every average-sized classroom. How can that be? The more covert sociopaths are extraordinarily good at keeping themselves hidden. They “mirror,” or imitate, good people—not because they want to be like them, but to do what they do best: take advantage in order to manipulate. Though you may not know it, there is a very good chance that you know not one, but several. As Stout says in the book, “…by far his most impressive talent is his ability to conceal from nearly everyone the true emptiness of his heart—and to command the passive silence of those few who do know.”

Jules and her mother responded to a very obvious kind of sociopath by exhibiting the opposite response—showing empathy. That struck me as so perfect. Jules says we cannot comprehend evil, nor should we try. Maybe we can’t know what that hideously cold lack of empathy or conscience is like, but when we directly experience seemingly random attacks, don’t we automatically ask why? Don’t we have to?

Jules mentions in a later post that it’s hard to feel so much, hard to feel other people’s pain. Yes. But it’s rewarding, too. As Stout says, “…the awareness provided by extreme conscience improves people’s lives and makes them happy.” Sociopaths, with their furious, terrified need to control, aren’t able to enjoy the truly good things in life that the rest of us automatically embrace.

Her words reminded me of something I recently read in M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie that I’ll use as today’s quote. And thank you again for being so inspirational…and for shifting the balance of power in the world.

I know that good people can deliberately allow themselves to be pierced by the evil of others—to be broken thereby yet somehow not broken—to even be killed in some sense and yet still survive and not succumb. Whenever this happens there is a slight shift in the balance of power in the world. ~M. Scott Peck, M.D., People of the Lie


  1. The quote at the end really has gotten me thinking...To imagine that there is a precarious balance, and when evil is not victorious, a shift occurs...What an interesting idea.

  2. Tammy, sadly I DO know a sociopath who has inflicted a lot of pain on someone in our family. There's the residual pain too, of seeing a loved one hurt. Some things we do not understand.

  3. Do I have to pay for this session? :)
    Kidding aside, this was truly amazing Tammy. You presented many facts that need to be shared. And Yes it is okay to ask why, as long as we do not make it our mission. I cannot believe I inspired this post.

    (Both hands bowing up and down) I'm not worthy. Thank You! You rock!!!
    Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

  4. Hi Tammy - The statistic you quote is a frightening one. 1 in 25. Is it any wonder our poor world is in such a state? Great post. You've given me much to ponder this afternoon.

  5. Linda, I'm so sorry you know what it's like to deal with one! Here's another quote from Stout that I hope is a little comforting, “…strong characters are often specially targeted by sociopaths.”

    Thanks, Sioux and Lisa. And Jules, I felt the need to elaborate on your wonderful post because I agree that more people need to be aware. Thank YOU!

  6. Tam, there were so many things I wanted to say in this comment section, but...we'll just talk later! :D

    Kidding aside...all this info was quite surprising to me, yet made so much sense, too. Very sad and scary, both.

  7. Hi Tammy,
    It's been a long time. Ironic that I looked at this today. Your post brought up so many thoughts... We had the Mother/student Communion breakfast at my kids high school today. The Priest who did the homily is one of my favorites. He spoke of unconditional love parents (most parents) have for their children and how we only find true happiness when we are happy for others. He also spoke of sharing "pain" as you mentioned and having empathy for others. It was truly lovely!

    Only wish the people that need to hear it the most would've heard it! Sadly, those people would still never get it. No matter how old they got. Unfortunately, we all know a few of those people. Still, it was inspiring for my family and friends.

  8. Thanks, Becky. And Holly, that priest sounds like a keeper. Sad to say, you're right that the ones who need to hear it never listen. But I guess the thing that drives them is really sheer terror. And I find that the more narcissistic they are, the more their own self-absorption renders them irrelevant to others in the ways that matter most. I think they're really to be pitied.


Any return "messages" are appreciated!