The personality disorder that is now called “passive aggression” used to be called “deviling.”
I like the term deviling better. It more accurately describes this peculiarly insidious way one individual strives to harm another. It also allows for an erupting, active component of attack. Not all passive aggression remains passive.
That deviling is a furtive, dual invocation of the shadow’s enmity and the persona’s pride comes as no surprise to us. The devilor, with his sleek self-image and his crippled rage, is too vain to allow himself to be charged publicly with jealousy and hate, yet he is so filled with such base emotions that his thin skin is stretched to capacity.
What to do? What to do? He cannot – like the rest of us – explode like an overfilled balloon in a fit of temper. No, he must quietly open the measured valve of spite, carefully releasing his pressured malice. The devilee will not hear the faint hiss.
What often does surprise us is the range of victims of such covert attacks. People will devil their own children, spouses, parents, co-workers and neighbors. They will also devil their confidantes – priests or psychiatrists – people to whom they have appealed for help.
Unlike overt hostility that announces itself from the moment the person feels aggrieved, passive aggression proceeds in stealth, always prepared, in the event it is detected, with an excuse that seems reasonable or an apology that seems spontaneously genuine. When the aggression ceases to be passive and identity and intention are revealed, the devilor concocts a benign motive, claiming that he was forced to act in the cause of some great communal good.
Deviling is not a fist. It is a poison pen letter or a thousand petty acts which range from stealing a piece of a picture puzzle that someone is working on, to losing messages or misdirecting mail, to making “slips of the tongue” in which confidential information is “inadvertently” disclosed, to turning off a clock’s alarm so that someone oversleeps, to hiding someone’s eyeglasses or keys – and my favorite from years ago before the age of transistors – to a neighbor who secretly removed a little tube from the back of the TV set each workday morning so that his wife couldn’t watch television in his absence. He led her to believe that she was too stupid to operate the set properly. (In those days there were many picture adjustments to make.)
But the singlemost terrible element of the act of deviling is not the strategy or the tactics, it is the ready acceptance of collateral damage. Deviling is not a surgical strike that confines injury to a specified target.
Let us say, for example, that a man buys tickets to take his wife and children to a show; and his aunt, who lives in his home, feels that she, too, should have been included in the party. She may secretly chafe so much that she spitefully destroys the tickets. It gratifies her to see the family prepare for an event that will not occur; and on the appointed evening, when the man discovers that the tickets are not where he put them, she may affect alarm and make a grand gesture of helping to search for them. The family is distraught. Her grievance was with the man – not with his wife and children; but their disappointment is irrelevant to her. She may even reason that since he values their happiness and is distressed to see them so upset, this collateral grief is actually a bonus.
And even more than this, if it should have happened that the man’s son showed those tickets to a friend, suspicion will fall upon the son for he will have been “the last person to have seen” the victimed tickets. The boy is virtually indicted. We may logically know that the last person to have seen the tickets was the person who destroyed them; but what protest of innocence from the boy can remove the presumption of guilt that clings to him? He is blamed. And his misery is of no consequence to the aunt. When is the last time we heard of a trial being interrupted by someone who steps forward to confess to the crime because he cannot bear to subject an innocent man to further ordeal?
Two kinds of deviling are of special interest to pastors and counselors: one is practiced by a person who is psychologically predisposed to assert moral or intellectual superiority over others but who, unfortunately, is as bereft of ideas as he is of integrity. He is not unintelligent, but he is sorely handicapped by a lack of imagination and courage and by the additional burdens of envy and contempt. Thus encumbered, he dare not try to establish his own sangha or write his own articles, which would unnecessarily expose him to peer review. He therefore resorts to reconnoitering various groups until he finds a likely staging area for his show of superiority. Beyond accessibility, a group requires no other qualification.
In a sangha setting, he initiates the relationship with great enthusiasm, hailing the group’s written works as nothing short of revelatory, engaging priests in spirited discussions, ingratiating himself with offerings and with praise. Carefully he elicits personal opinions about various aspects of the Dharma. Daily he sighs with enormous relief that he has finally found clerics he can unreservedly appreciate.
And then, overnight it seems, from out of this foundational relief, a superstructure of unassailable rectitude rises. From atop it, he discerns the iniquities and inadequacies the sangha has tried so cleverly to conceal. As if broadcasting a public-service message, he accuses and condemns; and the sangha members learn that the joy he once expressed at having encountered them was not occasioned by compatibility but by his having found a few more fakes to expose.
Often the quack complaints are ludicrous. I once received a curt email from a woman who, inflated perhaps with the notion that she was a reincarnation of Torquemada, accused me of heresy. Heresy? Zen has no universally accepted dogma and tenets, no single governing scripture, no Vatican-like council or Pope that sits in judgment of doctrinal variance. Further, Buddhist scripture sanctions a complete array of approaches to the divine – from the conservative, ‘right-hand’ or solo (single cultivation) path which we follow, to the ‘left-hand’ sexually engaged and explicit (dual-cultivation) path of the esoteric groups. There is virtually nothing under the sun that can be described as heretical within Buddhism’s myriad schools. Members of one sangha are free to disapprove of the paths of others, but not with the intention of charging them with heresy, unless, of course, they are trying to be funny.
There are other forms of stealth. We hear of priests who, soon after taking formal vows of celibacy, decide to take a “principled” stand against this requirement and publicly criticize their religion’s hierarchy for persisting in such absurdly medieval practices. They seek “modernization” and “relevance in contemporary society.” When, we wonder, did these priests first discover that they were members of a religion whose priesthood was celibate? Surely it was after they were invested with the dignity of office. Throughout congenial years in seminary or monastery, they voiced no opposition to the rule and pretended a readiness to conform their lives to it. Because they have been so patient in their manipulative strategy, these ‘reformers’ suppose that no one will notice the ploy, that no one will ever suspect them of being opportunistic and duplicitous. Naturally, they see themselves as heroic.
In everyday society deviling individuals may suddenly appear as “made-to-order” friends, persons we meet who share so many of our interests, whose generosity exceeds our own, whose intelligence and refinement both comfort and inspire us. Once we open ourselves to them, they strike; and we recoil, feeling the sting of their betrayal, painfully aware that we were much too easily deceived. In a religious setting, we know these persons did not have a corrective epiphany.
They are as they were from the beginning: people who crave attention, who need to dominate, who enjoy inflicting pain, who stalk their prey at night but by day are careful to appear indolent. The pity is that this peculiar flaw in character, like a cracked windshield, does not submit to correction. It is always there, distorting their worldview.
The second kind of deviling is practiced by a person who comes to a cleric asking for help. Often he will say that he is seeking guidance but in truth he is seeking authorization to do what he is already doing or intends to do. Although a cleric may not openly speak about conversations with him, he is not similarly constrained. He is free to twist statements out of context – an innocent remark being deliberately misunderstood so as to give license to an unlawful or unethical action. A nod of commiseration gains the force of imprimatur, becoming an official endorsement of the validity of his opinions. A figurative remark takes on literal construction, a metaphor is concretized in fact. Before the cleric knows it he has endorsed euthanasia, divorce, adultery, and putting elderly parents in nursing homes.
A more serious problem may arise with a person who approaches a cleric in genuine distress. Conveying the details of personal calamity, he commands much attention during the weeks or months his life is so unsettled; but then, when finally he is restored to stability, he feels compelled to make adjustments to the historical landscape. He now sees himself as a granite monolith – not as the conglomerate rubble revealed in all those conversational bits and pieces. He regrets having imparted such intimate knowledge of himself, of having confessed his guilt or disclosed his vulnerability.
Fearing this detailed information – this cache of weapons stored in the cleric’s armory – which may one day be used against him, he launches a pre-emptive strike. The attack comes out of nowhere. At about the same time the cleric is feeling good about having led a person through some very rocky terrain, he learns that he’s been branded a meddling gossiper, intrusive and shameless in his need to slander innocent parishioners. The cleric is not a shepherd – he is a sheep that requires guidance. And his once desperate parishioner must warn the world of his pastoral imposture.
It is as if someone whose heart had stopped beating were to file assault charges against the bystander who, using standard resuscitation techniques, had thumped upon his chest – with such obvious but lamentable success. The bystander cannot deny that he pounded on the fellow’s chest. The worrisome thing is that any still photograph of the encounter might be interpreted as evidence of the charge.
The cleric recovers. He or she is usually too busy with sincere persons to linger in regret. But for the person who cannot resist the need to be duplicitous, to harm in payment for help, there may be an unforeseen consequence; for a counselor, once compromised by such a breach of trust, can never again be of use to him.
Years ago I had a student who claimed he was a struggling writer and needed Zen to help him through his stressful times. He had heard that I recommended yoga as part of a spiritual regimen and asked for some basic yoga instructions.
We discussed various books – there were not then many on the market – and I showed him my favorite one – an old, out of print book that was particularly rich in yogic lore. I gave him a printed hand-out, the directions for a dozen asanas, but he returned the following week saying that when he tried to focus on a posture, too many questions scattered his thoughts. He needed more detail, specifically the kind of information that was contained in my favorite book. He pleaded with me to borrow it, pledging that he would return it the following week. I lent him the book; but the next week he said that he was still studying it at home. When I saw him again weeks later I immediately asked for the book; but he affected surprise, saying that he had already returned it. Dramatically he showed me precisely where he had placed it on the sofa; but I knew that he had not returned the book. I never saw him again.
Months later I did see a new paperback book on yoga. He was listed as the author. I was incredulous. I looked through the book and in various places read uncomfortably familiar passages. I wondered what I would say to him if he ever contacted me again. A few years later, from hundreds of miles away, he emailed me asking for advice about a serious marital problem he claimed he was having. I was polite but fearing that my response was intended to furnish textual material for another book, I could give only standard platitudes about marital obligations.
Email, too, presents extraordinary opportunities for mischief. Computer scientists are understandably proud of their ability to trace a document to its source and to authenticate it. They have devised sophisticated security systems. They encrypt. They decode. They follow subtle electronic trails that to them are as obvious as footprints in fresh snow. The technical complexities of such protection are astonishing – something the Louvre or Fort Knox would appreciate.
But the average man does not fear the loss of DaVinci’s Mona Lisa that may or may not be hanging in his living room.
The average man is not concerned about the gold bouillon that may or may not be stored in his basement. He fears the pickpocket on the street or the waiter who improperly adds a check to give himself an extra twenty dollars. And so it is with email – the Feds may be prompted to act in matters of espionage or child pornography, but they are unlikely to show up to trace the source of an email that purports to contain someone’s allegation that his neighbor poisons cats. The deviling “pickpocket” version of this computer crime may involve no more than the printing of two emails, one from one person and one from another, and then affixing the top of one to the body of another and photocopying the composite. To the unaided or non-scientific eye the resulting document appears authentic.
The person who accomplishes this low-tech feat can make any correspondent appear to have written anything. For his victim, proving otherwise is a prohibitively expensive matter especially if he may not become aware of the forgery until months later. A sanctimonious third-party guarantee of authenticity – of having reproduced correspondence between others exactly as it was transmitted to him – is usually a devilor’s warranty.
When the problem is not authenticity, it may be even more pernicious, involving a kind of entrapment, a duplicity that allows one person to shape communication between himself and his victim so that it fills a predetermined form. It is as if one person is secretly taping a conversation between himself and another unsuspecting person, a person whose disposition he well knows. He scripts a dialogue and cleverly induces his respondent to recite the needed words. He disguises leading questions and bends responses so that they seem to follow the torsions of his plot.
The effects of devilment are always sad. We look at the person who has gone to so much trouble to inflict an injury and say of him what we often say of a con-man: “If only he had put that much effort into honest work, he would have made a fortune.” But we understand that it is not merely the need for money that motivates the con man. It is something else – that secret satisfaction of tricking others, of making them suffer, of imputing to them some guilt or despised stupidity that not only absolves him of blame but lauds him for giving them the fate that they deserved.
For as long as Buddhism has existed, these troublesome people have caused problems within a sangha or wherever else they go. The Buddha clearly recognized them and anyone who has to withstand their assaults can find comfort in his acknowledgments.
From the Dammapada Canto XXI: 291:
He who desires happiness for himself by inflicting injury on others, is not freed from hatred, being entangled himself in the bonds of hatred.
From Canto V: 73, 74:
Unwise is the monk who desires undue adoration from others, lordship over other monks, authority among the monastic dwellings and homage even from outside groups. Moreover, he thinks, “May both laymen and monks highly esteem my action! May they be subject to me in all actions, great or small.” Such is the grasping desire of a worldly monk whose haughtiness and conceit ever increase.
What do we do, then, when we fear that we’re the victim of deviling? First we need to scrutinize our own psyche, searching for those feelings of inadequacy that made us vulnerable to flattery, to needing to be needed beyond some prudent limit. Likewise we reflect upon our own speech: were we too effusive in our praise, too incautious in our remarks? Do we need to be more disciplined in our expressions, avoiding ambiguity and extravagant metaphor? And we must also wonder whether a fear of positional instability has inclined us to cleave so strongly to anyone who seems to offer support.
We do not want to retreat from friendship or, when asked for help or advice, to be inhibited from giving it. Ultimately, we know that we cannot help others who are in peril without exposing ourselves to danger. We, too, have to make up our mind to take critical heat or to get out of the Dharma kitchen.
We ought not to participate in devilment by tolerating it. We should not silently acquiesce to accusation or savor as fact any tidbit because it is deliciously prurient.
And when we find a devilor in our midst, what should we do? Do we assume that his flaw in character will admit to no remedy? Perhaps it will – but only if he repents of his actions. But there we have the stymied qualification. It requires courage to confess, and a devilor, by definition, is a coward. What is needed to change him is a divine act of Grace.
Sometimes our best course is to pray for this even as we turn away from him and from his acts.
Not even the Buddha held out much hope for engineering a better plan:
According to Canto IX: 123.
As a merchant who has limited escort, yet carries much wealth, avoids a perilous road, as a man who is desirous of living long avoids poison, so in the same way should the wise shun evil.
Author: Ming Zhen Shakya
Image credits: Fly, 2020
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