Horrible people are fascinating. They confuse us, they entertain us, and they fascinate us. We talk about them. “Did you hear what Sandy did the other day? Ohmigosh, how could she do that?” We think about them, how can they sleep at night? We love shows and movies about them doing horrible things to one another. We can’t understand them, and how they think they can get away with it. They do. They think a lot about this. They cross their T’s and dot their I’s, and they figure out the best way to do something awful to us without ramifications. It took me a while to figure out it’s not about me, and I’m here to tell you it’s not about you either, or whatever innocent victim they prey upon. It’s about them. They’re horrible people.
When we talk about horrible people doing horrible things in such discussions, we often limit our discussion to dastardly people who do dastardly things, as opposed to violent criminals committing violent acts. We’re talking about people who legally manage to ruin the lives of those around them. We’re talking about a nephew who drains an uncle’s life savings, before forcing him into a care facility; a sister who steals her mentally deficient brother’s inheritance; and a man who poisons the neighbor’s dog. We’re talking about little people who do little things, because they are so frustrated with their station in life that they develop a twisted logic and justification for what they do.
How many horrible people know they’re horrible. I’m sure they are out there, but I’ve never met one. The most horrible people I’ve met can’t understand why I would say that. They seem genuinely perplexed by the charge. “Well, what about the time you did this?” we ask in an almost comical tone. “I mean c’mon, even you can see that was pretty awful.”
“What was he going to do with it anyway?” they might say. They always have an excuse or a justification for what they do. They rarely if ever acknowledge the moral turpitude of their actions. They think dog-eat-dog. They think take, take, take. They have no conscience, no guilt, and no shame. For them, it’s more about getting theirs before anyone else can.
They don’t think the way we do. They don’t see it. They acknowledge right and wrong, or the good and bad in a more general sense, but it doesn’t apply here.
Is it wrong to put Uncle Joe into a subpar care facility after taking all of his money? “If he goes into a care facility, the state will take his estate to help pay for his care?” they say.
“Okay, but he could’ve afforded a better facility.” They didn’t even consider that. We can see it on their face.
“What’s the difference?” they say. “He still gets his pillows propped, three square meals a day, and a couple Jell-O squares.” They don’t consider the role this man played in their maturation. They don’t think about those times their uncle bought them peanut M&M’s in the gas station, or the fishing trips he took them on when he was in his prime, and they were very young. He’s a feeble senior citizen now. He’s not the same man he was in their youth.
They have answers for these questions, scripted answers they developed long before this confrontation. It doesn’t matter what they say, because it really doesn’t matter to them what they say. They probably won’t even remember what they said five minutes after they said it, because they just don’t care. We might call them psychopaths, sociopaths, or level some charge of narcissism at them, but they don’t care. Some of the people we think we know better than anyone else in the world simply don’t care.
Uncle Joe wasn’t a rich man. His life’s savings proved embarrassingly paltry, but it’s theirs now, and they managed to secure the transfer of wealth in such a legal manner that the sisters’ lawyers inform them that it would be wildly expensive and ultimately foolish to challenge it.
They’re going to get theirs before you do.
The sisters could try to trap the nephew with some damning portrayals of what he did, but how do they trap someone who has no conscience, feels no guilt, and has no shame? Even if they were to corner him in a casual conversation that they could not make legally binding, they wouldn’t get anywhere, because it would basically turn into a war of words in which one party wins, and the other party loses, and he can’t lose that argument, because he doesn’t care.
I prefer to think that most people are good, and while I’ve been dealt a barrage of “you’re so naïve”, it has served me well. Having said that, I’m not blind to the fact that there are some horrible people on this planet. I’ve read about them, watched shows about them, and I’ve met them. I’ve also grown to know some of them so well that I know how they approach such situations.
When you sit down and talk to them, with mugs of beer between you, they say the most wonderful things. Some of the times, they even manage to drop a few words that expand our philosophy and rationale. Unbeknownst to us, they know right and wrong, but they obviously don’t think it applies in all situations, everywhere in life. “We all experience updrafts and downdrafts in life,” they say, “and you deal with them accordingly.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” they continue, “and it wasn’t built in one way, or the way they tell you.” This philosophy aligns with the narrative that some of the times you have to do things you don’t want to do to build an empire. It also aligns with the idea that most rich people got theirs by doing awful things to whomever stood in their way, and our friends want to climb that ladder by whatever means necessary.
The crux of the matter is that horrible people often sell their soul for money, and they rarely accrue the type of money they always dreamed of having. Then, when they get the money, they’ll buy a boat they will never use, or take an extravagant vacation they won’t enjoy half as much as they thought they would. So, they sold their uncle down the river, they turned the only people who cared about them, their family, against them, and they ended up damaging their soul for peanuts.
They tell their family, at the last second, that they cannot attend a family dinner to honor their recently-deceased mother. “I’m sorry, I have a conflict.” Then, when the family sets out for the restaurant, she enters the family home, knowing that they will be out, and she steals all of her mother’s most valuable items. She obviously doesn’t think about how she’s disgracing her mother’s memory in some way and how that act could lead others to think she might be awful. Those thoughts don’t even enter her mind. She was just getting hers before her brother could stake a claim to one of the items. “The funny thing is if she challenged me on these items,” the brother said, “I would’ve let her have all of them.” We don’t know what happened in this situation, but anyone who knows anything about the collectible’s market knows that if she pawned everything she stole, she probably ended up selling her soul for the monetary equivalent of one of Burger King’s value meals.
Some people believe karma holds some kind of existential power. I don’t. I’ve seen far too many people escape awful deeds unharmed to believe that if we do bad things to people bad things will happen to us. The most successful refutation I received arrived after I had a brief, tumultuous confrontation with an unusually awful person. “He has to live with himself,” a third-party witness commented after that exchange.
“You think he feels guilty?” I asked, “because I got the feeling he doesn’t feel the least bit guilty about it.”
“Oh, I don’t either,” he said. “I’m not talking about guilt. I’m talking about how he must live. A person who acts like that cannot be happy. Something drives you to act like that. I’m guessing he either has an awful wife, or he treats her horribly. Either way, if someone was dumb enough to marry him, they probably now live a life of abject misery. And if she agreed to bring children into their world, imagine how miserable those kids must be. Most of all, think about what must be like for him to live with himself. Outbursts like that aren’t common. Internal misery causes people like that to unleash on the world around them. You talk about final damnation, and all that. I think it’s much simpler than that. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. He’s living his own version of hell every day of his life.”
How do awful people live with themselves? First, they don’t consider themselves awful. They don’t think about what they’ve done as bad, or if they do, they punctuate it with bromides, such as, “It’s only bad if you get caught.” They say that as a joke, but they say it so often that we can’t help but think that they believe it. “It’s not a lie if you believe it,” is another bromide they might ask be chiseled into their gravestone, or, “It’s not stealing if you take things from those who have if you are a have-not.”
Even those of us who ascribe to the tenets of moral relativism must recognize that there has to be an internal accumulation of misery to be that miserable, and it manifests itself in a variety of ways.
One of my office managers was not what anyone would call an awful person. He devoted his life to his son, he laughed a lot, and he had such wonderful views that those making bullet points would insist that those bullet points prevent him from ever being on a list of horrible people. When the opportunity arose, however, he did every awful thing he could think of to me, as my manager, and within the constraints of the company handbook. I found out later that he committed suicide, and no one knew why. My best guess is that it wasn’t any one thing in particular. It probably had more to do with the accumulation.
The one thing I learned from working with this manager was that it’s never enough. He asked me questions about my current straits in the workplace. I had no idea that he was looking for some satisfaction. I now believe that he thought if he could transfer some of his misery to me, he might be a little less miserable, and it might quench a need of some sort. He learned that genuinely happy people can be happy no matter what type of misery we try to put them through. In the aftermath of our tenure together, I think he expected me to hate him. I didn’t. I greeted him as I had the day before we started working together. My guess is he was very disappointed by that.
Does it help us to think that horrible people lead horrible lives? Does it help us to think that the reason they hate us so much is because they hate their home, their family, their career, and themselves? We all have insecurities, and when someone develops that much animosity for us, we’re inclined to look inward. Based on my limited experience with horrible people, they think that way too. They think it’s our fault that they’re temporarily miserable, and if they can fix us, they can fix themselves. If they had the ability to acknowledge the source of the problem, they might have fixed it long ago. They don’t, so they focus their energy on fixing us in the most awful ways they can manage within corporate constraints.
How do they sleep at night? How can they do such things and think nothing of it? If it’s not entertaining, it’s a least fascinating to think that more often than not, these people get away with it, and they have no remorse. They cross their T’s and dot their I’s, and they take, take, take, and they try to make you as miserable as they are.
My advice, based on my brief experience with this type of person is try to do everything in your power to make them irrelevant in your life. This is impossible in some cases, as some of the times horrible people have the power and ability to make our lives more miserable, but in cases like these, happiness can, indeed, be the best revenge.