The great pleasures of life—try sex, food and money—are as nothing compared with the delight of running other people’s lives.
Making others think and feel and do what we want affords a rush of satisfaction. People measure their significance by their power over others.
The appetite for interference in other people’s lives is virtually limitless. The clothes we wear, the food we eat, the way we act, how we raise our children, apply make-up and choose our words all come under withering critique. Individuals who consider themselves wiser than we are offer endless suggestions for how to mend our ways.
To meddle is to take over the lives of others by nullifying their ideas and interfering with their choices. Many people are comfortable with the values they choose to govern their lives. They neither seek nor need ill-informed bystanders to tell them what to do. They just want to be left alone to pursue their purposes.
Yet it seems almost impossible to avoid unsolicited interference in one’s affairs. And to live in the teeth of criticism disguised as friendly suggestions is difficult in the extreme. One can pretend indifference, but the constant correction leads to painful doubt about one’s values.
Why should people wish to run the lives of others? Is it perhaps because they can’t do a good enough job running their own? At least a part of the answer is that in addition to the pleasure it yields, imposing one’s will on others seems a costless benefit. If the advice doesn’t work, the meddler doesn’t have to bear the consequences.
Why should we suppose that we know what’s good for strangers, distant acquaintances and even loved ones better than they do? They are themselves 24/7 and experience has taught them what they like. By contrast, we are strangers in their worlds, beginners at understanding the symmetry of their lives.
I keep receiving insistent advice from people I hardly know. Though I have taught for over fifty years, a beginner recently instructed me in how to conduct a class. Patients in a doctor’s office inquired about my symptoms and offered diagnoses and remedy. My attentive listening was taken as a sign of depression and I was discreetly offered the name of a person described as a good psychiatrist.
All this correcting and advising comes in the form of incessant chatter. Development of the ability to speak has apparently unleashed a torrent of sound from the human throat and made the desire to talk irresistible. We are so devoted to voicing our feelings and ideas that in the absence of listeners we talk to ourselves, surrounding our actions with exclamations and explanations. Only rarely do people push the mute button and cease the commentary.
The hidden function of gossip is to prepare the ground for moral critique. Radio, television, newspapers, blogs and social media—our gigantic machinery of communication—delight in propagating damaging information about people. They get involved in the lives of others, trying to catch politicians and movie stars in their moments of embarrassment.
Reporting “dirt” about the powerful and the famous, exposing their infidelity, corruption, duplicity and incompetence, is justified by claiming that it is a public service to show the moral failings of admired persons. In reality, what we want is insight into the steaming desires of others so we may feel that we are better and that with our advice, they would have avoided trouble.
Getting involved in the lives of others extends even to charitable acts. In giving to the needy, we intrude into the sphere of their privacy by demanding that they not use the money for beer or cigarettes. Forgetting that gifts must be freely tendered, religious charities require that the individuals they help pay by using the right words to pray to the proper deity.
Few realize that leaving people alone is a great and rare virtue. This does not mean that we can abandon people in the hour of their need. To the contrary: when they need help, fellow humans must come to their aid and ease them over the hurdles they cannot clear alone. But we must not demand that in return they comply with our desires, suggestions or wishes. Generosity is a costly virtue, requiring that we cede something of value without the expectation of any return.
The greatest respect for peaceful people is to let them live without interference. Meddling may seem innocent and benign, but it expresses the belief that others cannot be trusted to do a good job.