Thursday, August 23, 2007

Dealing With Miss Clack

Wilkie Collins, a nineteenth century British author, wrote The Moonstone, which some consider to be one of the earliest examples of the English detective novel. I consider it to be excellent reading, myself, particularly because of Collins' skill in using first person narration throughout the novel in such a way that we learn far more about the character/narrator than these narrators realize they are telling us.

One such narrator is Miss Clack. A member of a tiny, very strict Protestant sect, of a sort which dotted the Victorian landscape, Miss Clack is as sure of her own virtues as she is of everyone else's vices; she is equally sure that her tendency to interfere in the lives of her friends and neighbors is motivated only by her deep and loving concern for their eternal destiny, as she knows for a fact that most of the so-called Christians around her are on a one-way trip to hell. If they are not condemned to eternal fire for the vanity to be found lurking among the brushes and combs on their dressing tables, they will find themselves there for reading books other than the volumes of sermons on Miss Clack's list of improving reading; such amusements as parties or other frivolity is certainly a sign of one's predestination for perdition (except, of course, for those parties Miss Clack chooses to attend in the hopes of being able to scatter her tracts around the house for the inhabitants to find whenever the danger of the cigar-box or candy dish threatens to cause their immortal souls to perish). Miss Clack even hands out pamphlets to other people's servants (she is too poor to have any of her own, of course) which instruct them that placing a ribbon on their caps, or a flounce of lace at the ends of their aprons, is a clear indication to all the world that they are loose, abandoned women, on the verge of finding themselves ruined both for this life and the next.

When we read what Miss Clack writes, though, we see between the lines and find ourselves reading her true character. Her "concern" for her wealthier relatives is based significantly on her dissatisfaction with her lesser financial status; she has a habit of dropping by with her religious materials and advice right at mealtimes, and of feeling slighted if she isn't asked to stay. She sees the villain of the story as good even when his perfidy is made clear, because his own religious hypocrisy coincides so well with hers, and because he is somewhat more likely to flatter her than anyone else is, though it is clear to everyone but Miss Clack that he is using her. She is jealous, spiteful, pushy, gossiping, greedy and vain, though she spends most of her time accusing everyone else around her of being those things, and seeing herself as a persecuted Christian martyr.

Though Miss Clack is an extremely enjoyable character in fiction, she's a rather difficult sort to encounter in real life. Fortunately, most of us never will run across someone like this--Miss Clack is, perhaps, more caricature than character. Still, we may, every now and then, find ourselves in the position of being "ministered to" by someone who, like Miss Clack, thinks they have a duty to be "Christian" to us.

The "Christian" is in quotes because obviously we should all seek to be Christlike to each other in our daily encounters. But there's a difference between trying to act like true Christians, and making it obvious to someone else that we are "offering up" our dealings with them. Pinning a smile firmly to our faces, going out of our way to make contact with them, pretending to seek their advice in order to flatter them and give ourselves an opening to become a "missionary" friend--all of these are more Clacklike than Christlike, I'm afraid. Beneath this approach are two things: pride in ourselves, that we know so much better than this other person does, and an objectification of the other, turning them from a real human being with thoughts and feelings of their own into a prize to be won.

It's one thing if we're called upon to be truthful witnesses to relatives or friends who actually are living outside the realm of Christian morality. But what characterizes a Miss Clack, besides the hugely disingenuous approach, is that they are the sort of person who thinks that we're sinning if we don't use the same sort of oven cleaner they do, or equally trivial, nonessential things; and they combine their capacity to care deeply about trivia with their equally large capacity to endure whatever variations of "No, thanks, I'm not interested," you may employ as if they were the blows of martyrdom.

What do you do if a Miss Clack shows up in your life? How do you handle the sort of person who won't be happy until you agree to do everything he or she does, to the point of dressing in matching outfits? How do you put up with being "offered up" by a person who sees himself or herself as brave and noble for putting up with you?

Whatever you do, don't fall for the temptation to let the Miss Clacks in your life see that you are the one offering up your encounters with them. This will lead to the sort of escalation that can only end in tears.

I recommend keeping your eyes wide open to what's really going on under the surface, so you won't naively agree to things you'd rather not do. Be firm in saying "no," but be as patient and prepared to repeat the message as you would be with a small child. Try to avoid too much contact, if you can, but be as charitable as you can be when you can't avoid seeing the other person.

And whatever you do, don't sign anything.

1 comment:

Alexandra said...

This was interesting, thanks! Visting from the Catholic Mothers Blogroll.