Moral Tragedy or Chemical Imbalance?

Two nights ago my wife and I watched the BBC version of The Mayor of Casterbridge, one of Thomas Hardy’s classic novels of passionately hard-headed people who ruin themselves. The central character is Michael Henchard, an impulsive, driven man who swears off drink after literally selling his wife to a sailor. He then makes a mint and becomes the respected (if not well liked) mayor. Yet he so mismanages his life that he loses everything. It’s not drink that does him in, but his persistent tendency to project his inner demons onto other people, to treat them badly and make them his enemies.

In Hardy’s novels the lovely English countryside is only backdrop for tortured souls and moral tragedy. Of all the great Victorian novelists he is the bleakest. His protagonists brush past grace in the figure of kind and forgiving people, but are too strong to be deterred by it. Their character is their undoing. There is no God to save them. They damn themselves to hell.

After watching the film my wife, who is a therapist, commented on the many centuries in which people like Michael Henchard lived and died without a glimmer of understanding of brain chemistry. “He probably was bipolar.”  For me, her comment instantly changed the picture from black and white to color, or vice versa. I had been so thoroughly immersed in Victorian moral tragedy, I had temporarily lost the 21st century view of character, in which failings are explained in terms of outside influences (family, poverty, drugs) and chemical imbalances.

David Brooks had an interesting column last week about the commentariat’s tendency to therapize what Nidal Hasan did at Ft. Hood. (here) Brooks wrote that “Hasan was portrayed as a victim of society, a poor soul who was pushed over the edge by prejudice and unhappiness.” That absolved him of his responsibility, Brooks said, and denied the possibility of evil.

Which is it, moral tragedy or chemical imbalance? When I think of people I know, I have to say “both.” Their problems are undoubtedly a result of factors beyond their control. You can trace it from their genes or their upbringing or the tragedies that happened when they were children. Yet they become active participants in destruction. They have the power to change direction–that is near the root of what it means to be a conscious human being. And at the same time they don’t have the power. That is also near the root of their humanity.

“He knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust,” the Psalmist says in explaining God’s compassion. (Psalm 103:14) Dust that follows the rules of chemistry.

I think it’s clear that our (slight) understanding of brain chemistry helps us grasp more fully why people do irrational acts. We also understand better our own vulnerability, since we all suffer from brain chemistry.  And yet the knowledge of brain chemistry does not let anyone escape personal responsibility, not in the slightest. For however we interpret the causes of our dysfunctions, we are the ones who do destructive acts, and we are the ones who carry the load of suffering. We are dust—thinking, feeling, hurting, and sinful dust.

Compassion is the only proper response. Hardy was blind to a redeeming God. His best response, therefore, was pity. But compassion is more. It is, from the Latin, with-suffering. In compassion we come alongside, as redemptive participants in tragedy. Compassion hurts.

The good-news story of the cross is about compassion, God himself becoming dust—feeling, hurting, sin-filled and dying dust.

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2 Responses to “Moral Tragedy or Chemical Imbalance?”

  1. Fred Prudek Says:

    Dear Tim,
    I would agree with the overall trajectory of your article. I would add this that our culture today seems overbalanced to want to explain away cruel, unjust and unacceptable behavior, i.e. the recent Ft. Hood murders, not as willful and sinful acts, but rather due to external environmental factors or some chemical imbalance. As a community, I believe we have a hard time confessing that one of our own could be so jaded. Certainly, this is why so many have tried to explain away the evils of the holocaust. To try to determine how much guilt lies with the individual culprit, e.g. Nadal Hasan or Michael Henchard, and how much is not their personal responsibility, makes me thankful for St. Paul’s wise words, “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. … It is the Lord who judges me.” 1Cor. 4:3-4.

  2. James Swenson Says:

    Paul agonizes over this in Romans 7:15-24, which is (to me) one of the most moving passages in Scripture. It begins with “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” and reaches its climax with “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” [ESV]

    Neuroscience is new, but the root issue is not. Paul doesn’t diminish his personal responsibility for his sin, but simultaneously recognizes his inability to free himself from sin. The problem isn’t that we’re bipolar; it’s that we’re human.

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