The human heart is complex—wonderfully so, horribly so. And at our best we see through a glass darkly, knowing some things, not knowing other things.
I thought of this today as I read two stories of great sorrow, one the latest in the Jerry Sandusky trial, and the other of the Anders Breivik court case. We know more of the one in the U.S., less of the other in Norway. The first is achingly awful, with charges of pedophilia by the longtime Penn State football coach; the second is of the horrific murders last year, Breivik killing 77 and injuring 242 people, many of them children.
In both, “conditions” are now part of the unfolding story, with “histrionic personality disorder” offered as an explanation for Sandusky and “insanity” for Breivik. To say again, we are complex, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve that we are. We are more like icebergs, only seeing the partial truth of who we are; mostly we are below the surface, not fully knowing ourselves or anyone else.
What is troubling to me is the “Clockwork Orange” echoes of these stories. The Anthony Burgess novel became a film, exploring the human condition through a grisly story of horror and mayhem in a futuristic world. The chief criminal is finally arrested, and his behavior is “modified” in prison, conditioning him to vomit at the sight of violence. The big question the novel/film asks is this: what about choice? if he loses his choice does he lose his humanness?
In a secularizing world with no windows to transcendence, ideas like good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice are meaningless. How do we respond to horrors and evils then? Do they exist? Or are they only social constructions that can be accounted for by psychological diagnoses?
It is hard to sort all this through. Years ago I spent months of my life during my graduate studies working in a state mental hospital, so I have seen the ravages of mental disorders and disabilities. There is nothing cheap to be said here.
There are two voices from my intellectual mentors, Vaclav Havel, who argued again and again that “the secret of man is the secret of his responsibility,” and from Francis Schaeffer, who set forth the surprising thesis that in a fallen world, “we all have psychological problems.” That we are not fated, not “wired” at the very heart of our humanity, was Havel’s conviction. That there is not a category of “psychological problems” for some, and not for others, was Schaeffer’s insight.
How do we hold these perspectives together as we watch the world? What do they mean for these two stories that are full of such sadness? And finally what do they mean for ourselves, wonderfully, horribly complex as we are?