Partially out of preparation for my upcoming psycho-thriller Nihilum and partially out of sheer curiosity, I recently acquired the book ‘The Wisdom of Psychopaths’ by Kevin Dutton. In his book, Kevin, a research psychologist at Oxford, delves into psychopathy and the positives of such a state, as well as the negatives. As soon as I finished the book today, I immediately snagged Arielle for a two-hour discussion, because when it comes to discussing mental disorders, there’s nobody better. (Take that as you will.)
The following discussion was so good, and gave us so much to think about, that at the end of it I asked if she’d mind if I turned it into a blog post. She said she didn’t mind at all, and so I present, in raw form, the conversation we held.
Me: HOW DID I EVER THINK I COULD WRITE ABOUT PSYCHOPATHS WITHOUT READING THIS BOOK, I ASK YOU? I DON’T KNOW. BUT ANYWAY. Toward the end there was AN EXTREMELY INTERESTING DISCUSSION and I must put it forth to you so we can discuss it.
Arielle: FIRE AWAY.
Me: OKAY. THE SPECULATION IS THIS: Paul the Apostle was a psychopath. That’s his speculation. He lists how Paul’s behavior lines up. For example:(also realize this is near the end of an extremely informative, intense and educational book so there’s a ton of information/knowledge already had by this point, but bear with) Paul had a predilection both on the open road and within seething inner cities for dangerous, inhospitable areas that put him at risk of random, violent assault. Add to that the fact he was shipwrecked a grand total of three times, on one occasion spending 24 hours adrift in the open sea. A picture begins to emerge, Dutton says, of a man with little or no concern for his own safety.
Me: THEN there’s the habitual lawbreaker who seems incapable of learning the error of his ways, or just didn’t care. He was imprisoned multiple times during his ministry, spending a total of six years behind bars; he was brutally flogged (five times receiving the maximum thirty-nine lashes), was beaten with rods on three occasions, and was once stoned so violently that he was given up for dead and dragged outside the city. Then he got up and went back /inside/ the city.
THEN there’s the peripatetic drifter part of him, who was continually on the move due to threats against his life. When the governor of Damascus placed a cordon around the city to arrest him, he made his escape in a basket through a gap in the city walls.
THEN there’s the cold, calculating, political mover and shaker, unafraid to tread on the feelings and sensibilities of others, no matter how important or personally loyal they were (i.e. his bust-up with Peter in Antioch, when he accused Peter of being a hypocrite to his face and in front of a crowd).
THEN, there’s the ‘remorseless, unblinking maneuvering of the shadowy psychological cat burglar. The silky-smooth self-presentation skills of the expert manipulator.’ (i.e. 1 Corinthians 9:20-22)
ALSO. Before his conversion on the road to Damascus, he was a mass murderer. Under the dictates of the Geneva Convention today, he would have been indicted on charges of genocide.
SO. Dutton puts forth the idea that ‘spiritual enlightenment’ is actually very closely akin with a psychopath. In a Venn diagram, look.
natrcissism, impulsivity, lack of conscience, manipulativeness, pathological lying, coldheartedness.
love, compassion, gentleness, humility, faithfulness, trustworthiness.
HOWEVER, in the middle, they meet with:
stoicism, mindfulness, fearlessness, mental toughness, openness to experience, utilitarianism, focus/altered state of consciousness, energy, creativity, and non-attachment.
Dutton puts forth the idea that psychopathy, or as the term is used, ‘functional psychopathy’ or ‘positive psychopathy’ actually has many excellent uses (and gosh I get to go so in-depth on these things with NIHILUM I’m thrILLED) is often an extremely helpful, almost existential thing. After all, it enables focus, heightened empathy (psychopaths are actually /more/ empathic than the average non-psychopath) and clear-sightedness. It enables people to get tough things done.
HOWEVER. Dutton is a Darwinian, and not a theist of any kind. /SO/. He’s taking an actual God out of the equation, and stating that Paul was a psychopath.
NOW, THE INTERESTING QUESTION:
Was Paul a psychopath, or does the spiritual peace of God actually give us many traits that meet in the middle between psychopathy and spiritual aid?
OR BOTH, even. Paul was literally a genocidal maniac before his conversion – it’s very possible that God actually redeemed a serial-killing psychopath, who then went on to write most of the New Testament.
(I’VE BEEN SO ENJOYING MULLING THIS OVER but the minute this question hit me I wanted to hash it out with you)
[We then took a moment so Arielle could process everything I’d just thrown at her.]
Arielle: Okay. So. Paul. The New Oxford American Dictionary (it’s on my computer- I tend to use it more often than Webster’s) defines psychopathy as: ‘a person suffering from chronic mental disorder with abnormal or violent social behavior.’ I’d say that fits pre-conversion Paul to a T. Serial killer also, YES. He even had an MO of sorts. He aided and abetted in murder, he became more violent as time went on and he was animated by a fanatic fervor – all hallmarks of psychopathy.
Me: NOT TO MENTION, he never had guilt for it because he always believed he was doing the right thing. He regretted it, but he wasn’t /guilt-ridden/ over it.
Arielle: Exactly. So I think definitely pre-conversion he was a psychopath. Which brings us to the question: did the saving grace of Jesus change THAT part of him, or was it his core personality and it was merely redeemed/purified? Which is complicated by the term: disorder. Psychopathy is considered a DISORDER. SO. I would ask… at what point is psychopathy the way people view a particular personality as it is evidenced by one particular person… and at what point is it a disorder that is a negative thing?
Me: WELL. *rubs hands together* HERE’S SOMETHING I FOUND FASCINATING (if very condensed). mOST PEOPLE view psychopathy as a disorder. As a kind of insanity. HOWEVER. Think of psychopathy as a sound board. You can mix it however you want to. Turn up the bass, turn up the treble, make it heavier on the string, etc. etc. Some people have different levels turned up more than others. VERY RARELY does anyone have /everything turned up to the max/. That’s where we get our horrible serial killers and such.
HOWEVER, There are /many/ psychopaths doing very well in the world today. They’re brilliant CEOS or neurosurgeons or lawyers or special ops. They’re doing the necessary, hardcore, nitty-gritty things, and they’re doing them VERY FREAKING WELL. In fact, in the case of ‘functioning psychopaths,’ rather than insanity, it could easily be considered /supersanity/.
Arielle: Okay, where does highly functioning/highly intelligent personality leave off and psychopathy begin? IS there a line? Because… I think there has to be.
Me: That’s the thing. There isn’t a ‘line.’ It’s not ‘either you’re a psychopath or you aren’t.’ It’s a mixing board. There are way more psychopaths out there than we think. They’re in very successful places doing very successful things. HOWEVER, there are differences between a highly functioning, intelligent individual and a psychopath. For example, psychopaths don’t register fear. It’s not that their bodies don’t register it – rather, they’re so intensely focused, and so intensely confident, that they never pay attention to it. It doesn’t register for them. Also, they don’t feel guilty. They can’t. It’s not how they’re wired. One psychopath said he had many affairs outside of his relationship, but he always came home at the end of the day, and ‘what more do they want?’ That’s how a psychopath is wired. They can view emotions like guilt, remorse, and sympathy from the outside, but they can’t /feel/ them. Basically, they do life by numbers. If they see a way to come out on top, they will. It doesn’t matter who they step on or who gets hurt.
Arielle: *thinking* It’s been a while since I read all of the Pauline epistles straight through.
Me: The fun thing is, I’ve been reading through them recently.
Arielle: Okay. Obviously, based on your description of psychopaths, it really IS a disorder and IT. IS. A. PROBLEM.
Me: I think Paul actually had many psychopathic traits. BUT, factoring God into the equation, I think what happened was: the Holy Ghost entered Paul and made him able to see what he couldn’t see before. I think that’s it, plain and simple, now that I think about it.
Arielle: EXACTLY what I was thinking.
Me: BUT it’s only /technically/ a problem if the psychopath acts out illegal, criminal, immoral acts. WHICH MANY NEVER DO. Granted, I wouldn’t want to live with one; but it’s not always actually a problem.
Arielle: I think that BEFORE he was converted, he was a serial killing psychopath. Plain and simple. I think after his conversion, he was truly redeemed, but that many of the psychopathic traits it took him years to finally overcome- if he did it at all. I mean, we all have our faults, we all have things we struggle with all our lives. I think perhaps his inability to feel fear or guilt IF IN FACT HE WAS UNABLE TO FEEL THEM //could have been// something he fought to overcome…And as far as /technically/ a problem or not-Well, what POV are we considering that from? From a legal, justice system POV, I agree.
From a Biblical/Christian perspective, I disagree.
Me: I AGREE. /MOSTLY/. However, there are many traits psychopaths have that are actually positive, helpful traits. Confidence, charm, charisma, focus, intensity, discernment – there are many positive aspects. In fact, psychopaths, on personal levels, have been shown to display more altruism than non-psychopaths.
Arielle: It IS a problem in God’s eyes to never be able to feel guilt if you’ve done something wrong. And it //might// be a problem in His eyes to not be able to feel fear- we’re told to fear him. This one is more of a grey area so I’m going to leave it alone for now. ALL OF WHICH begs the question… since they have those positive traits too… is it to ‘counteract’ the effects of the negative things? The huge problem that they can’t feel guilt? Because if you can’t feel guilt, it’s likely (not 100% but definitely likely) that you won’t be as sensitized to right/wrong. If you can’t feel guilt over something you’ve don THAT WAS WRONG… then it doesn’t really matter to you whether it was right or wrong, does it?
And it also begs the question: How. What happened. Because I highly doubt God would have intentionally created psychopaths. Like, I doubt it’s a personality He would have wanted. SO. Is it because of the Curse? Did those elements become available to humans because of the Curse. AND IF SO… is that why it can only affect certain types of people? Because only those kinds of people (those with certain mental abilities) also carry the abilities to balance those negatives- like confidence, focus, intensity, etc?
Me: WELL HERE’S THE THING: I don’t believe God makes people who can’t be Christians. He just doesn’t do that. Even psychopaths can be converted, although I think it happens VERY rarely, and Paul was an incredible case. A functional psychopath is one of the most useful people in existence. They get things DONE. A Christian psychopath – the idea just FASCINATES me because aside from Paul, I can’t think of an instance of one. HOWEVER, psychopaths have the ability to reason, judge, and discern even better than non-psychopaths, so I think it’s fully within their ability to /become/ Christians – but I imagine it must be ten thousand times more difficult if your abilities to feel guilt or remorse are practically nonexistent. IT’S SUCH AN INTERESTING THING TO THINK ABOUT.
Arielle: IT IS, GOSH. This also brings the question: CAN God change that part of them? CAN HE- omnipotent as He is- CAN HE actually sensitize them to guilt or remorse or fear? Is it possible? [gosh, this is such a heckuva great discussion and I’M LOVING IT. It’s deeeeep and intense but we’re not just doing it to do it- WE’RE SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS.]
Me: When it comes to God, I think the question ‘can he’ is already answered. He’s God, he’s omnipotent, and he can do anything (as evidenced by Paul) AND I’M LOVING IT TOO.
Arielle: I would agree. Which brings us to…. the fact that very probably, those VERY RARE psychopaths that DO convert, He’s working on them in those areas, just as He works on us in OTHER areas. You know? So: Conclusion #1: we think Paul was definitely a psychopath and was living evidence that God CAN and DOES change people/that disorder to bring Glory to Him….?
Me: YES. That. Also, he retained many psychopathic traits, although the Holy Spirit gave him spiritual sensitivity he didn’t have before.
Arielle: EXACTLY. And the question of how people GET that way… IS the central question of the monster trifecta. ‘are they BORN or MADE?’
Me: Well, this book actually pretty much answers the question: psychopaths are born. monsters are made. psychopaths do not necessarily have to be monsters, and monsters are not always psychopaths.
Arielle: So then… psychopathy entered the world through twisting of Melkor? (Silmarillion reference, for you non-Tolkienites. Although I don’t think any of you are non-Tolkienites. But anyway, just in case.) I mean… y’know, Satan. BUT IN THE VEIN OF, think of Melkor. He could TWIST what Eru made, and it was held as his WORST SIN-above everything else… but he couldn’t MAKE- he couldn’t create life- not even twisted, perverted life. He could only take what Eru had already made and twist it. Soooo…is that what happened?
Me: I THINK IT IS, but get this: Satan himself is not a psychopath. He has many components of one, but he’s missing the biggest criteria: he experiences fear. In fact, Satan is perpetually terrified. He’s not a psychopath.
Arielle: *nodding* Which actually makes it fascinating that he could ‘enable’ that to enter the world. He’s not one, but he can and does use them. But they are what he cannot be.
Me: Exactly. And after reading this book, I actually can only think of three realistic psychopaths in fiction: Hannibal Lector, Do Young (Liar Game), and Fly (White Christmas).
Arielle: Dang. What is it about Koreans. 2 out of 3 on that list. OH. I KNOW WHAT IT IS. THEY /UNDERSTAND/. THEY GET IT. THEY HAVEN’T BEEN DESENSITIZED. THAT THEY HAVE A DEEPER SPIRITUAL CONNECTION BECAUSE THEY ARE A SO-CALLED ‘SUPERSTITIOUS’ SOCIETY. THEY STILL BELIEVE IN SUPERSTITION.WHICH MEANS THEY STILL BELIEVE IN THE SUPERNATURAL.
WHICH IS WHY THEY UNDERSTAND ELEMENTS LIKE THAT. THEY GET IT.
In ways that A LOT of westerners do NOT. Oh, some do. They definitely do.
But not as many.
At this point, I told her the conversation was so interesting, I wanted to post it verbatim on my blog, and she readily agreed. So here you have it – a somewhat typical conversation between Arielle and myself, about all and sundry. Maybe this gives you some interesting thoughts to think, or maybe you’ll just find it entertaining to read – either way, there you have it.
[At any rate, I have a lot of writing fodder.]