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Thursday, May 25, 2017

THE THIN LINE


There is a thin line between love and hate. In addition to being true, the phrase is also the name of a Martin Lawrence dark comedy which hit theaters in 1996 and earned a profit. Being lucrative is something Martin Lawrence seems no longer able to do. Join the club. The film's title was borrowed from a song of that name recorded in 1971 by the Persuaders. There's a little multi-media history for you. And some unintentional comedy. Watch the Pretenders perform and if you suppress more than a few giggles at the musicians' expense - their outfits, their facial hair, their Jheri curls and even the songs' lyrics are so much fodder for amusement- you will think twice before using your selfie stick or wearing your hipster jeans or that ridiculous mustache or getting that tribal tattoo, as all these fads will not only fade one day soon but will also make you look even more ridiculous in the eyes of posterity. 

Or maybe not. I still think the bell-bottoms my mother wore before I was born were cool, and on many a cold day I reach for my father's old leather jacket from the seventies. Vintage is always in. There are at least two ways of looking at every situation, which is finally the point I am trying to make. 

It has also been said that hate is misdirected love, which probably inspired the Shakespearean line that "all's fair in love and war." I was contemplating these truths when I read an article in this month's Atlantic magazine on child psychopathy. That's right. Mass-murderers in the making can now be identified in what used to be the sacrosanct period of life known as toddlerhood. Experts say that a child shows signs of anti-social behavior as early as age 3 or 4. The article features a girl given the pseudonym of Samantha, a foster child who at age 6 began drawing pictures of ways to kill people. She tried out her methods on stuffed animals, and went so far to choke out her two younger siblings before finally being committed to a treatment center, where she still lives nearly a lifetime later. When you're only 6, a lifetime isn't that long, and by 12 she hopes to return to her adopted family. The method of treatment explored by the article is to reward psychopaths, who it is estimated represent about 1 percent of the child population, meaning in a high school of 2000 people (like my alma mater) there are 20 kids who exhibit "callous and unemotional traits," or more if you include freaking to gangster rap, tagging and ... I really don't know what kids call fun these days - anyway the new treatment of choice is to reward budding psychos for good behavior rather than punish their delinquency. 

Leaving aside the root cause of psychopathic behavior - and researchers believe that both nature and nurture, or environment and heredity, play their parts, such children display a cool detachment in settings in which other kids might grow agitated, say for instance when watching another child cry. This reward-centered approach is based on the fact that "the best physiological indicator of which young people will become violent criminals as adults is a low resting heart rate," which reflects "lack of fear, and a lack of fear could predispose someone to committing fearless criminal-violence acts." An alternate hypothesis is there exists some "optimal level of physiological arousal," and psychopaths, who are constitutionally blase, seek wild and extraordinary stimuli to achieve a normal pulse and be like the rest of us. Unfortunately these stimuli sometimes involve cutting your pet's ear off or sticking pencils up your dog's butt. I speak from experience, though not my own. Indeed I once wrote an essay about my brother Justin, the perpetrator of the aforementioned pranks, and entitled it "Fearless." Fearless is as fearless does, God rest him.

Many can remember that scene from the movie Silence of the Lambs, in which the psychiatrist Dr. Frederick Chilton tells Clarice Starling that when Hannibal Lecter killed a woman his "pulse never got above 85, even when he ate her tongue." That's composure in the face of (another person's) adversity. Oddly enough, it is such equanimity that the sages of the East advise. To be unflappable. To regard every situation with the same calm detachment. One spiritual adept was asked to speak in front of an audience. As he approached the stage he noticed signs of nervousness - sweaty palms, dry mouth, elevated pulse - and promptly quit the auditorium, saying he was not fit to address the crowd, since doing so would reveal him (at least to himself) as a fraud. Presumably he retreated to some cave or secluded haunt and went back to meditating. And yet these child psychopaths, whether  because they grew up in poverty or were abused, or because they are wired to be foolhardy, possess the very trait that is otherwise only achievable through years of rigorous austerities and observation of the mind.

Viewing pathology in this light, it is natural to feel hope for the unfortunates of the world. I mean the depressives. In medical school I learned the mnemonic "SIG E CAPS" as a reminder for the symptoms of sadness. The phrase itself was taken from an old prescription for energy capsules (E CAPS) doctors used to give these patients. SIG is short for signetur which means "let it be labelled." The symptoms of depression are sleep changes, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, guilt, energy fluctuations, difficulty concentrating, appetite changes, psycho-motor retardation and suicidal thoughts. Many people experience some or all of these symptoms on a daily basis, and call it modern living. Strangely, the sages of India suffered the same, but they weren't suffering. Take a personal hero of mine. Ramana Maharshi was an Indian saint of the 19th century. Starting in adolescence, he spent years seated cross-legged with eyes closed, focusing his attention on absolute reality. During these years he didn't sleep or speak, lost interest in childish games and pursuits, hardly moved and almost never ate. His body was pelted with stones by village ruffians, bitten by vermin and ridden with festering pressure sores. It seemed suicidal, or at least bent on his own bodily destruction. To the untrained eye Maharshi was either depressed or out of his mind. Or one of the most perfect individuals the world has ever known.
It shows you that reality is how you perceive it. There is a thin line not just between love and hate and courage and cruelty but between all opposites. And so whether you are saint or sinner is finally up to you. Maybe rather than give young rowdies Pokemon stickers for attending class on time, researchers should harness these hoodlums and turn them into heroes. Psychopaths could be the saviors of humanity! It might make an entertaining film. I should call Mr. Lawrence and see if he's interested. Like Samantha's heart rate, both our careers could use a boost.

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