Many religious folks condemn sin with great bravado, proclaiming that "right" living is simply a matter of doing what God wants instead of what we want. They also usually insist that everyone sins, that everyone departs from the standard of behavior God wants. If you ask them why everyone sins, typically they reply confidently that sin is caused by Satan, or the alleged depravity of human nature, or something else like that.
Do these folks really know what they're talking about? I'm not persuaded. Our understanding of the causes of human behavior barely begins to scratch the surface. We're fairly confident that our brains govern our behavior, somehow. We have some empirical methods of modifying behavior. But we don't really "get" what goes on in people's brains to make people do what they do.
In today's Wall Street Journal, (subscription required), we're reminded that even a good man, who led what seems to have been an exemplary life, can be catastrophically betrayed by his brain, driving him to what some call the ultimate sin of suicide. Here's an excerpt (paragraphing edited):
... Mr. Zankel told [Sanford Weill, a close friend] he was losing a long battle with depression -- a "blackness," he said, that was consuming him. For weeks, Mr. Zankel, 73 years old, had hid at home while fabricating trips and excuses to avoid business and social contacts, according to his wife. Even scheduling and showing up at the lunch had been a struggle. "Nothing is working," Mr. Zankel said, distraught that medication, counseling, exercise and specialists hadn't helped lift his depression.
A self-made man who had amassed a vast fortune, Mr. Zankel was losing hope that he could be helped, recalls Mr. Weill. After lunch, Mr. Weill, the major donor to New York's Weill Medical College of Cornell University, lined up top psychiatrists and physicians to try to save his friend.
But time ran out. Six weeks later, Mr. Zankel jumped to his death from the ninth floor of his Manhattan apartment building. A tearful Mr. Weill gave the eulogy at a packed memorial service attended by many of the nation's corporate leaders.
Advancements in the treatment of depression have helped millions and saved many lives. The disease, in its various forms, affects about 19 million Americans each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. But there are still cases that can't be cured, even for accomplished people who have access to all kinds of care and the strong support of a close-knit family. As he struggled sporadically with depression for 50 years, Mr. Zankel tried everything from hospitalization to hobbies to antidepressant drug combinations, but ultimately couldn't beat the disease.
During his career, Mr. Zankel .... donated millions to charities, including New York's Carnegie Hall, which named a new venue after him in 2003. Though he hobnobbed with Wall Street titans, one son recalled at his funeral that Mr. Zankel also helped put a young man who shined his shoes through college and paid off a mortgage for his secretary.
He experienced depression initially in 1954, beginning a pattern of severe bouts of the disease, with long breaks in between, says his brother, Martin. Having risen from modest Brooklyn roots, Mr. Zankel was a successful student at Harvard Business School. Suddenly, he couldn't concentrate on his studies and felt oddly out of sorts. Martin remembers Arthur calling him at the time: "I'm panicking," he said.
Link: After Long Battle, A Wall Street Star Loses to Depression, by Monica Langley, WSJ, Tues., Jan. 17, 2006, p. 1.
In case we need any more recent reminders, don't forget the awful story of Andrea Yates. In another case of a brain hideously betraying its owner, Mrs. Yates, a schizophrenic suffering from post-partum depression, drowned her five young children during a psychotic episode, in the hope of saving them from the fires of hell.
"Hate the sin but love the sinner" is a good start. But understanding the sin — and its causes — would be even better, especially if we're going to piously proclaim that we know how God supposedly wants us to live.