Neuroscientist James Fallon was (interestingly!) studying the brains of murderous psychopaths, using brain scans of his family as a control group of the healthy. He suddenly noticed the unmistakable brain scan of a psychopath among his family’s scans. Puzzled, certain it has been misfiled, he has the technician break the code. The brain of the psychopath? It was his own.
I found that I happened to have a series of genetic alleles, “warrior genes,” that had to do with serotonin and were thought to be at risk for aggression, violence, and low emotional and interpersonal empathy, Fallon writes.
Can someone whose brain chemistry predisposes them to aggression and low empathy ever change? Fallon decides to try.
“For myself, I decided to try to treat my wife and other loved ones with more care. Each time I’m about to interact with them, I pause for a moment and asked “what would a good person do here?” My wife started noticing this and after two months said “what has come over you?” When I told her that I was trying against all odds, overcome my psychopathy, she said she appreciated the effort even though I was not sincere…
Even though my wife, my sister, and my mother have always been close to me, I don’t treat them all that well. They said, “I give you everything. I give you all this love and you really don’t give it back.” They all said it, and that sure bothered me. So I wanted to see if I could change. I don’t believe it, but I’m going to try.
In order to do that, every time I started to do something, I had to think about it, look at it, and go: No. Don’t do the selfish thing or the self-serving thing. Step-by-step, that’s what I’ve been doing for about a year and a half and they all like it. Their basic response is: We know you don’t really mean it, but we still like it.
I told them, “You’ve got to be kidding me. You accept this? It’s phony!” And they said, “No, it’s okay. If you treat people better it means you care enough to try.”
What Fallon is doing is behaving like a Christian, playing the game of “Let’s Pretend,” which C. S. Lewis says is essential to developing the character of Jesus.
* * *
I was mentored by a Christian who taught himself to love. He writes about it in Love Walked Among Us.
I enjoy being cheap. The amount of money is not crucial—it just feels good to save. I am the same with efficiency. I’ve caught myself spending ten minutes figuring out how to do something more efficiently when the task only takes five minutes.
Paul watched his daughter Ashley play hard; she asked for a Coke at half-time. His reaction was “to point her to the free iced water for players. Cheap and efficient.
“But then I put myself in Ashley’s shoes,” he continues. “She’s tired. She’s played a hard game, and she wants a soda, not a glass of water. I could do that. I have money in my pocket. I could spend that money.” I even stuck a hand in my pocket and felt my change. “I could walk over to the soda machine several hundred yards away and get a soda for Ashley. Paul, this won’t kill you.” This is truly what went through my mind. I envisoned how Ashley’s face would brighten when I handed her the soda.”
* * *
I find this helpful, this left-brain figuring out how to be kind and thoughtful. If I have said something biting, or am planning to say it, it helps me to ask myself how I would feel if that were said to me. If I am annoyed with someone, I try to imaginatively enter their world, and then, usually, I instantly have more empathy.
The core of following Christ, of being a Christian, is love—love for God, Father, Jesus and Spirit; love for our fellow humans.
And yet, unfairly, love is more difficult for some than for others. I am naturally friendly, warm, empathetic and affectionate, for warm relationships come easily to me. Agape love, on the other hand, does not come easily to me. Does it come easily to anyone? I don’t know.
Someone wrapped in love from childhood, with loving parents, supportive teachers, good friends, and a sunny temperament finds being kind and loving easier. Those who have experienced trauma in their nuclear family, at school, in marriage—for them, behaving like a follower of Christ is more difficult.
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In a brilliant chapter, “Nice People or New Men,” in Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes,
“If you have sound nerves and intelligence and health and popularity and a good upbringing, you are likely to be quite satisfied with your character as it is. A certain level of good conduct comes fairly easily to you. You are not one of those wretched creatures who are always being tripped up by sex, or dipsomania, or nervousness, or bad temper. Everyone says you are a nice chap and (between ourselves) you agree with them.
It is very different for the nasty people, the little, low, timid, warped, thin-blooded, lonely people, or the passionate, sensual, unbalanced people. If they make any attempt at goodness at all, they learn, in double quick time, that they need help. It is Christ or nothing for them.
But if you are a poor creature, poisoned by a wretched upbringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels, saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion, nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends, do not despair.
He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you can. One day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps far sooner than that) he will fling it on the scrap-heap and give you a new one. And then you may astonish us all, not least yourself: for you have learned your driving in a hard school. (Some of the last will be first and some of the first will be last.)
It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature. Of course, once it has got its wings, it will soar over fences which could never have been jumped and thus beat the natural horse at its own game. But there may be a period, while the wings are just beginning to grow, when it cannot do so: and at that stage the lumps on the shoulders, no one could tell by looking at them that they are going to be wings may even give it an awkward appearance.
* * *
Some battles are fought where no banners are flying, They are fought within.
When I was 17, I wanted to join Mother Teresa and become a nun. Not surprisingly, I struggled with the many and varied rules; in its minute control, the convent was a bit like a cult.
And so, each day, I failed, and when I did, I tearfully identified with this Jim Reeves song,
“The chimes of time ring out the news,
Another day is through.
Someone slipped and fell
Was that someone you?
Perhaps you longed for added strength
Your courage to renew
Do not be disheartened
I have news for you.
It is no secret,
What God can do,
What he’s done for others,
He’ll do for you.”
* * *
We do change. After a year of increasing physical exercise, I am so much more energetic that I often barely recognise myself. So too, spiritually and with our characters… After gradual exposure to the sunshine of God’s love, and to the tonic of God’s word, for years, for decades, we do change so that we barely recognise ourselves.
For some relative virtue comes easily. Others fight for gentleness, kindness, and equanimity.
But God sees; he knows.
A caterpillar may look at a hummingbird and envy her flight. Flight may seem impossible to the caterpillar, but one day, one day, after the trauma, darkness, and near-death of the chrysalis, she too shall fly.
Keep looking at Jesus, you who find following him difficult, keep holding his hand as you walk upon the waters; one day, perhaps sooner than you think, he shall take you to the heights.
Books I’ve referred to
You’ll find my account of working with Mother Teresa in Wandering Between Two Worlds, available on Amazon.com
and on Amazon.co.uk