Old Well: UNC Chapel Hill Campus

Friday, June 24, 2011

Sociopaths among us

All murders are awful acts, but the multiple murders that took place in a Medford, NY pharmacy on Father’s Day are especially gruesome. As Suffolk police commissioner Richard Dormer put it, “This is one of the most heinous, brutal crimes we have ever encountered.” As I write, the alleged perpetrator is in police custody.

In reading about the case, I find myself rummaging into memory of my reading and actual experiences in dealing with the sociopath personality. Is David Laffer a sociopath?

In psychology, sociopaths are said to suffer from an anti-social personality disorder. In layman’s terms, we think of them as devoid of conscience. What’s scary is how many of them there are, roughly 4% of the population, or 1 of every 25 people. Making matters worse, they’re very difficult to identify.

They’re difficult to detect because they can be so charming. Laffer’s neighbors are simply dumbfounded. He seemed so friendly and kind. I was a social worker for three years, working with troubled youth. To this day, I remember two of my boys, Billy and Glenn, especially well. Billy, age 12, had this really cute mug I don’t think any mother could resist. You just had to like him, though you couldn’t ever turn your back without his getting into new mischief. He could lie like water from an open hydrant.

Glenn, age 17, was this tall, lean kid, strikingly handsome with his blue eyes and blond hair sloping down to his shoulders. Again, what a charmer! He just happened to set a school on fire back in Minneapolis.

Since they’re so numerous, chances are you’ve met some along the way. I suspect they gravitate to certain professions like sales, politics,and investments. History is replete with sociopaths at the top of the power pyramid, exploiting and killing, such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.

You hear a lot about schizophrenia and yet there are four times the number of sociopaths as there are schizophrenics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

You’ve heard more than once about anorexia, but again there are more sociopaths than anorexics.

Did you know that there are 100 times more sociopaths than people diagnosed with colon cancer?

It’s a mistake to think these people don’t know the difference between right and wrong. They do, but it doesn’t motivate them.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV, those characterized by three of the following should be considered as manifesting an anti-social personality disorder:

1.  failure to conform to social norms 
2.  deceitfulness, manipulativeness
3.  impulsivity
4.  failure to plan ahead 
5.  irritability
6.  aggressiveness, reckless disregard for the safety of self or others
7.  consistent irresponsibility
8.  lack of remorse after having hurt, mistreated or stolen from another.

I think it’s still hard, even for professionals, to decipher the true sociopath, but I’m betting Laffer fits the mold. As Dr. Martha Stout tells us in her excellent The Sociopath Next Door, “Whether the victim be a frog or a person, sociopaths can kill without experiencing anguish.”

I think of last Sunday morning, Father’s Day, four lives snuffed out, wantonly, brutally.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Coming Ice Age?


You may have seen talk in the media of what’s happening these days with our sun, that solar orb we take for granted, thanks to its regularity. And yet even the sun can prove volatile and like all suns, will ultimately flame out long after you and I  have passed into molecules. 

Things are happening these days with our sun.  Solar wind is the slowest in 50 years and sunspot activity is very passive.  Magnetic fields that cause sunspots have been weakening for some time, while winds that are usually found beneath the sun’s visible surface are currently eluding our detection.  Climate scientists say the sun is going into mini-hibernation. 

All of this ignites speculation and fuels the debate between those who argue global warming and those who dismiss it as simply just another cycle.  The opponents of global warming argue that the sun’s present passivity means that instead of earth heating-up, it will be cooling down, a convenient fix to say the least. 

Scientists at the National Space Observatory (NSO) tell us that these changes in the sun could impact the earth, perhaps ushering in a “Grand Minimum,” or more conversationally, a Little Ice Age”: a “70-year period with virtually no sunspots [which occurred] during 1645-1715”  ( http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2011/06/a_mini-ice_age_on_the_way.html). 

According to NASA, that period featured frozen rivers normally ice free and snow fields year-round at lower attitudes (American Thinker). Is another Little Ice Age our looming destiny?

Not so!  Climate scientists, not astronomers and NASA, are the experts we should rely upon for our conclusions, and many of them believe that a mini-hibernation of the sun, while it may produce a “grand minimum,” cannot appreciably cool the earth to offset the present global warming.  In fact, they’ve conducted simulations to project what would happen if  a “grand minimum” started now and lasted until 2100, or thirty years longer than the Little Ice Age of 1645-1715.  At most, the earth would cool only by 0.3 celsius. 

To offset  global warming trends,  the effects of “grand minimum” would need to be at least 10 times greater than what the simulations suggest as the possible maximum consequence to overcome the effects of climate change.  Present projections have it that emission of greenhouse gases will ultimately cause global temperatures to increase anywhere from 2 to 4.5 degrees (http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/06/solar-minimum-climate/).  

Alas, despite some who make sport of global warming as a cantankerous “sky is falling” syndrome, arguing for a cooling earth as our ultimate scenario, if any at all, global warming is a sobering fact; more specifically, our exponential increase in greenhouse gases poses a lethal risk to our survival and that of our fellow creatures.  We ignore this truth at our peril. (See my earlier post,  February 3, 2011, on global warming’s insidious threat.)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Truth, Beauty, Goodness


It’s been said more than once that human beings are governed by three key motivators:  money, power, and sex.   Certainly we don’t have far to look for confirmation, the media chock full of daily tidbits and then there is our own recall of people who have failed us and, more humbly, the strength of these tempters in our own lives.  I am reminded of the biblical injunction, “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.”

But fortunately, this isn’t the whole story.  The vast majority of us have a capacity for thinking and doing the right things.  The other day, I read of a man finding $40,000 and turning it in;  a few months earlier, of a man who donated his kidney to a complete stranger.  I’m sure you have your own stories to tell.  One thing I always marvel at is the abundance of altruism unveiling itself in every disaster such as the recent tornado in Joplin, with stories of individual heroism, sacrifice, and mutual caring.  When we listen to the news, we rarely glimpse this positive dimension, the news feeding on the aberration, ultimately distorting our perspective as to the norm.

If there does exist a diabolic trinity for wrongdoing and, yes, downright evil, I would counter there also exists a trinity of salient potential in human beings for truth, beauty, and goodness, those classical verities of what make for an ordered civilization and happy living.

By truth, I mean our quest for the meaningful life, or as Tolstoy would have it, “For what should I live?”  I write in Aristotelian mode, holding that truth is learned rather than innate, the aggregate of empirical witness via observation and correlated experiences.  Truth, however, is more elusive than ever in our contemporary era, given the shrinking of temporal and spatial boundaries in the Information Age,  digital driven, with a resulting conundrum of universals washed away by a tsunami of alternatives.  Abetting ambiguity, is the rise of Post Modernism with its relegation of certainty to the landfill of relativism, truth simply personal perspective.  Me, I think what matters is that we are engaged in trying to find truth, at least for ourselves, truth not subject to our personal whims, truth validated by thorough, unbiased research, truth ready to be shed should we find tomorrow we believed yesterday’s falsehood. As the poet Browning put it,  “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for.”

By beauty, I mean not simply what excites because it’s “pretty” or makes me happy.  That’s  Hollywood stuff.  I mean something in the classical sense possessing wholeness, proportion, and the insightful.  Beauty is related to truth.  A sad story, a tragedy if you will, can still transcend pathos when it depicts life wholly, or with verisimilitude, free of sentiment and need for closure.  If I leave off a book somehow made wiser, then I have found beauty.  Keats had it right when he wrote at the end of his “Ode on a Grecian Urn,”  “Beauty is truth, truth beauty--that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” 

By goodness,  I mean something akin to what the Greeks called ethos, which I equate with integrity--the giving of one’s highest measure, a workman never ashamed.  Of the trio of classical virtues, this is the most neighborly, the one  most consequential  for the social, or interpersonal, since it implies our responsibility to be mindful of others.  It’s the glue holding society together.  As the term suggests,  it’s the virtue embracing the ethical.  Whatever I do when no one’s looking, or in anonymity, I test my ethos, or caring and social responsibility.  I still stop at the stop sign, even though no one’s there.  I still pay my taxes and do so honestly. I do not cheat in the class or on the time clock at work.  I do not forego fidelity to my spouse or betray a friend.  I think of the chaos of a world where each of us played by our own rules.

The Greeks had a marvelous word for the coalescence of these virtues:  arete, or wholeness.  Together they provide balance, the secret to the elusive happy life.