The Bitter, the Sweet, and the Challenge

by Steven Dunn
Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear one more friend
waking with a tumor, one more maniac
with a perfect reason, often a sweetness has come
and changed nothing in the world
except the way I stumbled through it, for a while lost
in the ignorance of loving
someone or something, the world shrunk to mouth-size,
hand-size, and never seeming small.
I acknowledge there is no sweetness that doesn’t leave a stain,
no sweetness that’s ever sufficiently sweet ....
Tonight a friend called to say his lover was killed in a car
he was driving. His voice was low
and guttural, he repeated what he needed to repeat, and I repeated
the one or two words we have for such grief
until we were speaking only in tones. Often a sweetness comes
as if on loan, stays just long enough
to make sense of what it means to be alive, then returns to its dark
source. As for me, I don’t care
where it’s been, or what bitter road it’s traveled
to come so far, to taste so good.
Sometimes evil is sweet like sugar. Sometimes it is bitter – like the history of the development of the sugar industry.

If you’ve been following a certain TV show called “Breaking Bad,” then you, too, have been thinking about the nature of evil, as represented by the character Walter White, the high school chemistry teacher who used his expertise to go into the business of concocting methamphetamine. It’s a “Mr. Chips becomes Scarface” story. Through the five seasons and 62 episodes of the show, we saw Walter slide further and further into evil: lying, manipulating, and murdering his way to wealth in the illegal drug business. We repeatedly saw Walt justify his actions as being “for the family.” At the end, it all came tumbling down around him.

In the final episode, Walter, after hiding out in seclusion in a New Hampshire cabin for a few months reflecting on what he’d done, has his last meeting with his estranged wife. Walt at last acknowledges, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really -- I was alive."

Ah, the sweetness of doing what we’re good at, and what brings us alive. Ah, the bitterness of disconnection, for no one else matters to Walt.

For those who aren’t sociopathic, bitterness and sweetness intertwine the same, yet different. The capacity to love, to care about others, brings such pain. And somehow, also, opens a door through which comes a holy sweetness.

And for those who are . . .

* * *

In addition to the genetic primary sociopaths, there is another group of people, the secondary sociopaths, whose genes don't them sociopathic but do make them vulnerable to sociopathy. Whether they become sociopathic or not depends on their environment. Environmental cues and risk factors can, in effect, increase the carrying capacity of the 'cheater' niche. When that niche grows, some who might have, in a different environment, learned empathy, instead become into sociopathic ‘phenocopies’ or ‘mimics.’

Secondary sociopaths call for a different approach from primary sociopaths. Addressing primary sociopathy calls for finding appropriate jobs and increasing the risk of illegal activities. Addressing secondary sociopathy calls for reducing the carrying capacity of the “cheater” niche. For secondary sociopaths:
“The appropriate social response is to implement programs which reduce social stratification, anonymity, and competition, intervene in high-risk settings with specialized parent education and support; and increase the availability of rewarding, prosocial opportunities for at-risk youth.” (Linda Mealey)
In other words, we need justice, we need community, we need cooperation-fostering frameworks, we need education, and fair opportunity. That’s how to reduce the carrying capacity for those sociopathic phenocopies.

We are not helpless before some deeply paradoxical mystery called “the problem of evil.” There are good evolutionary reasons that our genome produces a small percentage of us born without the capacity for empathy, more attracted to excitement and less attracted to usual rewards. Finding a productive place for them is a solvable problem.

There are social reasons why a few others slip into sociopathic strategies. When an environment offers a lot of people extensive training in not caring about others, sometimes that training is going to take. Building a society of justice, fair opportunity, and cooperative accountability is also a solvable problem.

I don’t believe there is a “problem of evil” in the traditional sense of a logical conundrum. What there is, is a “challenge of evil.” That challenge can be met.

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Evil & Sociopathy"
Previous: Part 3: "Carrying Capacity for Walter White"
Beginning: Part 1: "'Evil' = Thought Stopper"

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