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Marionettes of helplessness

Decisions that lead to scoundrelism come in no dramatic colors

Issue: "Crossing borders," June 23, 2007

In 1961, when astronaut Gus Grissom tried to avoid responsibility for losing his spacecraft, he said "the hatch just blew." Or so Tom Wolfe reports in The Right Stuff (1979), which four years later became a great movie.

That was an unusual statement 46 years ago, but now we regularly see folks avoiding responsibility, saying, "mistakes were made." For example, Virginia Tech killer Cho Seung-Hui just blew. It wasn't really his responsibility. He was "troubled." He "had issues." Maybe it was President Bush's fault, as Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) charged.

It seems that no one had the responsibility to help a young man who had written hyper-violent plays and poems, been declared mentally ill by a judge, set a fire in his room, and so on. Soon after the multiple murders, the head of Virginia Tech's campus counseling center held a press conference and suggested the problem was inadequate "funding for mental health services in the United States."

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I mention all this not to bring back nightmares but to contexualize the important observations British psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple makes in Life at the Bottom. That book was 49,631st on Amazon's sales list last time I looked but should be at the top of the reading list for all who hope to minister to many among the imprisoned and the "underclass" generally.

Dalrymple writes, "Listening as I do every day to the accounts people give of their lives, I am struck by the very small part in them which they ascribe to their own efforts, choices, and actions. . . . They describe themselves as marionettes of helplessness."

He gives examples. One killer said of the murder he committed, "the knife went in," as if he had nothing to do with it. A thief who broke into churches, stole their silver objects, and then burned them down to destroy the evidence, said the problem was that churches had poor security and valuable objects: The combination was impossible to resist. Another troubled person said, "My head needs sorting out."

Members of the underclass frequently plead the innocence of inevitability, but so do those in the upper class. When C.S. Lewis spoke in 1944 to university students who were on the way to becoming England's leaders, he said, "To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colors. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear."

Lewis noted that the invitation to do wrong would come in a way hard to turn down-"over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still-just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig-the hint will come."

The slide at that point seems greased: "you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world." Lewis, describing this desire to be in the "Inner Ring," emphasized, "Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things."

That first decision may lead to others: "If you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel." And yet, the scoundrel looking back rarely remembers choosing: His life just blew. Enron just happened.

What's the antidote? The answer to the famous Westminster Catechism question about our chief purpose in life provides it: "To glorify God and enjoy Him forever." Follow those active verbs-glorify, enjoy-and passivity vanishes. Believe that, and the glory of the Inner Ring disappears.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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