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Cognitive schemes

Faith & Inspiration | We know—or think we know—what we’re doing when we take up self-destructive behavior

“Man is the only creature capable of self-destruction, and only man decides in full consciousness to do what is bad, even fatal for him” (Theodore Dalrymple, Romancing Opiates).

As I write, the cause of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s sudden death is “inconclusive,” but heroin addiction likely played a part. The police found bags of the stuff in his apartment, as well as needles new and used, and if opiate poisoning was not the immediate killer, no one seems to doubt that Hoffman would be alive today if it weren’t for a certain white powder.

It’s a particularly ugly addiction. TV dramas and magazine articles of the late 1960s detailed its horrors, especially of withdrawal—a cure almost worse than the disease. Bad press might have made enough of an impression to drive the problem into the hinterlands, to fringe populations dramatized in movies like Trainspotting (which certainly didn’t glamorize it). Drugs diversified, ranging from dope-styles of the rich and famous (cocaine) to scourge of the trailer park (meth); never pretty, but not quite as rock-bottom as heroin. Hoffman, an actor of great finesse and sensitivity, is the last person we would associate with the shaky, emaciated loser freebasing in the bathroom. So there’s a lot of wondering why.

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Modern psychology has two answers, often combined: (1) addiction is a physiological disease, leading to (2) “cognitive dissonance,” or man’s odd propensity for acting in ways he knows are harmful. Anthony Daniels, a.k.a. Theodore Dalrymple, a doctor with experience in prisons and treatment centers, had treated hundreds of addicts before rejecting the disease hypothesis. In Romancing Opiates, he explains that heroin addiction is not easily acquired; it takes several experiences, all freely chosen. His patients never spoke of their habit as something they couldn’t control, unless they saw advantages in doing so. After going through withdrawal in prison (an unpleasant experience, but usually not the agony depicted on page and screen), they fattened up and regained a measure of health. And upon release from prison many returned to addiction, in spite of having been “cured,” because it was part of their culture, not their pathology.

A truly sick man couldn’t show up for work on time and turn in one celebrated performance after another, as Hoffman did. So why would an intelligent, consummate professional choose to acquire such a low-class habit?

That’s where cognitive dissonance might answer, except that on closer examination it’s a meaningless phrase. It implies a separation of knowledge, will, and action, as if three gears could be disengaged and still turn. But action is always moved by will, and will by knowledge, however faulty or deceptive.

Jonathan Edwards may not have known any heroin addicts, but he knew plenty of drunks. In analyzing how an alcoholic could drink himself into oblivion time after time, Edwards insisted on the inseparable bond between the man’s knowledge and his will. There were, however, two kinds of knowledge, practical and theoretical. An addict operates on the former: when the glass is before him, he has a choice to drink or not drink. If he drinks, it’s because he has determined at that moment that drinking is good for (in Edwards’ terms, “agreeable to”) him. The damage it will do to his family, his occupation, his liver, is all theoretical. For the moment, he considers himself in some way exempt. Practically speaking (he reasons), the drink will do him good; so he drinks.

For all of us, such decisions link to previous decisions in a chain stretching back to toddlerhood, when we decided to break our toys or throw our dessert against the wall because it seemed agreeable. “God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes” (Ecclesiastes 7:29). We’re made with integrity, to decide and to act wisely; but something warped our decision-making will. As Eve was deceived, so are we; we reach for the forbidden fruit time and time again, thinking, Right now, it’s good for me. Our will may curl up and pretend to be sick, but sin, freely chosen, makes addicts of us all.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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