by Mark Gutman
Kenneth Parks lived in Toronto, Canada, with his wife and a five-month-old daughter. He had a “close” relationship with his in-laws, although he had marital problems. In the early hours of May 23, 1987, twenty-three-year-old Kenneth got out of bed and drove 14 miles to his in-laws’ home. He broke in, stabbed his mother-in-law to death, and tried to kill his father-in-law, who was able to fight him off. Then Parks drove to the police station and, looking at his bloody hands, told the police that he thought he had killed some people. He had to be rushed to a hospital to have an operation done on his tendons.
Obvious case of murder, right? The jury didn’t see it that way. They acquitted him on May 25, 1988. You’re kidding! Look up “homicidal sleepwalking” and you’ll find his case (among others) described. His EEG proved that Parks didn’t know what he was doing (although other evidence also helped the defense case). Sleepwalkers have a brain disorder that results in behavior that they do not consciously choose.
Sleepwalking is just one of many types of brain disorder. The mass killing at a Connecticut school in December brought the subject of brain disorder into public focus again – briefly. That killer and the killers in an Aurora theater and a Columbine school and Virginia Tech all apparently had some kind of brain disorder. In other words, their brains had some kind of abnormal activity going on that doesn’t occur in the brains or normal people.
After the Newtown tragedy I was struck by the number of comments online fuming about psychiatric drugs. While it seems that some people are indeed taking such drugs unnecessarily, many comments revealed an ignorance of the need for psychiatric drugs. The complaints that people are using such drugs without needing them overlook the fact that society is better off because numerous people use such medication to control a brain disorder. One of our well-known Adventist evangelists was attacked by his son when the son’s psychiatric medication was being changed because of an illness. Another evangelist took his own life apparently because of refusing to take such medication that was needed.
Millions of people suffer from brain disorders that could be helped with information and, usually, medication. Folks with autism, Aspergers syndrome, ADHD, and bipolar disorder all have a harder time just carrying out everyday activities than folks who have no such disorders. Their brains don’t work properly. Problems with neurotransmitters keep countless human beings from thinking and acting efficiently or appropriately in certain ways, costing the beleaguered sufferers friends, jobs, and money. Many of them who are undiagnosed could describe their condition by using Paul’s words in Romans 7:15: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (NRSV). They are often relieved to have their problem diagnosed and learn how to deal with it. Before their diagnosis, though, they feel not only their own frustration with themselves but realize that others are bewildered because they seem to get in their own way.
People rightly dislike some behavior of people with brain disorders. Negative sanctions often drive people to find help. Casting about for a problem they seem powerless to deal with, brain disordered people often find diagnosis and treatment. But would we feel more sympathy for someone with a disorder if we knew that she had the disorder? We don’t expect children to act like adults; we don’t expect normal adult behavior from people who have an IQ of 60. But sometimes we are unknowingly dealing with people who struggle, often unknowingly, with a brain problem. Do we have to find out that they have a brain disorder before we can give them a break?
“Every association of life calls for the exercise of self-control, forbearance, and sympathy. We differ so widely in disposition, habits, education, that our ways of looking at things vary. We judge differently. . . . The trials of one are not the trials of another. The duties that one finds light are to another most difficult and perplexing.” The Ministry of Healing, p. 483.
How about if we lighten up on some of our judgments of other people? We don’t have to put up with bad behavior, but we can try to remember that we have no idea what is going on in the brains of people whose actions we despise. We need to show them the same sympathy that we want from others when we misbehave.
Albert Ellis emphasizes that you’ll be happier if you learn to accept imperfect people, both yourself and others, because everyone is imperfect: “It is almost certain that all people are fallible and that, among humans, infallibility and always acting well – not to mention perfectly well – do not seem to exist. Therefore, it is quite understandable that you and the people you encounter will frequently act poorly and make a good many mistakes and errors – even when they know the right thing to do and make an honest effort to do it.” Feeling Better, Getting Better, Staying Better, p. 201. Now add some disabled neurotransmitters to Ellis’s description, and you have a person doing even worse, who needs our sympathy even more.
I may think you are ignorant, rebellious, mean, or lazy, but I need to keep in mind that you may not be able to help the way you’re acting. Even if I think I need to help change your behavior or way of thinking, I can be kind, assuring you of my friendship or support, remembering that you just might have an untreated brain disorder that is beyond your ability to cope with right now. While I may not like your actions, I can be more sympathetic when I assume your motives are as praiseworthy as mine. If I give you as much time to explain your actions as I use to defend mine, I’ll discover that you’re not as off base as I thought.
In a book about compassion, Karen Armstrong talks about our limited understanding: “All too often people impose their own experience and beliefs on acquaintances and events, making hurtful, inaccurate, and dismissive snap judgments, not only about individuals but about whole cultures. It often becomes clear, when questioned more closely, that their actual knowledge of the topic under discussion could comfortably be contained on a small postcard.” (Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, p. 117)
It’s hard to feel sympathetic for a mass shooter, or even for a Kenneth Parks, especially when we think of their victims and the pain that will be felt by so many for years. But if we show more sympathy and support for the struggling people we are dealing with, we may reduce the pain and anger that lead such people to extreme acts. They may or may not have recognized brain disorders, but they still need the same compassion we crave, even if we never learn reasons for their dislikable behavior. “Be gentle with one another, sensitive. Forgive one another quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32, Message).