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October 28th, 2021

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No, the Devil can't make you do it

Rabbi Yonason Goldson

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

Published Feb. 24, 2016

No, the Devil can't make you do it

Hey, mom. Post-partum depression got you down? Thinking of leaving your husband? Don't fight it; just let him go. After all, it's not your fault.

It's your hormones. That's the latest from the world of science. According to psychologist Jennifer Bartz of McGill University, researchers have identified a link between new parents divorcing and low levels of oxytocin.

At moments of heightened stress, the pituitary gland produces oxytocin, often referred to as the "cuddle hormone." By doing so, the brain fine-tunes its own neural instinct for social interaction in order to compensate for our natural "fight or flight" response. As oxytocin floods into our systems, it increases our motivation to look for support from friends and allies, simultaneously offsetting the combat instinct produced by increased levels of adrenaline and thereby reducing our inclination to lash out in anger.

But what if the body doesn't produce a normal amount of oxytocin? Research suggests a direct correlation between maternal oxytocin levels and the likelihood that couples will stay married after the birth of their first child.

It's not hard to imagine why the two should be related. Maybe a stronger oxytocin-induced bond between mother and child spills over into the relationship between husband and wife. Maybe the hormone impels an overstressed mother to reach out for help rather than becoming withdrawn or aggressive. Or maybe a low oxytocin level is a symptom, rather than a cause, of a weak support system.

CELEBRATING HELPLESSNESS

But whatever the explanation, there seems to be a familiar eagerness by researchers to impose a chemical, as opposed to a psychological, explanation upon human behavior. Scientists often appear to prefer a model that links our choices to biological and evolutionary causes, further disassociating human decision-making from that most obvious explanation -- free will.

The appetite for blaming our fortunes on external forces is a powerful one. We can absolve ourselves of accountability for all that is wrong and exempt ourselves from responsibility for safeguarding whatever is right.

Back in the early 1970s, comedian Flip Wilson's catchphrase, "the devil made me do it," became one of the most enduring sound-bites of the decade. In 2004, former president Bill Clinton penned a memoir in which he dissimulated his life of disloyalty and misogyny as a heroic battle to banish his "private demons." And now, science increasingly provides each and every one of us with a slew of chemical, genetic, and environmental reasons why "it isn't our fault."

Doubtless, many find it liberating to blame our shortcomings and indiscretions on external factors beyond our control. We might even be able to identify a talmudic source to support the proposition: Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish famously taught that no person would ever commit any improper act unless he were overtaken by a "spirit of insanity."

WHO'S IN HIS RIGHT MIND?

However, even though temporary insanity might be a genuine defense in a tiny number of cases, every misdeed cannot be excused by mental illness any more than every act of robbery can be explained away as kleptomania. Aside from those rare examples of true incapacity, we are all ultimately in control of, and therefore responsible for, our own actions.

So what does Rabbi Shimon mean? Essentially, he is telling us that we live in a deceptive world, one in which good and evil, right and wrong, sin and virtue are easily conflated by the superficial values of human society and the self-deceptive nature of human psychology. It's easy to fool ourselves when so many others are indulging foolishness, and it's hard not to fool ourselves when so many others are willing to let us get away with it.

But willful delusion is even crazier that involuntary delusion. Indeed, choosing insanity does not exempt one from responsibility; it makes him more responsible than ever.

How many of us allow the surrounding culture to convince us that we need designer clothes and a fancier car, that we need the newest iPhone and the biggest flat-screen TV, that we need to eat at the fanciest restaurant and vacation at the poshest hotel? How many of us willingly believe the obvious lies of the candidate who promises to cure all our ills by stealing from Peter to pay Paul? And once we do, then we are only a step away from convincing ourselves that we have to cheat on our taxes, have to neglect our children, have to give up on our spouses, and are just doing what's normal by blurring every line between virtue and vice, between good and evil.

In truth, hormones are the least of our problems.

As a matter of fact, the role played by hormones may actually depend on our actions and our attitudes. According to health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, when we respond to oxytocin by making the effort to connect with others, the stress-produced hormone becomes the built-in mechanism for stress relief. How the hormone affects us depends primarily on how we respond as the hormone enters our system.

But there's even more. A University of Wisconsin study concluded that stress is most dangerous to people who believe that stress is bad for them. But people who recognize the benefits of stress-induced oxytocin are generally healthier than people who experience even less stress than they do.

As insane as it may sound, the belief that stress is bad is the 15th highest cause of death in America, above skin cancer, AIDS, and homicide. And just as the way you look at yourself and the world you live in can add years to your life, it can also add immeasurably to the quality of your life, each and every day that you live.

In other words, we can actually think ourselves into longer, healthier, happier, and morally better lives.

So who's insane now?

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Rabbi Yonason Goldson, a talmudic scholar and former hitchhiker, circumnavigator, and newspaper columnist, lives with his wife in St. Louis, Missouri, where he teaches, writes, and lectures. His new book Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages is available on Amazon.

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