20 June 2011

On Sanity and Insanity

I think it is terribly easy to feel mentally unbalanced in this world and terribly difficult to feel sane. Adam Phillips’ book, Going Sane, among other things a history of sanity, suggests that though we have identified the descent into madness and written extensively about insanity, we have not theorized what it might mean to rise into sanity, nor quite define what it means to actually ‘become sane.’ Phillips attempts to define the ‘sane life’ and explore what it might mean to live sane.  And I think in part Phillips arrives at the idea that “Sanity involves learning to enjoy conflict, and giving up on all myths of harmony, consistency, and redemption.” In this sense, Walt Whitman is the epitome of sanity: “Do I contradict myself, well, I contradict myself!” And of course, Whitman accords me the same freedom. 
I think it is much more difficult in this world to become sane, and so I want here to consider for a brief, even superficial time what I mean when either I question or depend on my sanity. 
I don’t think I am talking about afflictions of mental illness that are often too painfully obvious, though sometimes I too flippantly refer to my disordered state as such. In reality, I think I am relatively stable and functioning. That is, I don’t know I am sane but I think so. I am astounded when things move smoothly though I appreciate the apparent frictionlessness of a situation. I am upset when I confront obstruction to a ready fulfillment of my desires, but I am not incapacitated by it. Furthermore, those about me seem to rely on my sanity, a condition that suggests to me that perhaps it really exists. Daily I go happily and even productively to my work, and though my efforts have not changed the world, the work has not been without influence. For the most part, I maintain a variety of social relations of greater and lesser intimacies, and I never hear voices telling me to do anything that might lead to anything but a victimless crime. Sometimes, I do hear a voice calling me to go forth from my native land and from my kindred and my father’s house and follow some desire, and sometimes I attend to the call. I do not ever know with any certainty what the effect might be on others of this call, though I have my hope in its efficacy, and I proceed nevertheless. Sometimes they trust me. But of course, by the definition above, sanity is the acceptance of the absence of certainty. I think I am sane; they think I am sane. And I suppose to be really sane is to experience pleasure in the uses of ambiguity, disharmony and the impossibility of redemption without succumbing to a debilitating insecurity. 
Abraham seems to experience no doubt following his call: why, I wonder? As soon as he hears the call, he sets out, though how he knew whence came the call the Torah does not explain. Oh, the text does say God told Abram (his name before God changed it) to leave home, but how Abram knew the word came from God I am not certain. If Abraham experiences insecurity and doubt he does not voice it. But I wonder how could he not have suffered any doubt, even if it was God to whom he speaks. A story is told: Olé is out hiking when he slips and falls into a deep crevice. As he slides down to certain death he manages to grab onto a thick root branch that juts out from the rock and he breaks his precipitous descent. But after several minutes Ole’s strength weakens, and his grip begins to slips, and he knows he is without hope. Suddenly, a thunderous voice calls out, “Olé, this is the Lord. Let go of the branch, Olé; I will save you.” Ole looks down once more, and then turns his head from side to side. Finally he looks upwards and calls out, “Is there anybody else up there?” 
The voice Abraham hears is ascribed to God, but sometimes I think the call actually came from within Abraham, and was the expression of Abraham’s Desire. The call was to go to a land that God would show him, but in fact, the location of that land is not part of the text, though Abraham does leave Haran and ended up in Canaan. But when exactly did God tell Abraham to where he was headed, and why did he never express any doubt about the destination? I know that the Rabbis say that this indicates Abraham’s complete faith in God, but not a little while later Abraham tries to pass his wife off as his sister so that he would not be killed by the lascivious king who lusted after Sarai. Why didn’t Abraham trust unquestioningly in God in that instance? And didn’t anybody in Abraham’s retinue object to his command to pack and to head out they knew not where? After all, Abraham did not leave alone: when he left Haran he took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth Abram had amassed. With him he took the persons that they had acquired there, and they set out for the land of Canaan. How did he know it was there that God told him to go? The Rabbis tell us that these persons are those who Abraham converted to the idea of the single God, but the Rabbis really don’t know this for certain. Their interpretation is ex post facto, and the facto is required by the faith. Abraham is sane because he lives with his doubts and continues to act on his desire. 
How do we ever know that we do (are doing) is the right thing. And I am struck by the simplicity of the answer: we never do know with certainty. Because we do not live in isolation, every act of ours must produce ripples that disturb the waters in which others swim, but we do not really ever know the effects of our actions, or even if there has been any effect. Even as I write those words I hear the cliché: the flutter of a butterfly’s wing in Wisconsin causes a typhoon in India. But there is no certainty of this truth really; the cliché itself rests on the bedrock of a philosophy that supposes causation. For the most part, causation in this world is very difficult to assign. Within very specific limits I can arbitrarily assign an effect to a cause: when Leopold Bloom hits his head on the crossbeam in his house he experiences pain; the mishap produces pain. But is the headache he subsequently suffers the result of the accident or the difficulties of his day? How did the accident influence his decision to approach the sleeping Molly? Nobody knows, but I can for my ease assign cause. Finally, however, I don’t know; I may be wholly wrong. 
Thus, to assert certainty and to try to live by it is certainly a problem. And to make absolute judgments is to accept certainty. I try to avoid declarations of certainty, and judgments are statements of certainty. Hence, I have to avoid judgments. And so the strategy I adopt is to try and choose my environments carefully so that in my actions I threaten no one with my judgments (inevitable, finally) and no one threatens me. It is not that I make no judgments, but that I choose those environments where the necessity of judgments is minimized and where it is possible to practice an acceptance by others and enjoy the acceptance of others.  
When I feel insane it is when judgment is made on me and all I can do is to defend myself, as if I had actually been culpable of that of which I had been accused. Or when I make a judgment that I insist be accepted. Winnicott said that madness is the necessity to be believed, and I am sane when I feel no need to defend myself to anyone but myself; and as long as I continue to consider myself an ethical person. The ethical, Terry Eagleton says, is “how we may live with each other most rewardingly . . .” I think I agree with him. And so, I choose to refrain from judgment when that judgment prevents me from living rewardingly with others, and to avoid situations where I am the object of the judgment of others. It is the only way I know to become sane and avoid insanity.


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22 June, 2011 23:01  

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