The Sanity of ‘Madness’


Life requires us to be very sane pretty much all the time. On a daily basis we have to be responsible, polite, productive, thoughtful, patient, logical, reliable, and dazzlingly successful too. These obligations slowly crept up on us as we were growing up. Now, they are our constant realities. The problem is no one can really keep going like this over a whole lifetime. The burdens are two great; our minds too delicate. Unfortunately, society doesn’t give us much room to fall apart. It wants us at the desk 9 a.m. sharp every day with a PowerPoint ready to go, and the pressure doesn’t let up to with finally released sleep past 11 at night. So we have no option but to keep going; while on the side we may well be drinking too much, waking up at odd times of night, addicted to the internet, calming ourselves down with sedatives, and developing all kinds of physical twitches in ailments. But in truth no good life can or should go by without a few quite open incidence of complete breakdown. Moments when we pull up a white flag, and declare ourselves simply unable to cope or fulfill any of our normal functions for a time. Rather than seeing this as an illness, this should be interpreted as evidence of normality and even health. During our crazy moments we might be lying in bed staring at the ceiling for long periods, seeming to make no sense, wearing strange clothes, and sitting on the porch all day doing nothing, shouting, singing, dancing, cavorting, being silly in a way when hasn’t been for decades, making some unusual new friends, and taking off to strange places. Naturally, such phases won’t be easy for those around us, but we should, collectively, know how to tolerate these faces without panic as just part of ordinary life. We allow our bodies to have moments of break down and rest; we should allow similar moments for our minds. In any case, the so-called sane world is pretty disturbed too once one considers it frankly. It’s apparently mental health that we set ourselves the task of energetically destroying the planet, work to meet punishing but arbitrary economic targets, leave ourselves no time for anything but work, drown in toxic media, and develop unrealistic expectations about our bodies, relationships, and families. No wonder we need periods of true madness as a corrective. That said, the emphasis should always be on having a good mental breakdown. A good one is where we allow ourselves to reconnect with valuable truths that we’ve lost sight of: emotions and insights that ordinary life has prevented us from investigating. Perhaps sexual exploration, creativity, heedless, contact with our bodies, empathy, ecstasy, or a new kind of self-knowledge. The idea is that we should return from the land of madness and plant in the fields of apparent sanity a lot of pretty valuable seeds that can bear fruit and sustain us in the periods ahead. We should, at a collective level, give ourselves unfrightened accounts of what mad episodes mean, confident that a reconciliation with the demands of the world will eventually re-emerge. We are not automatons, but highly complicated, volatile collections of proteins that needs careful and sympathetic administration. We should expect that periods of madness just do belong to every wise and good life.

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