Monday, September 14, 2009

A Return to Sanity

I went utterly insane once, so believe me when I tell you I know exactly what it feels like. For a time during my experience I believed I was immortal and didn't need to ever eat or sleep again. I believed I could stare at the sun and receive cosmic information in the form of digestible light packets. I believed all I had to do was wish for something and it would come true for the world. I believed I could pick up an angry rattlesnake that had accidentally become trapped in our bedroom and lovingly set it free. (Thankfully for me, my husband nixed that idea and handled the snake with a bucket and pole from a distance!)

After a time my hallucinations switched from euphoric to paranoid. I then began to believe that roving gangs of murderers were chainsawing my neighbors to death. I believed aliens had landed, were capturing people, injecting nanobots into their bloodstreams and firing them off to "seed" distant stars with their spawn. I believed China had dropped nuclear weapons on major American cities, and that our world had been transformed into a poisoned, fiery hell. For a time I believed I was the only one left alive.

Being that crazy was not a pleasant experience. For much of the time I found myself unable to communicate with anyone, as I was completely lost in a mental landscape that no one else could visit, see or experience with me. In that sense I really was alone in the universe. At last, when I tried to steal an ambulance so I could go to the ocean and turn myself into a dolphin, the outside world finally recognized I was a danger to myself and possibly others. They hauled me off to the hospital for some much needed medical attention. After three days in intensive care and months of slow and painful mental and physical recovery, I gradually found my way back to sanity. In doing so I've learned some fascinating things about what insanity is. I'd like to share them.

Insanity, I've discovered, is a rejection of reality in favor of a narrative in the head. The man who insists he's Napoleon Bonaparte, the woman who talks to invisible people, the catatonic who curls into a ball and shuts out all sensory input - they're all having the same insane experience. It's only their story and method of holding onto their story that's different.

As a matter of fact, once I began to heal and look around the world again, what I noticed was that virtually every person I saw was having an insane experience to one degree or another. The only difference was with the narratives people were telling themselves. Interestingly enough, what I observed was that if the narrative a person substituted for reality was considered "socially acceptable" by his or her chosen peer group, then that person was considered sane, no matter how crazy or false their narrative might be. That explains how the "birthers" found semi-legitimacy through the news media, how creationists have managed to build quasi-reputable museums, how people have been able to stand outside health care rallies and with a straight face talk about Obama's "death panels." Insanity, it seems, is a matter of degree. The more persuasive a person who's telling a narrative can be, the more people he can convince to believe his story. The more people who believe in his story, the less likely that story is to be perceived as bat-shit crazy. And the more people who have forgotten how to do reality checks because they've been seduced their entire lives by easy narratives, the more gullible rubes there are for the storytellers.

Weapons of Mass Destruction. The Axis of Evil. Torture as a legitimate interrogation method. A suspension of constitutional rights in order to preserve our constitution. Nobody knew the levees in New Orleans could fail. Iraq and Al Queda were connected through 9/11. They hate us for our freedom. President Obama is a secret Nazi/Facist/Communist/Socialist/Muslim/Racist. Killing abortion doctors preserves our sacred right to life. We "can't afford" to reduce our dependence on oil.

Since when did we become a nation so obsessed with crazy narratives that we've lost the ability to get in touch with reality? I suspect it's been going on for years, and that this weakness has been built into the way we educate our children. We send perfectly good and inquiring minds to school, where we tell them the narrative of human history and grade them well if they spit it back to us without "error." Nowhere in that process is critical thinking, questioning and new exploration lauded - at least not until the narrative has been firmly imbedded in them.

And after all, we're also a nation primarily raised on Biblical narratives that include talking snakes, unseen demons and angels, a guy who put two of every animal in a boat and sails it away, whole cities that were leveled by the angry "finger of God" for their bad behavior. The list goes on...

One difficulty with changing all this is that as we've industrialized we've moved farther and farther away from our touchstone with reality - the natural world. We read about full moons and new moons in the weather section of the news, but how many of us can still look at the sky and know what phase of the moon we're observing at night? How many of us genuinely understand the Earth's rotation and spin in relation to the sun and seasonality? Perpaps our growing disconnect from nature explains why it's so easy for us to ignore things like rainforest destruction, the extinction of polar bears, melting ice caps, rainfall changes and the rising pollution and exhaustion of fish in our oceans. The narratives we're telling ourselves are so much nicer than the truth that we collectively cling to them in desperation, despite all evidence to the contrary!

During my wildly insane period, had I been able to stop the voices in my head and simply BE PRESENT with what was happening, I would have noticed that none of these things I believed were actually true. This, I suspect is what awaits humankind around a very near corner. Avoidance of the truth can only carry us so far, then the narrative will break down in favor of reality. Either we'll act out the narrative only to discover later it wasn't true, which is what led to the war in Iraq; or reality will crush the narrative, as will happen when twenty feet of water flood Manhattan and bury Florida when all our glaciers melt.

Letting go of the narratives we've all been taught to believe in can be deeply unsettling to the mind. It's even harder when the people you love don't want to let go of the stories. They'll try to drag you back into their shared belief system, because when something isn't demonstrably true there's a sense of safety in numbers. The more people who accept the narrative the more likely (or so people think) it is that the story is actually true. It's why religions are so fond of bearing witness and procreating - more little religious believers to promote the story.

The Flat Earthers didn't want to accept it when the news came to them that the Earth was round. It's what Holocaust deniers and alien abductees share; an eagerness to convince others that their narrative is correct and thus control the story.

Humanity, by virtue of its ability to tell imaginative stories, has the capacity to move information across the generations. Perhaps it's time we began to realize the weighty responsibility that attaches to that privilege. If we're going to tell stories to each other, let's at least make an effort to get our stories right. Worst case, let's freely acknowledge that a theory is still a theory, so the truth can always find an open window into humanity's psyche.

Anything less is utterly insane.