Monday, June 29, 2015

What is sanity?

The other day as part of my work I was asked by a patron if I would tell a girl in the library to "move on".  It seems that this woman likes to sit and watch movies in the library and burps and farts a lot. As a result, the air around her smells bad.  I've seen this woman and I suspect she has "issues".  I suggested that the other folks might show some compassion for her diminished social capacities and just move to another computer.

The patron, who is also a friend, was amazed that that the library allows non-students with "issues" to use the library.  I pointed out that the Chief Librarian had been asked this question and he replied that the institution is a tax-payer funded building, and that it would be wrong to deny access to the public as long as users don't cause too many problems for others. I went on to explain the broad range of non-student members of the public who use the library computer pools---including poverty-stricken lecturers who cannot afford a computer or internet access at home, the mentally ill, researchers for private companies, and so on. None of this changed the opinion of my friend, who felt that the best course of action would be to simply deny access to anyone who wasn't an intellectual and member of the university community.

The funny thing about this is that under such regime he might find himself hassled.  He is a Math professor in his native Iran, but he has a daughter in Canada, so he spends a lot of time here so he can be with her.  And even though I think he is relatively well off for an Iranian (he owns a jeep and his family seems to have some property), he lives an immensely frugal life here.  (I would imagine that his Iranian salary wouldn't convert well to dollars.) He rides a bicycle everywhere, wears thrift store clothing, never eats out, etc.  He does have an alumni card, which gives him borrowing privileges, but he certainly looks like one of the homeless people he wants removed from the building.

When we were talking, our conversation moved on to the new university president.  He related a rumor that the new fellow has a very swelled head and that he had caused the university to spend a huge amount of money on trivial stuff like importing fancy paint from overseas to redecorate the president's house (which he decided not to use), and insisting on purchasing a very expensive new car for his use.  (I don't know if any of this is true, but if it is, it wouldn't surprised me.)  I mentioned that many people in high office exhibit very bizarre, childish behavior.  A past university president, for example, was notorious for his explosive, vile temper.

This conversation got me thinking.

Is there such a thing as "sanity"?  The courts and our mental health professionals attempt to define this thing, but as I grow older and gain more insight into the human condition the less I think that there is such a thing at all. I consider myself a very rational person, but then again I have had to go to treatment for a long period of time to deal with a pretty significant "anxiety disorder" (PTSD.) Looking around me, I see that almost all the people I know have a weird collection of strange ideas that don't define them as "ill" in either legal or medical casebooks, but lead them to make profoundly stupid life choices.  And, in my case, I would consider any grown man who acts like these two University Presidents have been described is in some significant sense "unbalanced".


When I was younger I used to have a very hard time with literature because it seemed to consist of not much more than a collection of characters who were doomed to sit in the corner of a room and routinely smash themselves over the head with two-by-fours.  "For heavens sake, why would MacBeth want to kill the king and usurp his throne?  He already was a high Lord."  "For Pete's sake, can't Heathcliff and Catherine stop being so crazily emotional?  Can't they see how damaging this is for both of their lives?" Of course, this is the reaction of a teen who had the misfortune to not know a lot about how people actually operate because he had to spend all his time working on a farm, and who's family life was dominated by a few individuals who were hyper-emotional to the point of being violent.

As I approach old age I have finally had enough life experience to understand that whether we like it or not, we are emotional creatures that are driven by things like lust, greed, fear, and so on.


The other day I loaned a bicycle trailer to a friend.  She used it to go to an event where she was volunteering to be at a table and answer questions about a community group.  She had jammed a chair into it and the legs had punched two holes into the sides of the trailer.  She was all panicked because she couldn't get the chair out.  I wasn't happy about the damage, but I didn't lose my temper and I got the chair out for her.  She hadn't needed to bring the chair anyway, as one was provided with the table set-up.  As I think most people would have assumed.

I was annoyed for a while, but it occurred to me that this woman was anxious and at the last minute panicked thinking that she would be stuck standing for hours and hours because there was no chair. She didn't trust the organizers to think about a chair.  And that lack of trust and panic was the result of a childhood where her two parents were a fundamentalist Christian drug addict and a blithering alcoholic. Like me, she has been conditioned at an early age to not trust people in authority and to assume that things can degenerate into total chaos at a moment's notice---leaving us holding the bag. As a result, she has to fight a constant battle to keep her anxiety at bay, which she tends to mask over with a surface "no sweat" attitude, but sometimes the pressure builds up and she explodes into sheer terror.

My problem is that this insight occurred to me after the fact instead of at the time.  So fat lot of good the insight did because I didn't respond the right way at the right time.  At least I didn't lose my temper and I repeatedly told her it wasn't a big deal and to not worry about it.


The thing to remember is that our behavior is not individual, instead it is culturally mediated. We act in certain ways, to a very large extent, because our culture teaches us to react in those way.  We also get social cues that push us to act in specific ways.  If it is totally left up to me, I don't remember to think of the big picture.  But if I am grounded in an etiquette that says losing your temper is absolutely forbidden, I might be able to remember to not get angry and reinforce the anxiety that drove my neighbor's behavior in the first place.

Yes, a large, silly ego---
In the same way, if big bosses are taught that being greedy for perks is embarrassingly gauche, more of them wouldn't be so self-righteous about demanding them. Unfortunately, our society says instead that we are a "meritocracy" where people get ahead by "working hard".  This means that these perks are described as being "earned" instead of being privileges bestowed by chance.  Hence the large, silly egos we often see in the rich and powerful.

The library patron that spoke to me was upset because a young woman was burping and farting next to him.  Me, I try not to get upset, but I observe that almost everyone I know seems to be ethically challenged in that they are oblivious to the damage that they do to present and future human beings when they drive around in their cars and fly around the world in jet airplanes. He could simply have gotten up and moved to another computer (the pool is large and mostly empty most of the time.)  But people who are seeing their crops dry-up in a drought or their homes submerged from rising sea levels cannot so easily avoid the consequences of climate change created by the use of a jet or a car.

Isn't this worse than a young woman's farts?

It is a common place for people to say things like "What fools these mortals be", and question the idea that there is such a thing as "sanity". But if we repeat this without really thinking about it deeply "in our bones", we miss the point. The point isn't to say "how true" when we read or hear this point made, but instead to think deeply about the implications for both our own personal life and that of the society that surrounds us.

What does it mean to absolutely question the sanity of everything that surrounds us? It means to me that I have to enter into a form of radical doubt about all the assumptions I bring to look at any given issue.  It also means that I try to remember to hold onto some type of humility when I interact with others.  I have to remember that my own particular way of looking at the world has shaped my perception of whether or not what a particular person is saying or doing makes any sense. But this doesn't let me off the hook, I have to participate in the world and make decisions just like everyone else. But the difference is that I have adopted the viewpoint of a participant, not judge.  This means that my particular "take on reality" is one of many, not a privileged, impartial one. Again, this doesn't mean that I have given up on making distinctions, just that I believe that my particular point of view is open to discussion and must be defensible using the canons of logic.  And, indeed, so must everyone else's "take on reality".    


VincentFTRY said...

Hello to you The Cloud walking owl,

I would like to thank you for the thoughts you give us.
I'm French, and i stumbled upon your blog recently, i've been browsing through it and i found many pleasant and thoughtful ideas. I share a lot of your takes on the question of society, sanity, and reality. I particularly like your idea of "participant" instead of "judge", we really lake kindness and understanding, because, as you described, most people, leaders are no exceptions at all indeed, are not able to have a dynamic enough, a lucid enough, relationship to their body, their emotions and feelings, and it rely heavily on the relationship between the institution of society and the emerging individuals, and the kind of inertia it manifests. Society is always already there and the problem is we tend to forget it to much, in fact is it even possible for societies to avoid a certain inertia? May be not, but are we to again and again, from time to time show social progress, to relapse shortly after into one kind or an other of mayhem...
anyway, thanks again and be well

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Thanks for your kind words. I'm not sure that I would describe the social element of our lives as "inertia", although it certainly has those resonances sometime. I think I take a more radical stance and would say that it is almost impossible to separate the social from the individual. Indeed, I see the boundary between society and the self to be very permeable. I don't see the answer to the idiocy around us to be be individual in nature, I think we also need to be part of our culture and work to improve it.

I heard a Buddhist monk once say that there are two approaches to walking on rough, rocky ground. You can either cover the entire world with carpet---or put on a pair of shoes. While I have some sympathy for that attitude given some contexts, I have come to a different opinion in general. The Mahayana Buddhists talk about the Vow of the Bhodisattva, where someone vows to eschew enlightenment until all sentient beings are in similar state of awareness. I would go one step further and suggest that since humans are intrinsically social beings, it is impossible to be completely enlightened by yourself. We are not just individuals, but also part of a social collective.

VincentFTRY said...

Cloudwalking Owl

I think i understand your point.
i agree that you can't separate the social from the individual.
Sometimes i believe there is an other level, for instance the philosopher C.Castoriadis speaks of "radical imagination", of "magma", from which is sculpted the individual. The true tension might, in fact, be between this somehow "pre-social" level and the social level.

So, not: individual/social, but psychic-monad/social. In this view the individual is a compromise which is both "loved" and "hated", loved because it allows the monad to manifest, "hated" because the individual is in some way a mutilated version of the radical psychic-monad. Hence this self-hatred could contribute to social phenomena such as racism, xenophobia, or even common hatred and fear of the other.

I'm not sure i'm clear here, but anyway, as for the question of enlightenment, at one point in my life i've been very attracted by the buddhist ethos, i read a lot of books about it, i tried to read the sutras, to learn meditation the buddhist way ; vipassana workshops, zazen, and all the rest of it, but i realised if i was to be sincere i had to embrace the buddhist metaphysics. I could'nt. I will not bother you with what i think of buddhism now, i just want to say this : i think enlightenment is overrated. I think the notion itself is still surrounded by superstitions, though i believe something like enlightenment is possible. And i still value meditation.
Today, among ancient wisdom, i'm much more in resonance with (what i understand of) the way of a Zhuangzi, and some of his followers we read in the works of Zhuangzi, who was qualified in an improper manner, arguably,"daoist", and integrated as such from Guo Xiang's interpretations/commentary on.