Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Comfortable with Crazy: The Dis-ease of Trusting Truth

"Certitude is seized by some minds, not because there is any philosophical justification for it, but because such minds have an emotional need for certitude."

- Robert Anton Wilson

I am not postmodern when it comes to my view of truth. I believe, as Fox Mulder did, that the Truth is, in fact, out there. Somewhere. I also tend to believe that "in here" and "out there" aren't as starkly distinguished as many people think, and so I spend a lot of time looking for truth within my own heart and mind, within my own body and bones and the concrete senses that used to inspire me to write teenage poetry about iced-over duck ponds and the spinning shadows cast by ceiling fans on hot summer afternoons. I trust in the world, in reality, and in my relationship with reality. That relationship, like most relationships, includes a lot of give and take and mutual influence, and it demands respect. The world is real. And, unlike that narcissist control-freak ex you've been avoiding for a year, I know full well that the world will go on without me. I believe in truth and reality, but I am not so arrogant as to think that I know them definitively.

So when I read a post like the one written recently by Sean Carroll (my cherished punching-bag stand-in for Scientific Atheist Fundamentalists everywhere), I find it hard to work myself into a sympathetic state of outrage and disgust over the ignorance of Creationists and their grabs for intellectual legitimacy in the media. Truth will work its own way out. You might say I have a kind of evolutionary approach to truth, in fact. A "natural selection" of ideas, in which clearly false or ultimately unsustainable, unsupported notions of pure fantasy will collapse under their own weight and reality will, once again, reassert itself. It always has. The world does not need us to believe in it in order to exist (though our belief in the world may be necessary if we are to go on existing, or living in any meaningful way).

Carroll divides the world into two kinds of people: Sensible People (who can be either friends, or worthy opponents in debate), and Crazy People (who are, at best, embarrassing allies, and at worst, crackpots). The Crazy People, Carroll suggests, should never be given even the appearance of legitimacy or credibility, should not be engaged with in debate. (One wonders why, then, he even bothers to keep a blog.) They can occasionally be mocked, in moderation, as a natural and healthy outlet for the frustrations of Sensible People, but that's as much attention as they deserve. In short, Crazy People should be isolated. Kept away from us (it's always an "us") Sensible People. And this attitude works well, if you believe that insanity and sensibility are absolute and exclusive characteristics. If you believe that truth and reality rely on the relative sanity of their believers for their meaning and value, then this perspective is just fine.

The problem with the view that Some People Are Just Crazy, of course, is its corollary, Those People Aren't Us. The certainty that Sensible People have the monopoly on truth, that they always know what's really going on around here and can safely make decisions not only for themselves but for the Crazy People, without input from the latter... that kind of certainty gets us into trouble. Trouble like the holocaust and global warming. That kind of certainty obscures all kinds of old habits--habits steeped in denial and disconnection, habits with their own special kind of insanity--habits that plenty of Sensible People stick to even despite all scientific evidence that a lifestyle of consumption is fatally unsustainable, despite all appeals to the bravery of compassion and loving kindness for fellow beings.

Last week, a man walked into a fitness club in my city and opened fire. Four women were killed and eight more badly wounded before the man, desperate, lonely and steady-eyed, turned the gun on himself. In his blog--in which he'd written detailed plans for the event and recorded his deepening frustrations at being unable to connect with women despite following lots of dating advice--he wrote that his pastor had thoroughly convinced him that "you can commit mass murder then still go to heaven."

Reality reasserts itself. Sometimes in painful, devastating ways. There is chaos in this beautiful world. The question is, how do we respond?

Some of us respond by locking down, by devoting ourselves all the more rigidly and strenuously to the certainty of our sensibleness and the danger of others' lack of sense. When we find ourselves confronted with sorrow, stress and insecurity, we tighten our grips and we try to increase our control of the situation. With the world divided into Sensible People and Crazy People, salvation can only come from the Sensible ones--they shoulder all the responsibility, they must carry that weight all on their own. When things go wrong, the Sensible People step in to fix it, to fix the mistakes others have made, to fix those Others, too, if they can.

This is the disease of Truth, of the one right way. This is why people like Carroll spend much of their time trying to control who gets to speak, why they expend energy censoring and shutting down debate when it doesn't seem to play in the favor of what is true and correct. And it's why the people they're trying to shut up--the Crazies, the fundamentalists and creationists and right-wingers--do the very same thing. Carroll would probably say the fundamentalists try to monopolize or shut down debate because they know, deep down, that in honest, open debate they would lose. But why should truth--the really real Truth--need such fanatic defenders as Carroll? Why isolate the Crazies? Isn't truth strong enough to withstand their insanity, maybe even rub off on them a little with time and exposure? It's almost as though Carroll is just a bit scared--maybe, way deep down--that Craziness rubs off, that Sensibility isn't as impenetrable a stronghold as he'd like.

What is the definition of "crazy" after all? How do we determine who is nuts and who isn't? Society has traditionally defined insanity as the condition of being unable to function adequately in the world--to feed ourselves, clothe ourselves, relate to others, do the simple things necessary for survival. And yet billions of religious individuals the world over, even including quite a few creationists, continue to eat just fine, raise children, hold down jobs. So what if they believe the universe was made whole-cloth six thousand years ago? They're quite likely wrong, of course, and holding a wrong belief may sometimes be a symptom of some underlying problem, or a cause for any number of unraveling negative consequences. But being wrong about the world is not, in itself, insane. Especially when those trying to correct you so clearly hate and fear you, and so can hardly be expected to have your best interests in mind.

The world, I have found, continues to exist regardless of my sanity. I have gone through times of depression and suicidal contemplations, times when neuroses and anxieties threatened to overwhelm me. I have had moments of profound clarity and connection, too, when I glimpse shifting patterns that seem to ease my way. Yet the world persists, in its messy beauty, giving birth to dancing stars while others die to dust. Almost as though my sanity didn't matter one way or another. This is the dis-ease of truth: the essential discomfort of knowing that your own strivings to live ethically, peacefully and rationally do not guarantee a safe and rational world to live in, and the humility of learning that your own missteps into irrationality and senselessness cannot overthrow the basic functionality and goodness of the world.

It is also an immense comfort. Knowing that we each have chaos and craziness within ourselves frees us from our need to control others with such a tight grip, it gives us permission to relax and reconnect for a moment, to give the larger wisdom of the world a chance to lift us clear of the fray. Indeed, there may be times when the Sensible People are marching calmly and rationally towards destruction, when we need to seek the chaos and creativity of our deep selves. Sometimes, doing what is good and ethical may seem a bit crazy, may seem futile or pointless; sometimes the way through a bad situation is obscure and beyond reasoning. Craziness offers us the gift of intuitive, creative engagement, fluidity and flexibility. It opens up our crazy pink hearts to tenderness and sorrow and allows these things to run their course without channeling them into systems of tension and pressure and stress.

This past Saturday, one of my best friends got married. The wedding was beautiful, a simple and hastily-planned ceremony and reception nestled among the sheltering maple trees and holly bushes of her new mother-in-law's backyard. Paper lanterns hung suspended among baskets of flowers and twinkling strings of lights twined the dark branches where fireflies, too, drifted lazily in the summer night heat. As the ceremony began, a few drops of rain began to fall. Watching my friend's lovely upturned face--her eyes shining with joy and tears--I remembered the murders from a few days earlier, I thought of the unwieldy institutions of consumption, denial and repression pervasive in our culture that can sometimes make us feel alienated and alone, I thought of how both the bride and groom had divorced parents and how half of all marriages these days end that way... I thought, you'd have to be crazy to want to get married, to believe in happily-ever-after and lifelong love. And my heart filled with happiness and gratitude.

Later, my boyfriend and I sat together at one of the tables left empty by everyone else who had sought shelter from the rain under the large white canopy. He'd forgotten his dress shoes and wore sandals with his slacks, and a purple tie that matched my dress. I sipped from the half-dozen abandoned champaign glasses, by now watered down by the weather, each reflecting the candlelight in a million different glimmerings of raindrops along their smooth curves and spiraling stems. Rain speckled our warm shoulders and smudged our eyeglasses, and we laughed each time the elderly usher came over to us, smiling kindly and almost knowingly, offering us wine, fruit and cake. Then, we would bend our heads together, my beloved and I, and murmur crazy words of gratitude and praise--for the night, for each other, for the lovely newly-wedded couple, for the children tottering around among the folding chairs, for the minister and his wife dancing slowly in the grass in front of the DJ's table... for all the craziness and love in the lovely, crazy world.


  1. I see 'crazy' and 'insane' as being two very different things but ultimately irrelevent. I think that everyone has some crazy - something that can be compartmentalized within self and live right along with sane virtually imperceptible to the majority of society (because many have the same crazy themselves) but still taken out to play with at one's whim. Insane is a more constant state that is unavoidable and does keep one separate (either by choice or society's demands) from others.

    I think we [Pagans] get used to a certain level of ostracism due to perceived craziness or insanity from the "normal" people out there - many of whom we might see as more than a little crazy themselves. What is disconcerting is when it happens within the circle itself. The idea that Pagans can or should be represented as wholly one thing and preferably sane at that because of the idea that we've become a dumping ground for crazy. Ultimately, why does it matter? They (the apparently perfectly sane within Paganism) want to be represented to the world (of people) as a group of sane people without crazies infiltrating this logical group of earth minded people and yet we readily admit that the existences and priorites of those "others" are already decidedly skewed by comparison to our own priorities. Those who deny things like global warming and continue on in destructive practices yet they are the sane with whom we are trying to "measure up to" or impress?

    Sane, crazy, insane - they all seem to be relative and relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Their validity easily disputable by anyone and truth visible, in so far as it matters, within each. How that truth manifests itself in each is what seems to matter most to society - and yet not at all to Earth.

    And if that rambling made any sense to you at all - kudos! You might be crazy! Embrace it! ;o) lol

  2. Pom, It's totally okay by me if you want to ramble! :) The post itself was kind of a impassioned rant, anyway, more than any kind of reasoned, well-constructed argument.

    I think you're right to point out that "crazy" and "insane" are not really the same thing, especially the way that Carroll was using the term. I suspect that what he really meant was either "stupid" or "irrational," neither of which are things that you can medically diagnose and both of which tend to be more subjective depending on your point of view. Later in his post, he actually goes on to suggest that only people with PhDs are even qualified to participate in the discussion--if that's not the most bizarre example of elitism mingled with anti-intellectualism, I don't know what is!

    To me, embracing the nonrational is an important part of spirituality. As you say, plenty of sane people are only really considered "sane" because they conform to social standards, often without thinking too deeply about what they're doing or why. Have you ever heard someone claim that "thinking too much" can drive someone crazy? People are often afraid to think or experience the world too deeply because they might find themselves coming to conclusions outside the common consensus of the mainstream. But in some sense they might actually be right, since the few people I know who have thought deeply about the world and themselves have realized that thinking alone is not enough, that rationality must be balanced by creativity and imagination, which are realms of unpredictability and flux.

    Of course, any time someone tries to promote the value of creative nonrationality--or "craziness," as I called it in this post--it can sound anti-intellectual. But I'm definitely not against intelligence or reason! The problem I've found with plenty of intelligent people, such as Carroll, is not that they are intelligent, but that they assume that their intelligence somehow gives them more power to control the world, to model the world in whatever way they think is best. What intelligence and knowledge give us really is insight, but simply being able to "see" things more clearly doesn't mean that we can or should take charge and try to change or control them.

    So now I've gone on another rant of my own. ;) But yes, I think I see what you're saying, and I think I agree. It would be ridiculous for Pagans to give in to pressure to be "normal" or "reasonable" in the mainstream sense when so much that our mainstream culture does is damaging and myopic. Developing our understanding of the world--through science and reasoning as well as through art and poetry and ritual--is something valuable in its own right, even when it leads us off the beaten path, even if it leaves us open to criticism for not following social norms or conforming to proper etiquette. That's the risk we take to live fully and deeply in the realness of the world...

  3. hi.. just dropping by here... have a nice day!

  4. I once dreamed I was climbing a mountain. As I did so, I passed a lovely little green pasture with buttercups, and a wonderful view of the world below. I thought I'd just stop here, since it seemed so nice. My guide (who, in the dream, took the form of Orson Scott Card) said, "Yes, you can stop here. Your father did." I looked around, but didn't see my father anywhere. I said, "Where is he?" Card said, "Oh, he was eaten by the bears." I decided to move on...

    The path to truth passes many beautiful little pastures where you can catch your breath, and perhaps believe you've reached the top and can look down on everyone else. But there are dangers... And even the top of the mountain, if there is such a place, isn't the real Top, because the whole sky remains above you.

    And at the top of the mountain is a little grinning Zen monk with a stick. :-)