The Virtue of Being Crazy

"I say unto you: one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: you still have chaos in yourselves. Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer give birth to a star. Alas, the time of the most despicable man is coming, he that is no longer able to despise himself." -Friedrich Nietzsche

“Sounds like you had an interesting weekend.”
This is one of the first things that my dad said to me after I got out of the mental hospital a little over a week and a half ago.

I mention that now only because that’s the kind of joke that’s great at breaking tension (it at least worked for my family) and I didn’t really know how to start this essay otherwise.
My first attempt: “Hello, I am a crazy person” seemed somehow uncouth.

This was my second time in such a facility. Going by how I’ve been feeling since I got out, I doubt it will be my last. It’s really not a bad little vacation though, especially if you like to color and drink coffee.

I won’t go into too much detail now about the legion of reasons that brought me into five days of locked rooms and group therapy. That story will come later, hopefully soon. Suffice it to say I was feeling overwhelmed, isolated, anxious, and hopeless. All of which are horribly inadequate words for what I was feeling. I don’t think there are words.

What I want to talk about instead are the things that are right now affecting all of us.

In the mid-1950s philosopher-psychiatrist Erich Fromm wrote that modern society was experiencing an increasing amount of mental sickness with an influx of “conspicuous and extremely distressing neurotic symptoms”, but we must beware “of defining mental hygiene as the prevention of symptoms. Symptoms as such are not our enemy, but our friend; where there are symptoms there is conflict, and conflict always indicates that the forces of life which strive for integration and happiness are still fighting.”

And sure, there are times that the symptoms aren’t our friend. Like with any other dis-ease, if left untreated, or if the instigating incident is too traumatic, symptoms can compound and increase in severity until they are utterly paralyzing. Sometimes staying with you for life. Not to mention our genetics and the balance of chemicals in our brains and who knows what other environmental factors. I’ve had depression and anxiety since at least the second grade. I am not trying to minimize or over-simplify anything here.

Wait, let me over-simplify one thing:
The symptoms of mental illness have been on the rise for decades. And we are more and more quick to prescribe a pill for any kind of grief or mental anguish.
They gotta pill for every kind of sadness these days. They’ll fix ya right up. No more sadness forever.

Except, of course, for the fact that these pills aren’t working. At least not long term.

The journalist Johann Hari has noted that antidepressants only work for 50% of the population on them, while only 30% achieve full remission of symptoms. And only around 10% have remission of symptoms for longer than a year (if the pills are still working for you, I hope they keep working. They're working for me so far). In other words, as he puts it, “Although antidepressant prescriptions have increased 500 percent since the 1980s, there has been no discernible decrease in society-wide depression rates.
What’s more, and I know this is purely anecdotal, but I have observed that most, if not all of my friends that struggle with mental illness have been experiencing symptoms with more consistency and severity over the last three to four years. I have also observed those that are generally happy and optimistic people expressing that they are more down, more tired, more stressed, and more anxious over the same period of time. I suspect I am not the only who has sensed this.

And this makes sense. Our world is on fire. The dementors have been given free reign.

Whether we are looking at this through the macro lens of rising nationalism and authoritarianism in all parts of the globe (historically a precedent for world war); economic uncertainty; the persistence of racism and sexism in this country (and the backlash that highlighting these problems creates); the apocalyptic threat of climate change, work becoming less meaningful and more thoughtless; the increasing rise of empty consumerism and bland entertainment; poison in our food and our water; housing crises; widespread poverty and sickness and genocide and the social media and 24 hour news cycle that are doing their best to ensure that we are all addicted to outrage, divisiveness, and narcissistic self-superiority, all so they can sell our information to the highest bidder.

Or we can look more closely at the lives of our neighbors and ourselves. Maybe it is a lack of purpose and meaning; the sweeping epidemic of loneliness in the western world; our imprisonment by debt; the lack of access to medical care; the loss of loved ones; relationship anxieties and conflict; unfulfilling sex lives; exhausting children and the pressure to fit some prescribed social role; the unspoken but gnawing sense that the things that make us feel that we are in control of our lives might not actually be controlling much of anything; the fear that everything will go wrong; the suspicion that things will never get better; and on and on and on.

All of our trusted institutions are crumbling around us. The answers we have been given all our lives are proving inadequate to meet the core needs of our existence. And if you are presently feeling off balance, unmoored, lost at sea, I assure you that you are not alone. I’ve been having conversations with people all over the country that feel just this way.

In short, you should be feeling crazy. Things are not okay. These are abnormal times.

In fact, Fromm goes on to say that “the really hopeless victims of mental illness are to be found among those who appear to be most normal. Many of them are normal because they are so well adjusted to our mode of existence, because their human voice has been silenced so early in their lives, that they do not even struggle or suffer or develop symptoms as the neurotic does.”

This is not to say that all “normal” people are actually maladjusted and crazy. If such a thing as “normal” exists. But I do think it is time we reevaluate just what mental health actually looks like. As well as how we go about seeking to find it.

In my search for true spirituality and what internal changes I should expect to see when or if I find it, I have reduced everything to a few primary goals that most, if not all, religions and spiritual practices seem to promise to one degree or another:
these are wholeness, peace, and meaning.

Whether by divine providence or natural selection, each of us has our own essence; a combination of traits, talents, strengths, viewpoints, and mental processes that are all our own.

Even if it is only through natural means, I still believe it’s safe to say that we were created (or meant, designed, or are perfectly suited) for something. And something specific.
Parker Palmer has written that when what gives us our greatest joy intersects with serving the greatest number of people is where we find our vocation, our purpose, our raison d’etre (if you will).

The problem is that the idea has become muddied and warped by our culture. We have come to define success and wholeness in universal and uniform ways.
It is about making money.
It is about comfort and security.
It is about having a certain kind of family, lifestyle, and attitude.
Individualization has come to mean little more than choosing what color of sneakers to buy or how you do your hair.

And of course this affects our wholeness.
It’s like a doctor prescribing the same pill to every patient, regardless of what’s wrong with them. We are different. We need different things.

But we live in a society where our true self must be restrained, repressed, and hidden. Sometimes even from ourselves. There is an old adage that we are all artists until we are told we aren’t good enough or we otherwise can’t be. And I think that is true in a certain sense. We all take to something (chemistry, accounting, serving others, DJing weddings), and doing that thing gives us a passion that can turn that something into art.
But unless that something is a thing in which “you can make a living” from it, we are discouraged from pursuing it from a very early age.
And golly, wouldn't ya know it, denying yourself what gives you joy can sure make you sad.

And importantly, this is not about how you earn an income or even about what you do with your time. Not what you do but who you are. This is about discovering what burns at the core of you. Not the ego that makes you feel important, not your achievements, not your intellectual or moral self, but you, just as you are. And once you find that, both peace and meaning start to follow. My friend Carissa always used to say find who and what you love and you’ll know what to do.
Thomas Merton says that the “self wants nothing more, or less, than for us to be who we were created to be.”
Finding this within yourself might take some time, a few wrong turns, some painful deconstruction of past narratives, and the disappointment of your friends and family (hell, it might even send ya to a crayon vacation in the nuthouse), but I assure you it is worth all of the heartache.
God, I hope so at any rate.

The more we are able to be our true selves at all times and in all capacities and relationship dynamics, the healthier, happier, and more fulfilled we will be. It is this, the ability to comfortably be your true self in all settings, is how I define mental health. It is also a fundamental part of what I consider wholeness.

Again, this is not to say that life ever suddenly becomes easy, quite the contrary. Things will definitely suck more at first. And this is definitely not to say that this will make any of the traumatic circumstances will go away. But becoming your true authentic self is a big place to start and doing the hard work of being yourself to everyone in all situations gives you at least a whole lot less to worry about.

I believe the disciplines within true spirituality are designed to help us meet our true selves and enable us to go forth and serve all of the people around us.
We must make a distinction here between what I am calling true spirituality and religion and religious institutions. For the latter has consistently proven to be the greatest enforcer of conformity and the status quo in history.
Regardless of how many times I have been told “it is not a religion, it is a relationship” my own experience in the Evangelical church where I was raised was filled with rules (some explicit, most unspoken) about who to be and how to think. Anyone who did not (at least publicly) perfectly fit this invisible metric was either “raised up for prayer” or eventually excommunicated entirely. This is not to mention those that were additionally abused or otherwise deeply traumatized by the church and those in power within it. In my experience, I have found religious institutions to be at best no better than any alternative source for meaning offered by the secular world. In many cases, I have found them to be far more damaging.

So what then do I mean by true spirituality? I don’t know. I am still seeking.
I am pretty sure however, that it involves connecting oneself to transcendence and the greater mysteries of life and consciousness. I believe it involves a community that is supportive and fosters real belonging and serves to help you discover and protect your whole self.

And I know that it begins with me looking at myself and the world around me with as wide and clear eyes as possible. It means examining and accepting the world as it is.

Only then can I hear the still small voice gently guide me towards how to make things better.

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  1. Well said. I've been listening a lot to Bart Campolo's podcast lately. He talks about turning to community, finding others interested making things better (whatever that might mean). He doesn't get too attached to what you want to do, it's more about the process of trying to do it.

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