Search Words

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Moderation and Sanity

My friend Ioan has me thinking with his previous comment, and that's always a dangerous thing.  the ability to enjoy life is both a mark of moderation, but it is also sanity.  After all, enjoyment is often about things that are neither necessary nor meaningful: having a cup of tea and enjoying the sunset when you probably have half a dozen tasks with urgent need is probably a wasteful experience from a purely utilitarian perspective, yet such activities are infinitely healing and sane.

To this end, I remembered this quote from G. K. Chesterton, from Chapter 2 of his book, Orthodoxy.  It is a tad long, but well worth it:

The last thing that can be said of a lunatic is that his actions are causeless. If any human acts may loosely be called causeless, they are the minor acts of a healthy man; whistling as he walks; slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heels or rubbing his hands. It is the happy man who does the useless things; the sick man is not strong enough to be idle. It is exactly such careless and causeless actions that the madman could never understand; for the madman (like the determinist) generally sees too much cause in everything. The madman would read a conspiratorial significance into those empty activities. He would think that the lopping of the grass was an attack on private property. He would think that the kicking of the heels was a signal to an accomplice. If the madman could for an instant become careless, he would become sane. Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.
The madman's explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness. If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ's.
Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large. A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world. There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic's theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way. I mean that if you or I were dealing with a mind that was growing morbid, we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air, to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler outside the suffocation of a single argument. Suppose, for instance, it were the first case that I took as typical; suppose it were the case of a man who accused everybody of conspiring against him. If we could express our deepest feelings of protest and appeal against this obsession, I suppose we should say something like this: "Oh, I admit that you have your case and have it by heart, and that many things do fit into other things as you say. I admit that your explanation explains a great deal; but what a great deal it leaves out! Are there no other stories in the world except yours; and are all men busy with your business? Suppose we grant the details; perhaps when the man in the street did not seem to see you it was only his cunning; perhaps when the policeman asked you your name it was only because he knew it already. But how much happier you would be if you only knew that these people cared nothing about you! How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure; if you could see them walking as they are in their sunny selfishness and their virile indifference! You would begin to be interested in them, because they were not interested in you. You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers." Or suppose it were the second case of madness, that of a man who claims the crown, your impulse would be to answer, "All right! Perhaps you know that you are the King of England; but why do you care? Make one magnificent effort and you will be a human being and look down on all the kings of the earth." Or it might be the third case, of the madman who called himself Christ. If we said what we felt, we should say, "So you are the Creator and Redeemer of the world: but what a small world it must be! What a little heaven you must inhabit, with angels no bigger than butterflies! How sad it must be to be God; and an inadequate God! Is there really no life fuller and no love more marvellous than yours; and is it really in your small and painful pity that all flesh must put its faith? How much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles, and leave you in the open, free like other men to look up as well as down!"
In my next post, I'll get into why moderation and purpose are not really related to one another, yet moderation and sanity are two sides of the same coin.

1 comment:

  1. In my previous comment I used the word "enjoy", but "rejoice" is probably more accurate. As Orthodox Christians we try to put away the old way of life and we don't seek pleasure just for the sake of it, nor do we strive to experience life on a base, fleshly level. Also, we always give thanks and praise to God. So, rejoicing is on a higher level than enjoyment and life is set up in such a way that man can rejoice every step of the way provided that he has a healthy, normal attitude, or that he is sane, as Father George said. So, to connect with my previous comment, I'd say that there are reasons to rejoice everywhere, all the time; we don't have to seek them, they are always in our way, if our eyes and hearts are open, if we don't view things in a narrow or too particular way.

    And, if one truly loves, one will always be joyous. A person who loves everybody and everything in his life cannot be sad.

    Another thought from reading the above article, which is really great, is in regards to the potential that misunderstood religion can have on people's lives. This is found in Orthodoxy, too, when people make idols out of Orthodoxy itself, use asceticism as an end in itself and not a means to end, and generally have a wrong and narrow understanding about life and religion. I believe this is one of the worst things that can happen to man. The danger here is not necessarily that one loses his ability to rejoice in everything, but that one loses his humanity together with his ability to rejoice which is simply built into humanity. When I hear about the healthy man doing minor things and being happy along the way, and the mad man not really understanding this, it makes me think about Fr. Seraphim Rose who once told one of his disciples to read a novel by Charles Dickens, when he asked him to tell him all about Orthodoxy, obedience, canons, asceticism, so that he can start right away in an over-zealous manner. The reason was that one needs to be receptive to the seemingly minor things and nuances of life, to not lose his humanity -- his ability to feel, to rejoice, to be simple, meek, merciful, understanding, patient, etc.