Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Chapter 3-6: Positively Mad: Madness as Culture, Values and Meaning

Mental diversity is my life.  I’ve lived it intimately.  I know the ins and outs like the back of my hand. I’ve worked hard to make sense of my experience and good use of it.  I’ve also worked hard to communicate that understanding and value intelligibly to others.  So why is it, at the end of the day, when I have to justify my right to exist in water cooler conversations or over the back fence with neighbors, what I say is basically this lame:

Society should be more accepting of mental diversity.  Yes, it often seems odd, troubling, inconvenient and sometimes outright frightening.  But, well… everyone needs acceptance. So the duty of good citizens is to buck up and be nicer because that is what good conscience and morality require.  

It’s hardly surprising that the usual response is a far-off gaze, followed by a comment on the weather.
I feel even worse when I happen to say this to some poor, already guilt-laden soul.  You know the type.  They are already involved in 9000 causes.  They donate all their spare money and time to refugees of countries I’ve never heard of.  They listen intently and nod enthusiastically and thank me for laying yet another burden on their backs.  When we part ways, they shake their heads and say to themselves:

She’s so right.  I really should try harder.  People with diagnoses might be odd or difficult, but that is not their fault.  They were made that way, and they can't help it.  I should remember that and try harder to be nicer.  It’s my duty as a responsible citizen to be kind to those less fortunate than I am. 

This begging we do for our right to exist is not only pathetic - it is entirely unnecessary.  Far from being an amusing or tolerable annoyance, mad people and mad experience have a tremendous amount to offer.  We are neither diseased nor defective.  We are tuned into important dimensions of life that our culture overlooks and ignores. Literally, we are the canaries for the social realities that are gassing the minds of entire cultures. We go first, and we often die first. But that does not make the invisible threats we foretell any less pertinent or deadly to others.

This kind of sensitivity is our greatest gift.  We are the prophets, seers and shamans of the modern times.  We speak unspoken truths, dig up buried longings. We imagine new possibilities, and intuit new directions.   Our hearts, minds and souls are inspired and sustained by them. Every cell in our bodies cries out to reach for them and make them real.

Accordingly, wise people, smart people, self-interested people - in fact all people - owe it to themselves, their families and the communities they live in to take a closer look at both the messages and messengers of madness.

Shallow Understanding from People of Good Will

In his letter from the Birmingham jail in 1963, the Reverend Dr, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:
Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
 In dominant culture, certain values values are taken for granted.  They are so much a part of our culture that we don't even see them.  Everyone just assumes that this is how good people should, can and do act.

In particular, conventional society is primarily concerned with the nuts and bolts of material and social survival.  It's two great commandments can be summarized as follows:

Normal Rule #1.  Don’t jeopardize survival needs (food, roof, family, job, safety).
Normal Rule #2:  Don’t get kicked out of the herd (because it jeopardizes food, roof, family, job, safety).  
The wisdom that gets you ahead in life (social intelligence) is stuff that safeguards these interests.

  • Be polite.  
  • Keep your thoughts to yourself.  
  • Keep up with the Jones.  
  • Do what the boss says.  
  • Respect authority.  
  • Don't bite the hand that feeds you.

Why are these maxims so well-accepted?   

Well, in the social pecking order of conventional society, knowing and maintaining your place in the community is critical.  Both powerful others and neighborly relations can make or break you. Accordingly, by obeying adages like those above, you stay valuable to your superiors and comparable to your peers.  This minimizes the likelihood of being sabotaged or attacked, and maximizes your chances of being assisted if you are in need.

Here is another case in point.  Conventional society puts a high premium on 'rational thinking.' Rational thinking means you 'consider the consequences' of your actions.  However, not all consequences are considered equal. To conventional society, the consequences that matter are those that affect:

  1. Your material survival needs (Rule #1 above)
  2. Your herd membership  (Rule #2 above, which impacts #1)

When people pay attention to such consequences, we call them 'normal' and 'functional.'  They are seen as capable of ‘thinking things through’ and of 'appreciating of the consequences’ of their actions. This is what conventional society means when they say someone is ‘sane’ and acting ‘rationally.’

Why is this so? 

In a word, because such attitudes and actions match the conventional priorities of protecting survival needs and herd membership

On the other hand, as a mad person, I often have found myself making different choices based on a different hierarchy of values.  For me, fidelity to personal inner experience tends to trump concerns over social acceptance or material survival. It’s not that I don’t want to have a home, or food, or friends, or decent income.  But something wells up in me that just won’t budge.  I get this uncomfortable feeling inside that - although this idea is popular with others - it just doesn’t feel right to me.  I try to ignore this awareness, and for a while I often succeed.  Conventional society calls this part of me ‘having good judgment.’

It’s the other part of me that’s the problem.  It’s the voice inside that won’t stop nagging:

If I can’t be true to my experience, what’s the point? Who cares about being accepted if it means I can’t be true to myself? 

Then I get this empty hollow feeling.  The one that feels like my life is a lie.  And it’s all over.  … I guess this job will have to go.  

Most mental health professionals – and society at large - consider this latter behavior crazy. (You told off your boss, again?!?).  I get called immature, impulsive and grandiose.  They prescribe lithium or depakote and write notes for SSDI.  For them, my disregard of survival needs is reckless and incomprehensible.  For me, it’s an inconvenient but necessary existential choice.  What else would you suggest I do?  The world I am being offered is not a world I want to live in.

Here is how and why of it:

It's like chocolate and vanilla.  They are both great flavors.  They both have a lot to commend them. But if I have to choose, for me it's chocolate every time.

The same is true for me with social belonging. Ideally, I want people to like me and I want to belong. Generally speaking, however, my relationship with myself - - my own truth, my own sense of values, my own meanings and experience of life purpose - is more important to me than social belonging. So, if I have to choose between social belonging and being true to myself... well, being true to myself wins almost every time.

On the other hand, physical survival is a different matter.  If it's life and death or a serious safety risk, I usually get pretty conventional pretty fast.  That being said, physical survival and conventional materialism are not the same thing. Sure, I want to be comfortable. But, being true to myself is more important to me than many of the material comforts conventional society offers.  So, I'm willing to live fairly unconventionally and make a fair number of material sacrifices if it means I can stay true to myself.

I think these choices are courageous, valuable and utterly 'sane'.  True, there is a downside from a material and social perspective,  At the same time, some of the most important things to me - dignity, conscience, listening, learning, generosity of spirit, respecting and honoring the lives and beings that conventional society walks all over or throws away - bring me a lot of joy and meaning.  They seem like a lot more useful way to spend my existence on earth than selling or buying Wal-mart widgets.   -
I also take a fair amount of comfort from the philosophers, sages and mystics of ages past.  As luck would have it, my bias for the interior life  - trying to listen to my conscience and live true to my inner knowing - is right in line with the advice of moral giants like Thoreau, Emerson, Ghandhi, Jesus and Buddha.  Here’s a favorite of mine, Jesuit priest Anthony DeMello (The Way to Love, p. 115-16, 140):

Take a look at this society we live in – rotten to the core, infected as it is with attachments. For if anyone is attached to power, money, property, to fame and success; if anyone seeks these things as if their happiness depended upon them, they will be considered productive members of society, dynamic and hardworking.  In other words if they pursue these things with a driving ambition that destroys the symphony of their life and makes them hard and cold and insensitive to others and to themselves, society will look upon them as dependable citizens, and their relatives and friends will be proud of the status that they have achieved. How many so-called respectable people do you know who have retained the gentle sensitivity of love that only unattachment can offer?  
 If you wish to love you must learn to see again. And if you wish to see, you must learn to give up your drug.  You must tear away from you the roots of society that have penetrated to the marrow. You must drop out.  Externally everything will go on as before; you will continue to be in the world, but no longer of it. And in your heart you will now be free at last and utterly alone. It is only in this aloneness, this utter solitude, that dependence and desire will die, and the capacity to love is born. 

This is the stuff that conventional society loves to quote rather than follow.  What makes people like me seem mad (from a conventional vantage point) is that we actually try to live it.  In mad culture we get this.  Our people are doing stuff like this all the time.  It’s not a novel concept.  It’s not something we bandy about from a comfortable distance.

Equally important, it is not because we are more moral than anyone else.  It is just who we are. This kind of introspection, interiority, and passion for the intuitive dimensions of life is part of our nature. The quality of our connection with ourselves (heart, soul, mind, being) is what fuels our existence and engages us in living.  We have as little tolerance for polluting our inner selves with social untruths as polite society has for polluting outer appearances with social uncouths.

In a word, we are tuned in to the heartbeat of a different "drummer."    We may not be conscious of it, and we may not put it into words.  But our choice is no less principled - and no less valid - than the choices the dominant culture endorses. Accordingly, we make a different choice.  We choose to stay true to ourselves, our experiences and our inner knowings.  It's not something people can talk us out of.  And we can't live with ourselves if we do otherwise.

In the best of all worlds, both values systems – and the ways of being that stem from them – would be valued.  Each end of the spectrum -  the myriad possibilities in between – would be seen as useful and necessary for a vibrant, healthy humanity.  One choice promotes stability and ensures access to the necessities of survival.  The other questions, takes a fresh look, asks if the current protocol is really useful  -- and to what end… The former is the strength of modern society – it's focus on material progress and stable, measurable outcomes has made possible much - though not all - of what contemporary civilization offers.

The latter - mad wisdom - is a quark of a different character.  Its faithfulness to lived experience and inner vision fires the engines of invention and renewal.  It speaks truth to power.  It calls out conventions that are no longer working.  It insists and persists to find a better way.

When people are skilled at these kinds of conversations, a lot of good can result. New perspectives can be introduced. Old ideas can change.  Entrenched dynamics can shift.  Elegant solutions are sometimes reached that create win-wins for all concerned.

The problem is a lot of these conversations are really high-stakes.  They bring up all sorts of reactivity.  This is not just for the person bucking the system. Those with stock in the way things are can feel pretty threatened as well.

The end result is that a lot of these exchanges don't go very well.  Everyone goes away feeling bruised and battered.  But those on the low end of the totem pole usually lose the most.  We end up homeless, jobless, sometimes friendless, as well as disillusioned and confused.

Most of us also end up socially labeled.  The cultural right of winners is to 'name' the losers.  So we get called crazy, radical, deviant, dangerous, delusional, abusive, anti-social, schizo, manic, criminal, terrorist, evil - the list goes on.

Below are a couple examples of how this plays out in practice.

Speaking Truth to Power

Conventional society says it values "telling the truth."   Generally speaking you will do better if you are 'honest.'  But what does honestly really mean?  In actuality it is mostly about property rights and observable acts, rather than feelings or beliefs:

  1. Keep your promises (do what you say you will when you say you will do it)
  2. Don't cheat or steal from your family, friends, neighbors or boss
  3. Don't cheat on your spouse or with your neighbor's spouse

These things are good for herd membership and material survival.  They create expectations that others can trust and a sense of fair play all around.

These rules work fairly well where social power is equal.  The honesty rule tends to go out the window, however, when the power dynamics change.  Consider these examples:

  1. Your boss tells you to cut corners with customers and fudge the company records.
  2. The police stop you for 'driving while black.'  
  3. The staff on the psych ward forcibly seclude and restrain you for spitting out drugs you have a constitutional right to refuse.    

A lot of people would be troubled, offended and traumatized by these things.  However, conventional wisdom counsels keeping your thoughts to yourself.  If you get asked what you think by your boss, police or hospital staff, mostly you try to figure out what they want to hear and tell them.  This kind of dishonesty happens all the time.  It is considered an acceptable necessary evil of conventional survival. These motives are understood by most people with 'good social judgment.' In such circumstances, 'dishonesty' is considered perfectly rational, understandable and 'sane'.

In contrast, getting honest about what you really think to police, employers or psych ward personnel is a good way to arrested, fired,  drugged or even killed in some cases. You risk your freedom, income and safety (physical survival).  You also risk not being believed (social survival) because it's your word against a socially-recognized authority.

Just as important, your challenge to any of these big shots is not just problematic.  It is likely 'symptomatic'  - e.g., oppositional, defiant, impulsive, inappropriate, grandiose, manic and emotionally dysregulated.  From a medical perspective, these are not just bad behaviors.  They are 'signs' of 'mental illness.'  Thus, express your sentiments to the wrong somebody in the wrong way, and you are well on your way to an official psychiatric diagnosis:  conduct disorder, oppositional-defiant disorder, ADHD, bipolar disorder, anti-social personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, to name a few.

Following Your Dream

A lot of us get called crazy for following our dreams. So see how this occurs, let's take a look at what happens when mental diversity pushes the conventional bias for material stability and financial productivity a bit too far.

Generally speaking, society values dedication, innovation and social consciousness.  If you're trying to move up in your profession, starting an accepted line of business, gainfully employed by a recognized charity, giving your all for your working partner or so your kids can be better off than you were, then you are seen as sincere. ambitious, hard-working and noble.

But, suppose you invest all your time, energy or life savings into trying to develop a visionary invention or product line.  Or suppose you 'put all your eggs in one basket' trying to make your unique concept of beauty, harmony or a better world into a reality.  Well, if your dream or the way you go about it gets too far out of line with conventional understandings, you are likely to be seen by your more pragmatic neighbors as naive, foolish, fanatical, dippy,  a bit of a kook or a nutcase.  This is especially true if you're excited about your plans and believe you are onto something really big - like making your million, retiring at 30, stopping climate change or bringing spiritual enlightenment to human kind.

Ok, so generally no big deal.  As the old adage goes, sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.  All is good and well, or so it seems.... especially if you manage to help a lot of people or turn an impressive profit.  Nothing convinces like success.  So if you manage to succeed, as some of us do (Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Donald Trump), you are likely considered a saint, a genius, a prodigy or rising star.

On the other hand, if returns are sparse and costs are high, a far different fate may befall you. As has happened for many of us, others fail to see the value of your work and the complaints start rolling in. According to your partner, parents, adult children, neighbors, the community your live in, etc.:

  • You're neglecting duties at home
  • You'risking the family fortune, 
  • You're an embarrassment
  • You're creating a public disturbance

This is just another way of saying that, from the standpoint of conventional others: 

You have gone too far - and we are uncomfortable.  It's hard enough to survive in this world.  How can you flush our future down the drain like this? You should be focused on securing your future so, at the very least, we don't have to worry about you.  You should also be concerned enough about us to be focused on our future.  How are these silly dreams you are chasing ever going to create anything worthwhile that the rest of us can use...?

It is at this point that 'professional help' is often solicited.   Now the words actually can and do hurt you.  They take on clinical significance and clinical names.  Instead of being inspired, idealistic, passionate, kind-hearted, a hopeless romantic or generous to a fault, you are grandiose, delusional, obsessive, compulsive, euphoric, derailed in your thinking and lacking in your judgment.  With such descriptions, the odds are now high - as countless numbers of us can attest - that you will be diagnosed with a mood or thought disorder,  In all probability, you will not be going home any time soon from the clinician's office or hospital that concerned others have dragged you to.

Appreciating the Messages of Mad Wisdom

It does not bode well for the collective conscience that we continue to imprison, incapacitate and kill our most gifted messengers.  In the name of sanity, mad people have been labelled, othered, bullied, tazed, locked up, drugged, shocked, lobotomized, secluded and restrained. Our hopes and dreams have been shot down by friend and foe alike.

The time has long since come for recognizing the validity and value of mad perspectives in our modern world. The wisdom of mad experience is ripe for discovery and appreciation.   Like poetry, painting or music, the artistry of madness is pregnant with revelatory possibility.  We articulate new languages, embody new fashions, broadcast new stations, position new vantage points, incarnate new ideals.  The obscured needs and longings of entire generations and communities break through in visions, voices, dreams, deeds, fits and rants and wrinkles...  

To be sure, the messages of mad wisdom are not always easy for conventional society to decode. This is in part because the dominant culture is so out of balance and so desperately in need of change.  Of course the messages of madness seem incomprehensible and nonsensical to a culture that measures human worth in dollars and cents.

Still, the truth we speak is no less real:

 Life is more than practicality.  The price of normalcy is too high.  There is a better way. Finding it together is gonna take some work.

To read more of this guide: 

Not Broken Biology: Getting Beyond the Disease Model Paradigm of 'Mental Illness' http://peerlyhuman.blogspot.com/2017/03/not-broken-biology-getting-beyond.html


  1. I'm reminded of the Rob Siltanen quote:
    “Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

    Prophets, seers, goldmine canaries, shamans - I wonder how many are never seen? What this guy calls 'genius' is often never heralded or acknowledged. Sometimes it changes the world, and sometimes the world is not open or ready to being changed. Jesus, Buddha and Gandhi- for all of their suffering also managed to communicate in ways that were eventually heard, and were celebrated. They were seen.

    Those of us who are not so brilliant- who can find ways to 'pass' at times- sit with a different responsibility- that of seeing, acknowledging, sometimes translating (and realizing that this is not always welcome!), being present, listening... Connecting.


  2. Thanks Chris - Awesome quote. Really appreciate what you add to the discussion. Also appreciate how much your work and ideas have inspired this kind of thinking in me and others.

  3. Sarah, I like this a lot. Will point out that sometimes it's stillness or shutting down, and even that is because of pursuing a vision or trying to achieve something elusive and important.

    I struggle with something about navigating back and forth between that fidelity, and ordinary awareness or the survival and herd mentality objectives, that make some kind of movement possible instead of stasis. But I also believe that pure stubbornness has its own value, as frustrating as it is to witness and to experience.

    And here's something I wrote recently that connects with the theme: https://tastethespring.wordpress.com/2017/05/05/lilit/. Hope you don't mind my promoting it here, I hope it adds and isn't a distraction.

  4. Yes, so true, all of it. Great poem & blog - https://tastethespring.wordpress.com/2017/05/05/lilit/

  5. Thank you, Sarah. I like this and wish that there were a way that nonconventional mad people did not have to suffer for their decisions.

  6. Thank you, Sarah. I like this and wish that there were a way that nonconventional mad people did not have to suffer for their decisions.


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