Saturday, September 08, 2007

In Search of Sanity



The Honesty of the Wounded Healer and the Truth of Madness in Search of Sanity

I take heart when I read such honest statements like the following near the beginning of a book, “Within a month of signing my appointment papers to become an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, I was well on my way to madness; it was 1974, and I was twenty-eight years old.” (An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, Picador, 1996, p.4). The speaker or writer of these words is Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, Professor of Psychiatry at the John Hopkins University School of Medicine. As a student of literature in my college days I had long been educated that the true criterion of good style and good literature was and is honesty. I still believe heartily the truth of this contention. Likewise, I feel that honesty, being always the best policy in human affairs, is also the best policy in true education and science. Kay is a manic depressive and this bipolar disorder is the madness to which she refers.

I have long been fascinated by “madness,” and what we might mean by this over-used and sadly much abused term. From my younger days I recollect the oddities or simpletons of my youth who wandered our small country town and its peripheries. I recall the so-called local bogey man, Joe X, whom adults used to warn us to stay away from and the town simpleton who was always looking for “any aul’ coat, Tommy?” This latter used address my father this way – my father’s name was Thomas. Then, at school and college I came across some crazy and not so crazy individuals. Also I encountered individuals who were deeply troubled and much suffering human beings. One was the beautiful Paulene X who sadly took her own life some time in 1979 when I was twenty-one years of age. I can still recall Paulene’s beautiful smile and her wonderful intellect so keenly displayed in our philosophy classes. Paulene was only twenty-two. As I recall she had suffered from depression, had spent some time in a psychiatric hospital after attempting suicide. Other memories I have of this beautiful intelligent girl is that she often gave me a lift as a pillion passenger on her Honda 50.

I remember our philosophy lecturer, Rev. Patrick Carmody, M.A., M.Phil., who was chaplain to the particular Psychiatric Hospital, telling us that her psychiatrist had said that poor Paulene was so badly mentally wounded that suicide was inevitable. Such a diagnosis stunned me. Indeed, it proved to be true. Questions still linger in my mind, like “could other interventions have been made to prevent her suicide?” Last year two pupils, the school counsellor and I between us prevented a possible suicide. I won’t say much more here for fear of identifying the person in question. Coupled with the foregoing are my acquaintance with many others who have one or other of the various mental illnesses like Reactive Depression, Endogenous Depression, Manic Depression, Alcoholism, Drug Addiction (prescribed drugs), Schizophrenia and Paranoia etc.

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison refers in her introduction to a wonderful Chinese proverb which runs: “To conquer a beast you must first make it beautiful.” (op. cit., p. 5) I think there is a lot of truth in this proverb. The stranger is always ugly is he/she not? When we befriend the stranger he or she then becomes beautiful. Love a monster and it then becomes beautiful. At the extreme of human nature, I am reminded of the wonderfully sensitive and intelligent human being that John Merrick, the Elephant Man, was. The poor Elephant Man was for much of his human existence a Gross and Ugly specimen to be exhibited as an example of a Freak of Nature. All a civilized human being had to do was look beyond the “ugly exterior” to the “beautiful interior” to find the wonderful human being that John Merrick was. Many failed in this human task much to their shame. To return from the extreme example to more everyday examples, we only learn to conquer our own mental illness (our own beast, as it were) when we learn to make friends with it (make it beautiful). Making friends with our own illness means accepting it and then looking for both professional medical and therapeutic help. Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison continues to describe her madness or manic depression in an insightful way as “this quicksilver illness that can both kill and create.” (ibid., p. 7)

But more importantly what I wish to highlight here is honesty, or what Carl R. Rogers calls “congruence,” that honesty and authenticity of encounter between therapist and client which alone is most healing. Also I regard such honesty, congruence and authenticity as hallmarks of true human encounters. How can anyone worth his or her salt shun such honesty of encounter with all and certainly indeed with those whom R.D. Laing calls the “ontologically insecure”?

I love Dr Kay's sheer courage in exposing the truth of the “wounded healer” as a professional psychiatrist, fully conscious that such could have personal and professional repercussions in her life. Here is Dr Kay once again, and let us take courage and inspiration from her words: “I am tired of hiding, tired of misspent and knotted energies, tired of the hypocrisy, and tired of acting as though I have something to hide. One is what one is, and the dishonesty of hiding behind a degree, or a title, or any manner or collection of words, is still exactly that, dishonest.” (ibid., p. 7)

Above is a picture of a sculpture of a Cormorant which I took at Skerries, May 2007

The Human Condition - Sanity and Insanity



Understanding the Human Condition (and Madness) – Maybe it’s all a question of the way we use Language?

“‘I see’, said the blind man, though he could not see at all” is a saying I remember my mother and father using quite often when I was a boy many years ago. It’s an example of what is called a Wellerism after Sam Weller, Mr Pickwick’s good natured servant from Charles Dickens’ famous book The Pickwick Papers. A Wellerism is an expression of comparison comprising a usually well-known quotation followed by a facetious sequel, and often times it points out how language at its worst can be highly ambiguous and at its best highly humorous.

Sloppy use of language can lead to all manner of contradictions and indeed misunderstandings. How often, I wonder, has such a shoddy use of language led to violence or even war? I argue here in this post that a slipshod use of words can lead to all types of presuppositions, prejudices and biases about nations and peoples at the macro level and even about our next door neighbours and family members on the micro level.

We are naturally drawn to contrasts because they are polar opposites. Black and White is an obvious example, while Good versus Evil is a starker one often appealed to at the time of international crisis or war. However, to anyone who is the slightest bit observant and/or intelligent there are, of course many shades of Grey between Black and White and many nuances of behaviour between Good and Evil. Not alone that, but the observant will be aware of the possibilities of many other colours on the palate of human behaviour outside black, white and grey.

Working with opposites has always appealed to me and such a study goes back a long way both in philosophy and literature. Writers like S.T. Coleridge and W.B. Yeats were interested in such “antimonies.” They saw that the dynamic nature of life was somehow enabled through the interplay of both poles as it were. If we are to illustrate this dynamism one could draw a line across a page and put one pole, say A at one end and the other pole, say B, at the other end and along that line lies what we may term a continuum, e.g.,

A _____________________________________________ B

where A can represent White, Good, Extravert, Happy, Sane and B their polar opposites Black, Evil, Introvert, Sad, Insane etc. Now the above line between the two poles is a continuum which varies in intensity with reference to the opposite poles and common sense and reflection tell us that we or any reality we care to observe or contemplate may be at any one point in our experience of ourselves or of the world. In other words a Polar Opposite view of the world without the continuum in between must be ruled out as being a very narrow and blinkered view of reality. Indeed a logic based on a True/False dichotomy or a simple 1/0 dichotomy where 1 represent True and 0 represents False is a very narrow logic indeed – even though they are a very workable and simple logic which enables our computers to work. However, modern logicians and computer scientists avoid this rigidity of the more traditional logic by inventing more flexible categories of logic like “Fuzzy Logic” which encompasses the full scope and complexity of natural language.

Lofti Zadeh, developed Fuzzy Logic, to allow for what I have called the continuum or line between the polar opposites. For Lofti Zadeh a particular proposition may be only partly true and might be represented on our continuum or linear graph or line as true to the degree of .8 (80%) and false to a degree of .2 (20%). This point can be graphed very easily with simple mathematics on our line or continuum.

Previous to this post, as any of the readers of these entries will note, I have discussed many times my preoccupation with mental health and its polar opposite mental illness. If we place Sanity (Mental Health) at point A and Insanity (Psychosis or Extreme Mental Illness) at B and consider the problem in its complexity then we are confronted by a more realistic presentation of Mental Health. In other words, it is obvious that there is no cut and dried point at where we can say sanity ends and insanity starts. This then, would be, to my mind a more comprehensive and authentic (in so far as such is possible) representation, although mathematical in nature, of the real mystery with which the brain and its only (?) constituent member the Human Mind confront us.

Life presents us with paradoxes and mysteries and enigmas. Reality is not all that crystal clear. There are always umbras and penumbras, shades and shadows, blurred edges as well as sharp images at the centre. To use metaphorical terms we can ask questions like “How long is a piece of string?” and “How many grains of sand make a heap?” to point up the complexities of life and its many truths. The latter question here refers to the traditional Greek Paradox called The Sorites Paradox. [The Greek word ‘Soros’ = ‘Heap’]. I’ll finish this post with two quotations worth pondering:

“As complexity rises, precise statements lose meaning and meaningful statements lose precision.” (Lofti Zadeh, 1965)

“There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.” (Alfred North Whitehead, 1953)

Above I have uploaded a picture I took at Skerries May 2007.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Kindred Spirits



The Lessons of Life and Kindred Spirits

The first book I read in Italian was one a travelling writer sold me on the steps of the cathedral on a summer’s afternoon in Perugia, Umbria, Italy in 2001. I was studying Italian at the time for one month at the Università per Stranieri and enjoying the “dolce vita” and indeed the “dolce far niente” in the less hot early evening after the academic exertions of the day. Each evening the students from the university used sit on the steps of the Cathedral of San Lorenzo and also on the steps of the Fontana Maggiore just in front of the former. There they drank beautiful Italian wine and ate lovely Italian food. But more than that, there they talked and shared stories about their homeland and made new friends. Perugia is an international centre for the study of Italian.

Anyway, one such beautiful evening this smiling writer approached me and engaged me in conversation. He was carrying many copies of his privately published book in a small haversack on his back. Within minutes he had persuaded me to buy his book, convincing me that I needed to read it because it was the story of his soul and also because it would prove a good way to learn Italian. The book was called Dalla Strada alla penna and is written by Gianluigi Venditti (pp. 158, Perugia 1998, pubblicato privatamente). I really enjoyed encountering Gianluigi and two years later I read and reviewed it in my poor learner’s Italian for my Postgraduate Diploma in Italian at DIT, Kevin Street here in Dublin. Such is always the way when I meet a “kindred spirit” or as they put it in Italian “un compagnio di viaggio” (a travelling companion on the pilgrimage of life as it were.) – I always end up buying their books or paintings or whatever.

The same thing happened to me late this evening – at approximately 20.00 hr. I heard my doorbell ring, answered it, met a kindred spirit and ended up buying a painting for € 105 which the salesman assured me that he himself had painted. You might think, “Yes, another poor sucker enticed to part with his hard earned cash.” For whatever reason, I realized or more correctly intuited that this was no con artist. Rather I encountered a sincere individual, a Spaniard from Catalonia called Juan – he did not tell me his second name. He told me that he belonged to an international group of artists who went from door to door selling their own and each other’s art. We discoursed until 21.30 hr on many matters from spirituality to philosophy to art, talking about Freud, Jung, Matisse and many more. Juan proved to be, like Gianluigi above, a kindred spirit, a fellow artist, a man with a big soul, open to others and to the world. Such individuals, it has been my experience, are few and far between, and when I meet them real communication happens. In short, I enjoy their company and meeting them at a level I am at with one or two of my close friends. Carl Gustave Jung calls this type of significant meeting “synchronicity” or, if you like, an encounter meant to happen.

Deep down I realized that I had encountered a new friend – a person with a big and beautiful soul. Such for me is what real spirituality is about – an openness to others, a respect for others which is able to allow that other into your heart or soul if they wish to come. Another way of putting this is to talk about “a lightness of being,” or “an ease with self” which shows no rigidity or no barriers to communication. It is also totally unforced and natural. If the other person met is not responsive to one’s natural openness, then that is alright – that’s the way life is. It is then time to pass on and encounter another.

I am reminded about the famous Zen story – one of my favourites – about the university professor who comes out of the recesses of his study to visit a famous Zen master. Having been offered some tea, the professor holds out his cup so that the Zen master can pour the libation. However, the master keeps on pouring until the cup is overflowing. The professor cries out: “Stop! What are you doing? Can’t you see the cup is already full?” Then the Zen master replies, “Precisely, professor. It is like you – you are so full of your own opinions you are not empty (open) enough to receive or to listen to the thoughts of others.”

The persons I find who are not open to me – unlike Gianluigi or Juan who are “together” and at peace in their own skin – cannot really be so because they are so full of their own problems and concerns. Hence, I know their negative attitude to me is never personal. Juan is a marvellously natural and open human being like Gianluigi whom I encountered six years ago on the steps of the Duomo in Perugia. They are true “figli del mondo” (Italian) or “fili mundis” (Latin). Thanks, Juan, for the marvellously enriching encounter. My words to wish you safe journey on your travels back to your homeland are from William Shakespeare: “Oh brave new world that has such people in it.” I look forward to dialoguing more with you by email. “Buon viaggio, amico mio!” I’m sorry, I know no Spanish.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Myth of Indefinite Progress



The Myth of Progress

(Any lessons for Mental Illness?)

Since humankind began to live in communities which then grew into the great civilizations to which we today owe our origins, the need to catalogue, to differentiate and to label became a necessity for the survival of structures. The growth of knowledge over those last seven or eight thousand years of civilization has now become a rising curve stretching ever outward into infinity. The last couple of hundred years have seen an explosion in knowledge of all kinds, especially in the sciences and technologies. The famous sociologist, Alvin Toffler spoke of an “acceleration of change” rather than the “speed of change.” How correct he was, and he was speaking in the sixties of the twentieth century.

However, as humankind has gradually come of age we have changed from a geocentric and theocentric world to a heliocentric and homocentric world. In other words, at the beginnings of civilization the world was the centre of the known universe and God was the great clockmaker who made this world operate in a rather mechanistic way. As sciences and technologies gradually ousted God from his central place as “universal operator,” this transcendent being was expelled to the fringes of mystery to fill the gaps in humankind’s knowledge. Of course, as knowledge expands with exponential alacrity in these modern days the area or areas where God operates or was supposed to operate have been reduced to ever smaller proportions. Of course, atheists have long argued that God is dead; a mere outmoded concept, useless in our modern world. Humanism took over from Deism, which had previously unseated Theism, to preach a new Gospel, and that was the Gospel of Progress.

Most philosophers and scholars of all disciplines today recognise the Concept of Progress as being the Central Myth of the Enlightenment. In 1789 in Paris the Goddess of Reason was carried through the streets instead of the Virgin Mary and an altar was raised in her honour in Notre Dame and this goddess was a woman of low character. Robespierre attempted to establish a cult in honour of the Supreme Being. Out of fear of incensing the people in the provinces, the leaders hesitated to abolish religion or close the churches entirely. The Reason of Man had replaced the Irrationality of Religion. Progress was proclaimed instead of Salvation. Indeed the Myth of Progress, one could say, replaced the Myth of Salvation. A religion of an omniscient, ubiquitous and omnipotent God had been replaced by a religion of a humankind dedicated to progress in all the spheres of existence. Where once Salvation was peddled by the Church, now Progress was peddled this new humanism. One myth replaced another.

Just as the religion promulgated by the churches was decaying in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so too, were the myths promulgated by the Enlightenment. The Scientific revolution brought progress indeed, but it also brought much suffering to workers who were treated as expendable pawns in the new economic game of capitalism which was underpinned by the Myth of indefinite Progress. The Industrial Revolution did nor raise all boats. The rich grew richer and the poor grew poorer. Then The First World War, The Great War, The War To End All Wars swept though this so-called cradle of Western Civilization, which was peddling the Myth of Indefinite Progress, and left more than nine million soldiers and civilians dead. The conflict had a decisive impact on the history of the 20th century. It grew harder and harder to believe in this a new myth which proclaimed the inevitable progress of humankind when over nine million human beings lay dead. Where was Progress now? Or indeed, where was God in all this? That’s really the same question asked from different perspectives. God has not all the answers, or rather humankind’s concept of God does not give all the answers. Nor has atheistic humanism all the answers either.

However, it would appear that an open agnosticism on the one hand, and an equally open spirituality, be it even of a religious variety, would seem to be good ways to proceed in our acquisition of knowledge and in our attempt to live in a humanizing world. Both must cherish an openness and a willingness to listen to the stories of other nations, of other beliefs, of other approaches. They must learn humbly that their truth is not the only truth, that there are other truths, or perhaps more correctly other approaches to similar truths.

Likewise, as we journey on our way to new insights and to new knowledge in all the distinct areas of learning, we must learn that our hypotheses are just that, hypotheses, useful only until replaced by better ones. All of this has an important impact on my dealing with what we humans have defined as “sanity” and “insanity” which like any other polar concepts like justice and injustice, good and evil, peace and war, etc there is a wide space, almost a “No Man’s Land” in between them. And so, friends, if there is a continuum between Good and Evil, Peace and War, there is also a continuum between “Sanity” and “Insanity.” The lines of demarcation are not that clear at all, are they? Think about this – it is worthwhile meditating on it, I feel. It often appears that when we engage in thinking in this marvellously oppositional way about any topic we find that the truth lies in a very healthy tension between both poles.

In short, we humans are too quick to swallow whole our own shibboleths, to believe fully our own propaganda and forget the marvellously pure approach of Socrates who taught his followers to question not alone the presuppositions of others but their very own biases. This Socratic approach is necessary today in all our sciences and in all our relgions (witness Christian America versus the Muslim East – surely they can talk, surely they can find some middle ground?) in today’s world. If there is one smaller, though very important area, where such an approach is doubly, nay trebly important it is that of mental illness. Let us ask questions the shake the the tree of psychiatry and let the rotten apples fall to the ground.

I have posted above another picture I took of the "poor crooked timber" of a rotten tree in Newbridge House, summer 2006.