[Note: As I was in the middle of writing this particular entry, I found out about the death, likely by suicide, of Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington, at the age of 41. While I had not intended on writing this entry on anything that was topical in the wider world, as someone who was fond of a great deal of Linkin Park’s music [*]
As a result of adding to my reading of the works of G.K. Chesterton , I came across a striking insight of his in his masterpiece Orthodoxy that I wished to share because it was something that hit home surprisingly heavily for me. It is an example of a counterintuitive piece of wisdom that proves to be deeply insightful. We are prone to look for madness among poets, but Chesterton comments that rationality is the place where people go insane and not imagination. He posits that it is one’s capacity for imagination that allows people to maintain what sense of balance and sanity they often possess. I wish to take that insight and follow the thread a little, and I hope that others may not find it a very boring or unprofitable sort of discussion. Given my own complicated mental health history, I am somewhat cautious about engaging in such a discussion, but I trust that while I may be all too well understood, I am not likely to be viewed as less than competent to engage in such a discussion, seeing as I draw my own personal knowledge in the situation.
I have often mused about the problem of insanity or madness or severe mental distress on several occasions and from several perspectives . From childhood, due to both my native high degree of sensitivity and to a traumatic youth, I have been afflicted with various troubles relating to mental health that I have dealt with as quietly and bravely as possible. In my own experiences, those periods where I have been in the greatest distress and trouble felt like being caught in a black hole as it is described by scientists, where light cannot escape, where the gravity of one’s own concerns and obsessive rumination on oneself and one’s own issues collapses the whole universe of one’s cares and concerns into a gloomy event horizon from which one seeks desperately and often unsuccessfully for an escape. Thankfully, such times are rare, but they are not unfamiliar to me. Nor are they likely unfamiliar to many others who have suffered with such issues. My own experiences have given me a great deal of compassion for those who struggle with feelings of despair and gloominess so intense that they fear it will never end so long as they draw breath.
My own experience, therefore, would tend to confirm what Chesterton is trying to get at about the aspect of ourselves from which madness springs. Madness does not so much as afflict us through our imagination, for although a worried and anxious person can easily imagine potential problems and difficulties in life, many of which prove to be illusory, so too the imagination gives us such possibility of escape as we can have from problems. Our imagination can give us resources through giving us possibilities which we can then work through, and working through possibilities saves us from despair by giving us something, anything, to think about other than ourselves and our own misery. Sometimes, if we read speculative fiction, we may develop the resources to imagine other worlds that are more pleasant than our own and other versions of ourselves that are possessed of resources we cannot see within ourselves if we look through the dull and prosaic eyes with which we view ourselves critically. And if we are particularly lucky, sometimes by imagining ourselves to be better, we may be able to see that our imagination tells us truths that we could not see any other way, and so we may in dreams or in focus on those things outside of ourselves or in the efforts of those who are outside of our own quantum singularity find ourselves to be free of that which we fear in the long dark nights of our often troubled souls.
It is, in contrast, our reasoning that can lead us into deep despair. We rely on our head to know better than our heart. Most of us, unless our longings are particularly problematic or our track record when it comes to seeking relationships and intimacy particularly unfortunate, are willing to accept that our hearts are not always wise and not let it trouble us to any great extent. In contrast, we rely on our head to be wise, at least wise enough to find us ways out of the troubles that we inevitably find ourselves in. And yet our minds often fail us, they are lazy, they get into ruts, and all too often when times are particularly grim they often fail to show us ways outside of the various traps we have fallen into. It is not so often the sadness of a gloomy heart, painful as that is, that leads us into despair, but the failure of the mind to see a way out of where we are that marks our descent into madness. When our minds cannot handle the difficulties we place ourselves into by giving us a possible way out, many of us fail to take the sort of steps that would allow us to carry on or overcome. It is failure of imagination that often proves decisive in our struggles.
And this ought not to be surprising. Our minds are often focused on efforts of calculation, and we turn our minds to the solving of difficult but often terribly mundane tasks. We pride ourselves on the acquisition of knowledge, not always very sensitive to what we are stuffing into our memory banks. Not all of what we remember and “know” is helpful to us. Not all of us realize the importance our mind has in helping us to get unstuck from ourselves. Too often in difficult times we pull ourselves inward and look only within. One of the great counterfeit pseudoinsights offered to our age is that the path to wisdom and enlightenment lies within, but that is exactly what is not true. What is inside of us will often lead us into the darkest of despair if we let it run untrammeled on its dark course. We need light and hope and insight from without, and unless our mind is focused on finding an escape for ourselves from what can seem like intolerable situations, then we will find ourselves worn down by the continual fight against the darkness within us, and ultimately unable to rise above the evils of our world and of ourselves. As difficult as a time as artists in our time have with mental health, for the vast majority of us it is not the madness of poets that we should fear, but rather the madness of calculators that leads us into the abyss.
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