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July 23, 2005


Going Sane: The Other Side of Madness

Daring to Open Sanity's Door

Sanity has been at best an elusive idea. At its worst, the pursuit of the idea of sanity inherently spends so much energy barricading itself against the force of its opposite state, madness, that it tumbles over into it. For example, consider this ironic illustration: a report from a US Court of Appeal ruled that a death row prisoner would have to be treated for psychosis so that he could become "sane enough to be executed."

Sanity doesn't have, on the whole, a resoundingly strong reputation. It has been viewed as having a stranglehold on human imagination, forcing complexity into a bland norm of conformity. It's the Stepford Wife of mental states: smiling, simple-minded, optimistic, a robotic beauty mask covering the often painful realities of existence.

Even though as a culture we may be afraid of madness, may want to lock or drug it up, we don't seem to know very much about what we want to put in its place. Importantly, however, we need the idea of sanity to help us to believe that upbringing and education are truly worthwhile, that culture works, that whatever is sane about us can be appeased. Sanity is part of our vocabulary of hope that depends on progress; on the conviction that what makes our lives worth living is that they can be improved.

A dialectical view of sanity is an antithetical one; it keeps opposites in play, it keeps alive our more haunting conflicts and confustions. For the more deeply sane, whatever else sanity might be, it is a container of madness, not a denier of it. The sane have a sense that anything they desire is either going to frustrate them because it isn't quite what they really want and so they will be unable to enjoy it fully. In other words, the sane are ironic rather than fanatical in their seeking of pleasures. They see their relationships as coincidences rather than destinies, their talents as unearned gifts.

This view of sanity has all the complexity of wisdom. It points us to a way that we might arrive at a better life. Going Sane becomes a place that is well worth going.

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