ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG
Mondo Bizzarro: Choosing Sanity in an Insane World
I remember the day, teaching about race, halfway through the term, the student coming into class, shaking her head.
“This is nuts,” she says. “Race doesn’t make any sense. Racism is crazy.”
What could I say?
Except to wonder, with her and the rest of the class, who, in their right mind, would dream up such a thing.
Oh, this is a good idea—let’s pretend you can tell who someone is, what they’re worth, their intelligence, their morality, by the color of their skin! And let’s have a story where God creates different kinds of human beings just so one can feel superior and treat the other like shit . . . .
I could go with ‘crazy’ or ‘nuts,’ although delusional also comes to mind. Anyway, it is worrying because there’s so much of it going around.
Like telling ourselves that across the vast cosmos and billions upon billions of years, we, the human beings, riding our infinitesimal speck of dust, are the point of it all.
Now, tell me this, if I can’t claim to be Napoleon or Jesus or Janis Joplin without coming under serious professional care, how do we get away with that?
Or the idea that we know what we’re doing, that we’re in charge, that we can control the earth, not to mention death. That we can frack and drill and change the climate, blow off the tops of mountains, drive species to extinction, but, hey, don’t worry, we know what we’re doing, it’ll be okay because, worst case, we’ll figure something out.
Or we’ll just keep growing, because growth is always good and there’s no such thing as too much of it, whether it’s the human population or the GDP. Did we miss the part in Alice in Wonderland where she eats the little cake and winds up wearing the house?
How do we imagine a divinely ordained natural order by which we are meant to convert the earth’s biosphere, bit by bit, into human beings. And all the rest is nothing more than fuel or ‘raw’ material. For us. And we think this will work. That we should teach it to our kids.
Come to think of it, ‘delusional’ may be a bit too tame. How about wacko, bananas, bonkers, mondo bizzarro.
Speaking of bizarre, the former chair of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, said just the other day that the economy is doing pretty well. He didn’t mention that our infrastructure is falling apart, including schools, or that, at any given time, upwards of half the population either has nothing to lose or lives in chronic anxiety over losing what little they have. But ‘we’ are doing fine because somewhere else ‘they’ are doing worse.
What stood out to me was that the interviewer didn’t swallow his gum or burst out laughing. The telephone switchboard didn’t light up. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, it’s not as though Mr. Bernanke said something that was crazy meshugena off the wall. You know, divorced from reality.
Like the idea that prisons actually work, that punishment and fear and putting someone in solitary confinement for decades, even teenagers, is how you get people to act more like human beings. This is why we encourage parents to lock their children in dark closets for as long as it takes to make them good.
Because violence, we know, works. And it is good. Which is why we celebrate men’s capacity for violence as a mark of true and virtuous manhood, from football to war, and, somehow, miraculously, we think we can do that without bringing abuse and murder on ourselves and our children, because that would not be good.
Did you know that in World War II, widely considered a ‘good war,’ waged and fought by the ‘greatest’ generation, 50 million people lost their lives? Not to mention the uncounted millions, no, billions, of non-human lives that were blown, burned, and starved into oblivion.
This we call success. Victory. Triumph. Our finest hour. To this we make speeches and erect monuments.
I tried explaining that to my dog, Roxie, but she kept looking at me funny, cocking her head, pulling back her ears, then burying her nose in her paws and making little moans. I think she may have been a little worried.
Actually, come to think of it, it wasn’t the only time it’s occurred to me that she was wondering why it is that humans are in charge. At least in our current condition. As in, is it safe to depend on a species that, to judge by what they do, are, quite simply, by any reasonable standard, out of their minds.
Who do we imagine that we are? By what mass psychosis do we think these things we do are not insane? Stark raving mad.
I’m not kidding. These are not mere figures of speech. I am not being metaphorical.
We may think that to be crazy you have to scream and foam at the mouth and bang your head against the wall, but if you consider the results, hands down the worst kind of insanity has a calm and collected demeanor and speaks in measured tones with a good vocabulary while they tell you about the ‘real’ world and what is ‘normal’ and right, and aren’t you a little strange for thinking otherwise.
We have inherited, we are living in, we are reproducing as we go, a form of collective insanity. And part of that is having no idea. In fact, we think we are the peak of evolution, the gold standard for intelligence and reason. Dogs should be so lucky to be us.
Not to mention those ‘primitive’ indigenous peoples who actually believe that to be human is to be embedded in a world of relation, without which we do not exist. And that the cultural ideal of the autonomous, self-sufficient ‘individual,’ contained inside their little ego, may be the loneliest, not to mention the craziest, idea of all time.
Well, we do have some idea of our condition. If we did not, we wouldn’t go around shaking our heads and muttering what a crazy world it is, with that way we have of rolling our eyes so as not to look it square in the face and know that we’re not talking ‘crazy’ as in ‘go figure’ or ‘wild and crazy,’ but the kind of insanity that would freak us out for sure if we considered for a moment that’s what it really is.
Instead, we talk about it like the weird uncle you just gotta love because, well, he’s your uncle.
You might be thinking I’m one of those pessimistic malcontents who hates humanity, but I’m not. It isn’t that I’d rather be a dog. All I want is to understand what it means to be a human being, and to live by that among the humans.
But the norm of insanity is to be absorbed into a kind of collective autism, a state of isolation and disconnection that comes of an inability to live in relation to other beings, to the earth, to the consequences of what we do. It is to sit in the corner and rock back and forth, humming to ourselves in our obsessive, almost frantic preoccupation with things that do not matter, while being oblivious to where we are, the texture of the ground, the color of the sky, the expression on the face of the person across the way, the fact that someday we really really are going to die.
No wonder we’re so crazy afraid of death. As if it’s not supposed to happen. As if life would be possible without it. We might as well be afraid of food, or water, or touch, or the ground. Or sleep. Afraid of life itself, that, without death, has no meaning, makes no sense at all.
Martin Luther King once claimed it as a point of pride to be maladjusted to a world that creates so much injustice and destruction and suffering. He didn’t mention insanity, but I doubt he would have minded my adding it to the list. He went on to propose an international association “for the advancement of creative maladjustment.”* I’d like to know where to sign up for that. Then again, maybe I already have. Perhaps the belonging is in the doing.
Because to choose sanity in an insane world is to maladjust ourselves. It is, in its fullest expression, an act not only of self-preservation, but of conscience, of resistance, a withdrawal of consent. And to be sane in the midst of insanity is also a radical act of love. Love in affirming our humanity and the worth of every being, and radical in daring to challenge the power of systems whose insanity is driving us toward extinction and oblivion.
But in mondo bizzarro, sanity does not happen on its own. Not that I have an antidote to our condition, only what aids my creative maladjustment.
Like trying to minimize my exposure to the toxic flow of mindless stimulation—email, the internet, the ‘news.’ And rush-hour traffic and big box stores where I monitor myself to get out before it’s too late, like those horror movies where I want to yell to the unsuspecting hero, “Run! Run!” Except it’s not a movie, and it’s me.
Because sanity loves company, I read a lot, especially Native Americans working to regain the sanity that was taken from their people, whose traditional ways of thinking have much to teach us about what it means to be a human being.
Including that sanity can be surprisingly simple, even when it takes a lot of work.
I spend time with other maladjusts, who remind me that it isn’t crazy to be sane, which is easy to forget.
I create pockets of silence that draw sanity from the stillness, like water from a well, moments to sit quietly and do nothing.
I go with Roxie into the woods, to visit with the trees and the water in the stream, to watch the sun breaking above the ridge. As it has for billions of years, for trillions of beings. Roxie wants me to throw a stick. She stamps her feet. She knows what matters. And when I forget, she will remind me. That it’s not the stick, it’s the game.
I write. And when I’m in the world, I do my best to not be crazy, which includes not to worry about what people think of what I say and write. And when I encounter the insanity, I try to remember what it is, what it can do, and with compassion, and knowing when to engage and when to give it a wide berth, like I would a raccoon cantering sideways in the middle of the day.
Through it all, I try not to fall into the trap of thinking myself superior. As sane. Because among my sanest moments are those when I’m most aware that I’m not. Which is not as easy as it sounds.
It snowed last night. Awhile ago Roxie came in from Nora throwing the frisbee and the ball and then came down to keep me company while I write, as she does every day. She sleeps on a little bed beside my chair, her paws twitching as she runs through a dream. Or at least that’s what I think it is. She doesn’t say.
She opens an eye to look up at me. I think she knows when I’m writing about her. Then again, maybe not. Maybe she just wants to be sure of me.
*From a speech Dr. King gave in London in 1964, on his way to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize. You can listen and read at Democracy Now.