Category Archives: mental health

Shakespeare, Madness, and Trumpism

Sometimes I’m tempted to focus on Shakespeare alone in this blog.  His work offers us more wisdom than I’ve found anywhere else, if one has the courage and discipline to explore it.  As I’ve argued recently, I think his work reveals that he thought that madness inflicted the whole of this human endeavor and that even the “consensually validated reality,” if closely examined reveals this to be true.  Freud probably had this in mind with his book entitled, “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

One line from the play, “Hamlet” that has always intrigued me on this subject is, “What’s mad but to be nothing else but mad?”  Shakespeare was telling us, “We are all ‘mad’ but the label ‘madness’ belongs only to those who are ‘nothing else but mad.’”  Yes, everyday life is “psycho-pathological” but to waste much time and energy calling it that is kind of, well, kind of “nuts.”  Labels like “psycho-pathological” or “mad” must be reserved for those who go beyond the pale of everyday insanity and illustrates for us what is really going on with our daily grind of “consensually validated reality.”

But there is a continuum to this madness that we are all inflicted with by virtue of being “mere” humans.  There are occasionally people, even prominent people, who come along and illustrate for us madness though manage to avoid institutionalization and possibly even become powerful political leaders.  In my lifetime I can think of people like Idi Amin,  Sadam Hussein, and their predecessors, Hitler and Mussolini. And, you guessed it, there’s Donald Trump.  Though Donald Trump was “freely” elected in a democracy, his election proves the speciousness of any notion of “free will.”   Trump is a good example of someone who Shakespeare would describe as mad but he would also note that with him there is definitely “something other” than mad, meaning he really doesn’t deserve the label “mad,” but he sure comes close to it!  He is pretty far down on the spectrum toward madness but he lives in a culture that has found what he offers valuable enough that they are willing to overlook words and deeds that would disqualify most people from the White House and from the entitlement of the word “sane.”

It would be so helpful if my country would use this moment in its history for self-reflection and consider the wisdom that Shakespeare offers us here.  If we were mentally healthy as a culture we could contemplate our “madness” as Shakespeare challenged us to do and not be daunted by the task, realizing that to contemplate the notion does not make us “mad.”  For, most of us in this exploration would learn to chuckle, or even guffaw at things we began to discover about ourselves, quirks and oddities which reveal merely the conflicted nature of human experience and do not mean that we are mad.  But one dimension of the human ego which can tyrannize one into madness is the fear of having any flaw, and of having any flaw coming to the light of the day.  That fear often drives us not acknowledge our conflicts even if this lack of acknowledgement causes these conflicts to worsen to the point of mental illness or even to the point of validating one who is mentally ill and electing him President of the United States.

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Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invited you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

“Literary License” and Personal Narrative

I became “literary” lew when I started this blog about six years ago.  I increasingly realize that the choice of that moniker was more astute than I realized.  These six years have helped me explore further the inner recesses of my heart and I’ve learned that my early grasp of the world was very “literary.”  Then I was taught that the world I lived in was a very literal, linear-thinking world.  I dutifully complied and I’m glad I did, but wish I’d have done so with less passion! But now, pretty late in the old “ball game”, I’m using this literary license very freely and enjoying the freedom to interpret life from a less rigid perspective.  The world is multi-dimensional and I’m finding life much easier and pleasant, having slowly allowed this wisdom to sink in.

Decades ago friends introduced me to the notion that life itself is but a story and approaching it as such makes it easier to pose the question occasionally, “Now what’s the point of this story going on here, the one I’m being presented with, or the one that I find myself immersed in personally.”  This is simple use of Shakespeare’s “pauser reason” which, if employed here and there, can allow us to make better responses to parts of the story that we are presented with.  Otherwise, we will be unwitting participants in a narrative that is, unbeknownst to ourselves, setting the course for our life.  One simple example, drawn from my clinical practice of the past, is the “martyr complex” of someone who finds himself/herself constantly playing the role of the victim throughout life, not realizing that some unconscious need is being fulfilled.  When one self-created crisis has resolved itself, this person will seem to ask upon awakening the next morning, “Hmm.  Now what’s underway in my life today that will allow me to perceive myself being the victim, allowing me to start the drama mill of my life to going again?”  This person seems to pray daily, “Give us this day, our daily crisis…”

Though most of us aren’t martyrs or victims, we inevitably play some role that we are only barely aware of if at all.   I’ve found this “literary license” helpful in gaining some degree of awareness.

ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/stats/day/literarylew.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

“The Moon is Made Out of Cheese”

The following is a facetious reverie I utilize socially on occasion to illustrate the lunacy that we all wallow in occasionally.  Bear with me.  There is a point to it.

Wow, I woke up this morning and I suddenly realized that the moon is made out of cheese!  Furthermore, I knew that this insight was profound and relevant to the entire world so I immediately began to formulate a plan whereby I could spread this very important insight.

I started by canvassing my neighborhood and though many refused to open the door, some laughed at me, there were a handful of people who, knowing how special and gifted I was to begin with, immediately said, “Hey, you have a point there!  I’ve always had thoughts like that myself but didn’t have the courage to speak of them.”

So we began to meet regularly and started each meeting with an assessment of those in the neighborhood who had not “seen the light” and had so rudely refused the good news that we had brought.  We took great comfort in the realization that most people cannot handle the truth, stubbornly keep their minds and hearts in the darkness, and refuse to allow enlightenment to enter.  Often, as these meetings ended, we would be in tears as we lamented the fate of those who had stubbornly refused to acknowledge the truth that we offered.

I must make a long story short and summarize.  This initial group did grow and at some point our initial band of seven faithful souls expanded to twenty-three.  We formally organized and, of course, since I was the source of this inspiration I announced that I was the leader of the group…and also the treasurer…and that I was the final authority on some of the fine points about the moon being made out of cheese.

At this point, trouble started.  One gentleman brought up the question, “Well, what kind of cheese is it?”  I was a bit taken aback as I knew without a doubt that it was American cheese but another dared to suggest, “No, it is cheddar.”  Still another affirmed that it was American cheese but argued that it was Velveeta.  It took a lot of argument, and at times intense anger, but I managed to convince the second gentleman that the Velveeta notion was heresy and he agreed with me.  But the cheddar proponent was adamant about his viewpoint, and convinced three others he was right, and they separated from our group and focused on developing a belief system around the moon being made out of cheddar cheese.

My point here with this lunacy is, once again, “Don’t believe everything you think.”  Those who do, lacking the capacity to think critically, are subject to easily being influenced by a seductive and/or intimidating person.  Whatever our “pet” thoughts are, it does not hurt in the least to subject them to a bit of critical thinking.  I like T.S. Eliot’s observation on this note, encouraging us to, “live in the breakage, in the collapse of what was believed in as most certain and therefore the fittest for renunciation.”  “Pet” thoughts that have value can withstand this type of scrutiny and even flourish as a result.  This makes me think of something I read decades ago about how to make a poem, “Grab a word and pull on it.”  Grabbing a word or a thought and “pulling on it” with critical thinking can help ferret out the value…if any…if the thinking.  The less value in the vein of thought that grips one’s soul, the less likelihood that any critical thinking will be brought to bear upon it.

Each of us have passing thoughts.  That is good.  But we can be selective about which one’s we give any energy to and if it is something that tends to promote isolation, we might take pause.  We might ask, “Do I really believe this?”

Psychotherapy & Negative Capability

Poet John Keats offered the term negative capability to describe his ability to embrace a host of subjective experiences that most people avoid.  In a letter to his brother in 1817 he defined negative capability in these terms, “…when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reach after fact and reason… in order to allow, as yet unimagined, creative possibilities to emerge.”

In an article in Contemporary Psychotherapy, Diane Voller applies this notion to her work as a therapist, declaring, “‘Negative capability’ is the advanced ability of a person to tolerate uncertainty. This does not mean the passive uncertainty associated with ignorance or general insecurity but the active uncertainty that is to do with being without a template and yet being able to tolerate, or even relish, a sense of feeling lost. ‘Negative capability’ involves purposely submitting to being unsettled by a person, or situation, and embracing the feelings and possibilities that emerge.  (http://www.contemporarypsychotherapy.org/vol-2-no-2/negative-capability/)

Voller introduces the concept of “space” to describe the intimacy of a close relationship that can be found in therapy or with any care-giving relationship, professional or personal. This is the ability to get out of oneself and realize that the distinction between “me and thee” is not as definite as we are taught that it is and yet avoiding the pitfall of co-dependency.  It is the ability to enter the domain of “no-boundaries” even as one maintains his/her own “boundaries.”  The 13th century Persian Sufi poet Rumi best described this essential spiritual skill, “Out beyond the distinctions of right doing and wrong doing, there is a field.  I will meet you there.”  Rumi keenly grasped the need of getting beyond the distinctions of “me” and “thee” if we are to enter sacred space with another person and clinical work is intrinsically spiritual.  Or it should be.

Voller is simply putting on the table for therapists and care-givers the notion of vulnerability.  It is so much easier to practice clinically when one is ensconced in jargon and “shop-talk”, hiding behind a diagnostic knife which always keeps the client “out there” separate and distinct from oneself.  And relevant to vulnerability, my mind always comes to a pithy observation from Norman O. Brown, “To be is to be vulnerable.”  If one is invulnerable, he/she lacks ‘be’-ing in the world.  He/she is just another object in a world full of objects, devoid of any spiritual (i.e. “spacial”) presence.

Shakespeare’s Advise to the Wounded Soul

Shakespeare offered wisdom for all dimensions of the human experience.  For example, here he offered insight into maladies of the soul still relevant to modern times:

MACBETH   Cure her of that. 
                Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased, 
                Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, 
                Raze out the written troubles of the brain 
                And with some sweet oblivious antidote 
                Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff 
                Which weighs upon the heart?

PHYSICIAN  Therein must the patient minister unto herself.

Shakespeare was one of the greatest spiritual teachers we have ever had.  He certainly realized the value of “the healer’s art” I’m sure but he knew that ultimately each individual is alone, left with the responsibility of “working out our own salvation with fear and trembling.”  Others may assist us, and should, but ultimately we have to muster up the courage to confront the demons that haunt us in our inner most depths.

In religion and in the mental health profession, the quick cure is always fashionable.  These two enterprises often proffer only fads and fashions designed only as a band-aid that can only temporarily cover an existential crisis that needs to be “lived” through.  As someone put it, matters have the heart cannot be resolved by “thinking” through them but only by “feeling” through them.

Here I include a modern translation of the above Shakespearean quote:

In a modern translation, this part of the scene would say “Cure her of that. Can’t you treat a diseased mind? Take away her memory of sorrow? Use some drug to erase the troubling thoughts from her brain and ease her heart?” This is describing how Macbeth is pleading for his wife’s health. He feels compelled to treat her and is saddened when he hears from the doctor that one cannot mend the emotionally ill. This leads Macbeth into a rant that almost accuses the doctor of not being a doctor at all because he’s not able to cure someone emotionally sick. Macbeth is needing the doctor to be able to do something, use some drug that can help her in any way

 

Emily Dickinson & “Internal Difference”

In one of my favorite Dickinson poems, quoted a few days ago, she describes a descent into the interiority of one’s soul where is found “internal difference where the meanings are.” In modern terms this descent is an openness to one’s unconscious which is given us if we start paying attention to the whims and fancies that pass through our mind…including those that are unsavory…as well as to dreams.  It also involves enough “self” awareness to begin to ask, “Why does this always happen to me” as we recognize repeated patterns of behavior in our life and find the courage to tolerate the suspicion that it is not necessarily someone else’s fault. But focus on this subterranean dimension of life is dangerous to those who have spent their life on the surface, busying themselves with the baubles that life tosses their way, “like kittens given their own tails to tease.” (Goethe)

This adventure was described by Dante at the beginning of The Inferno as a journey into “the deep forest” for in the forest conveys a childhood fear of getting lost; and, on this journey one pretty well has to “get lost” at sometime.  Here is an excerpt from a W. H. Auden poem which describes this risk:

Heroic charity is rare;
Without it, what except despair
Can shape the hero who will dare
The desperate catabasis
Into the snarl of the abyss
That always lies just underneath
Our jolly picnic on the heath
Of the agreeable, where we bask,
Agreed on what we will not ask,
Bland, sunny, and adjusted by
The light of the accepted lie.

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ADDENDUM–I am about to diversify with this literary effort of mine.  In this blog I plan to focus more on poetry and prose.  Below you will see two other blogs of mine relevant to spirituality and politics which have lain dormant for most of the past five years.  I hope some of you will check them out.  However, the boundaries will not be clear as my focus is very broad and my view of life is very eclectic/inclusive/broad-based.  Yes, at times too much so!

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

 

Systemic Trauma in our Culture

When living in England briefly after the turn of the century, I had the honor of hearing a distinguished psychoanalyst,  Dr. Juliet Mitchell, speak in London on the subject of trauma.   One point she made etched itself deeply in my heart and mind— that a victim of trauma has suffered “the perforation of a membrane around their soul” which then allows a cascade of old brain fears and anxieties to cascade forth.  And with some trauma, such as sexual abuse, the real psychic pain is spiritual as down in the depths of the child’s heart, he/she is realizing that the person who purported to love him/her is stating with action, “I don’t give a shit about you.  I want what I want and I’m gonna get it regardless of how much damage it does to you.”  This trauma tells the child that he/she has no value to the perpetrator as a person.  And trauma never goes away.  The clinical task in my past life was to facilitate the grieving process and teaching adaptive responses to the anguish which would always lurk in the depths of the client’s heart.

But trauma can also be institutional and cultural.  This systemic traumatization is even more challenging as it teaches its victims on some level, “This is the norm.  Get used to it…and possibly learn to like it.”  Dr. Bruce Perry, the chief of psychiatry at the Texas Children’s Institute in Houston, has spent his career working with trauma victims and in the current edition of the literary journal, The Sun, he is interviewed and shares about the neurological wounds that take place, particularly when the victim is too young to even begin to process what is happening/has happened in “rational” terms.  He also explained how the systemic trauma inflicted upon the lower socio-economic classes is very real and creates a core identity of deprivation, giving them problems like addiction, learned helplessness, and aggressive behavior.

Trauma usually comes at the hands of those in power who are always tempted to be seduced with the prerogatives of their power and the tyranny of their assumptions.  For example, in some families I worked with in my clinical practice, the sexual abuse was multi-generational, in some sense a “family tradition” and men, when but young boys, learned that women were property, “things”, and that by virtue of their masculinity they were entitled to use “things” as desired, even if they were your own children.  And this does not mean these men have no redeeming human values but their sense of prerogative and entitlement is so pervasive that when sexual desire is on the table it over rides little niceties like “the teachings of Jesus” which they are “devoted” to most of the time.  The real issues in life, individually and collectively, are always unconscious.

Entitlement is a core issue in any tribe.  Those who have climbed to the top of the heap, i.e. the “patriarchy” in contemporary vernacular, see the world through the template of their own unexamined values and wishes and feel perfectly comfortable manipulating individuals, and even the whole tribe, to accomplish their end.  And, once again, I’m not going to say these power mongers are necessarily “bad” people but they are unconscious and have a built-in resistance to even considering the phenomena of an unconscious.  It would be too troubling.  And out of the unacknowledged dark recesses of our heart always flows “bad.”

Perry’s observations accentuated for me the importance of the economic divide that is egregiously apparent in my country today.  The wealthy “One per cent” are so trapped in their own narcissism that they cannot see the harm they are doing to the whole country, even to themselves, by not giving due attention to the middle and lower socio economic classes.  And now my country has a president elect who could be the poster boy for Narcissists Anonymous as his disregard for “otherness” and the attending “self-reflectiveness” is sorely lacking.  The trauma has already been inflicted on the dispossessed classes but now an administration is being set up which appears to be designed to further their alienation and hidden despair, leaving them with nothing to do but “cling to their guns and religion.”

So often Bible verses come to my mind at this pivotal time in history.  “Where there is no vision, the people perish” just flashed on my radar.  When I approached life literally, I never really understood the meaning of this though, of course, I thought I did!  The lack of “vision” that the Psalmist had in mind is the dilemma of the narcissist as he/she cannot see beyond the end of his/her nose.  They see things only in terms of their own immediate interests and have no understanding about the long term effects of what they are doing.  And I don’t think Trump has any interest or capacity to ever venture into the “dark” when he is so comfortable in the glorious light of his own narcissistic splendor.  Nor do his devotees.

( Link to Dr. Perry’s interview in The Sun—http://thesunmagazine.org/issues/491/the_long_shadow)