How To Be Crazy — Constructively

A while back, I wrote about “How Not To Be Crazy.”

And if you must choose between being totally crazy and being totally sane, it’s better to be sane.

But let’s face it: total sanity is kind of a barren landscape. It recalls Ambrose Bierce’s definition of realism:

“The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads.”

Toads are not known for their scintillating conversation. We are not meant to be toads.

Is there a way for us to be just a little crazy in ways that are constructive rather than destructive?

I’m glad you asked. Okay, okay, so you didn’t ask. I’m pretending that you did. Call me crazy.

Terry Newman, a sociology graduate student at the University of Montreal, raises a similar question in her article “In the Culture Wars, Be a Sancho Panza, Not a Don Quixote.”

In the classic novel by Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote is a rich man whose safe and secure life bores him to insanity. After he goes crazy, he imagines himself as a knight sent to fight monsters and protect the innocent. Sancho Panza is a farmer who accompanies him on his quest. Sancho isn’t crazy, so he sees the world as it really is.

As her article’s title implies, Newman thinks it’s better to be Sancho.

One of her points is that whether we are politically left, right, or elsewhere, we crave simplicity in our view of the world. We want everything to be nice and clear. “Our side” is that of the angels, while anyone who disagrees with us is the Devil’s henchman.

That attitude often causes great harm. To see the world that way is to be crazy: seeing things not as they are but as we want (or fear) them to be. We ignore ambiguities and uncertainties. Those people are just plain evil, while our group is pure of heart and does only good things.

And people can be crazy regardless of their viewpoint. As Newman puts it:

“Racists succumb to a version of Don Quixote’s delusions when life becomes overwhelming or tumultuous, and spuriously organize society into binary categories of us and them. But progressives do this, too. This notion of white nationalists and neo-Nazis skulking everywhere seems to result from the urge to streamline society, neaten it up, clarify its ideological categories, make everything luminously simple. Either you are an ideal citizen, or you are out. Either you are an active knight in the progressive cause, or you belong on a list.

But the real world, as Cervantes knew, is not that simple.”

And there’s the trouble: the world might not be that simple, but in some ways, we are.

Our distant ancestors lived in constant danger from predators, disease, and starvation. Evolution adapted them to survive in that kind of situation. We inherited their need for danger, but not the danger itself.

Somewhat like Don Quixote, we suffer from “first-world problems:” our phone’s battery is low. Someone used the wrong pronoun. Someone else has an opinion we don’t like.

Phone batteries? Pronouns? Differences of opinion? Can that be all there is?

Sancho Panza would say yes. But something deep in our souls cries “no!” There must be more. There must be danger. And if it doesn’t exist, we make it up — just like Don Quixote.

Recognizing our need for challenge helps us satisfy it without causing harm.

And how can we do it? In 1865, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln gave the right advice:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who has borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital to living.

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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2 Responses to How To Be Crazy — Constructively

  1. Pingback: Recommended reading | Down the Road

  2. Pingback: Recommended reading : Down the Road

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