Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Failing to be Normal

Here is another excerpt from deep in my book I Was A Teenage Pharisee:

People Who Fail To Be Normal
Some of us were made to be different, it seems.  To see or be willing to look at more, more deeply.  Or maybe just differently.  Some people feel more everything more deeply than most people, too.  The two often go hand in hand.
     Jordan Peterson thinks that ancient alchemists, artists, shamans, scientists and religious theologians were all trying to discover important things about the world, and that the relatively recent decision to view the whole world in terms of matter and energy only, and to dismiss all other considerations, no matter how vital our need to understand them may be, is dangerous and irresponsible.
     So, Peterson thinks that when people get into a real struggle, as to their mental health, as to their psychological and spiritual development, that there are things going on that we just really don't know anything about, really.  Things that ancient drawings and stories and rituals (and mushrooms) were attempts to engage with, explore and help.  Things that are not really permanently helped by trying to drug the person, in order to remove their urge, their ability to try to deal with all that stuff. 
     “That stuff.”  Stuff people were telling them wasn’t real, or certainly not important.  Those things that were no doubt made instantly hellish by giving the person hallucinogens to allow that chaos to flood in uncontrollably, in an attempt to deal with it all, once and for all. 
     We still give unusual people drugs, Jordan Peterson says.  But opposite ones, with the opposite intent.  We prescribe ones intended to permanently forestall epiphany, rather than arrive at it.  To keep the lessons away.
     I was interested in the various cultures' shared observations about wise men, prophets or shamans.  Now, the descriptions of what they went through (wandering off into the forest a lot, not eating, hearing voices, seeing things, engaging in self-harm, oddities in sleeping habits, odd connections to geography and nature, and eventually coming back into society hugely changed, as if they'd become a whole different person) sounded like:
     a) biblical stories of demon possession
     b) modern stories of schizophrenia/psychotic breaks
     c) biblical stories of all people who interacted with God in any direct way, including Jesus himself going off into the wilderness.
The view seems to be, fairly universally, that human communities are predominately made up of people who are able to accept what their society chooses to deal with, and not worry about the things it does not.  Most people can successfully avoid thinking about the mysterious, the unsolvable, the stuff that the society itself really doesn't seem to have sorted out.
     Societies are not perfect, and they focus only upon a few things and recommend people not engage in any way with all the other things.  Cultures decide what is known and under control, and they focus upon that, and carefully avoid looking at what they decide isn't known and isn't even predictable.  Makes their job a whole lot easier.
     They have their members focus upon what can be explained and planned for.  What is handled.  What can be kept orderly and labelled.  Because what isn't known is chaos.  Unpredictable.  You can't plan for it.  So the stories are clear.  Stay out of the woods.  Don't go outside at night.  Don’t sail beyond our cove.  Don’t read that book.
     Peterson mentions Sleeping Beauty, and how, because the infant’s family will not deal with the fairy/witch Maleficent, and because she isn't included in the infant's preparation for life, her revenge is that she will be part of the young princess' life in a very big way.  By the end, she's a dragon.  But like her parents, the princess will be asleep, not dealing with anything.  Certainly not with things like dragons, which originally wanted nothing more than to be included.
     But some unusual people, Peterson explains, cannot (or purposely do not) shield themselves from the chaos that tends to happen.  And they can't stay asleep, or ignore it.  They find they have to engage with it instead.
     Because there always seem to be and always have been those people.  People who can't escape dealing with Everything Else.  With the stuff that the society can't quite explain.  They can't look away. 
     They see things others want to deny the existence of, or to forbid discussion about.  They hear what’s going on behind conversations.  They hear what’s carefully never being said.  These are people who have urges and thoughts that aren't what everyone's expecting, and which their community can't deal with.  People who seem destined to become lunatics or wise men and women.  Experts.  Artists.  Prophets.  Visionaries.
     I’m a fan of music.  The kind made by bands with more than one song-writer, often.  And what I see over and over again, from The Beatles, to the Rolling Stones, to Pink Floyd, to Black Sabbath, to The Who, to Blue Rodeo and any number of others, is a story of a sensible, talented, reliable, competent guy finding himself in a band, joined at the hip with an impossible to work with, random, chaotic, fiery, clueless but inspired guy.  One yin guy, one yang guy.
     And over and over, the bands break up, due to the unsurprising instability of such a partnership.  The two men go their separate ways professionally, only for something interesting to soon become obvious. Without that odd mix of stability and chaos smashing together, neither one really thrives on his or her own.  You need sweet and spicy.  Bitter coffee or cocoa, with sugar in it.  Their solo work lacks those dramatic fireworks that people were enjoying.  Their ability to somehow bridge the gap between them had been audible on the songs. It was what people were into.
     There are marriages like that, too.
     Of course, some people just have stuff severely wrong with their brains and the chemicals flowing in and out of them, and that's very sad.  But other people have brains that are more complicated, or differently constructed than the regular folk.  They quickly demonstrate special needs, special interests, special weaknesses and special strengths. 
     And all too often, there is pressure that the latter group get shut up, locked away and medicated with the former.

Being Reborn into Light
And for these kinds of people who fail to fit, there's obviously a "dealing" process they are inevitably going to have to try to go through.  A readjusting of their expectations and orientation to life.  Now, a society might even have a special system in place to help people like them, a support group of others who have gone through the tough time that invariably arrives for people like that, when they're first trying to live as functioning adults. 
     In ancient times, they would have either elevated that person to some special position of wise counsel, or just cast such people away, burn them at the stake, mark them and warn against them, throw them off a mountain or chase them out of the region.  Nowadays we’re more likely to  medicate them to make their brains stop wrestling with these matters.
     From Hercules and Beowulf, through The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings, to Harry Potter, one can trace an unbroken lineage of heroic stories, going back farther than we can measure.  Joseph Campbell called it "the hero cycle" but people in that cycle don't feel like, and don't always end up acting like, heroes. 
    These are stories of someone who, like Jonah, has an insight, a message, or a role he or she absolutely must fulfil.  There's no one else.  He or she is uniquely made for that one job.  But doing that job, playing that role, isn't something for normal people.  And he or she invariably tries to be normal, tries to fit in, tries to hide, tries to deny knowing the Christ, tries to run away.  Tries to not use the Ring, not cause magic, not get involved with the Rebellion against the Empire, not hear what the animals say, not hear the voice of the Lord outlining his dissatisfaction with Ninevah, not see the burning bush, or whatever. 

     In many of these hero stories, the hero usually fail to avoid the weirdness, and often then starts really losing it.  And flees his or her destiny.  Flees who he or she is.  And ends up, like Jonah, in the belly of a monster/dragon/fish/cave.  In the eye of Chaos, while the maelstrom rages outside.  All alone.  A place where everything one has learned, everything one does out of habit, everything one was prepared for and expects, attempting to follow one’s daily routine, suddenly doesn’t work.  Has completely random and chaotic, unpredictable effects.
     The thing that Frodo and his party have to do in The Fellowship of the Ring that is probably the most scary for them is they have to not only leave the old familiar hobbit towns behind, but actually start travelling across untamed wilderness, leaving all roads entirely, or taking ancient, forgotten ones.  Through forests, swamps, mountains or whatever, they inevitably end up “off the path” eventually.  And “things” are out there, where no well-trodden path goes.  Ancient things.  Odd people.  Wisdom and danger.
     If the hero can survive, can hold it together, he or she does it, ironically by symbolically dying, in terms of ceasing to be merely that person who couldn't deal, and is born again.  A new person.  Who just might be able to deal.  With more.  Just might grow to be more.
     In shamanic tradition, the symbology was that you would die, having your flesh stripped down to the bone, and then "them dry bones" would be resurrected.  Would grow new flesh, and be more suited to dealing with what had destroyed the previous person so badly.  Rebirth.  Like God dealing with Israel.  Like the image of the seed falling into the ground and “dying,” then sprouting into a new form.
     Peterson thinks, in terms of biological adaptation, of a given species of animal, and how ones with traits that aren't working die off, and ones with special traits that help, continue.  And connects an animal species adapting, to an individual person adapting.  Some traits will be dying off because they don't work, and some traits will be continuing on.  Or springing up in a different form as adaptations to external dangers and needs. 
     In most ways, really, the "reborn" person in the hero story has become someone who has somehow found a way to come to terms with the chaos.  With having a special role.  Despite not being able to "do normal."  Having some idea about and intentions toward doing Something Else. 
     The hero doesn't learn that the world isn't, after all, chaotic and scary.  The hero learns that it is indeed chaotic and scary.  The hero learns to become more than he or she was, and to deal with the world, as it really is. 
     Because in the real world, there be dragons.  And they will eat your sanity.  Addictions will burn you and take your gold.  Stress eats you and sucks the youth out of you.  You start dying faster.  Literally.
     These mythic stories resonate, because all of us see ourselves in those fictional struggles.  They feel real.  They inspire us to actually succeed.
     These stories resonate most strongly with people who become paraplegics, who kick addictions, who have some kind of emotional breakdown, who leave their birth culture and who remake themselves/are remade into people who can deal.  Orthodox Jews who've moved to Ohio and "gone native."  Lesbian Sikhs.  Muslims who write books critical of Islam and survive fatwas.  Heroin addicts who open treatment centres.  Amputees who train for wheelchair basketball teams and become captain.  War veterans who try to express the horrors of needless, honourless battle and death in poetry or painting.  Or in the creation of Middle Earth.  Or Narnia.
     The one thing all these stories have in common is that it's absolute chaotic, terrifying, unprecedented hell while in the belly of the monster, trying to work it all out.  You can't see in there.  Can't breathe.  Everything has changed.  Nothing works anymore.  So, it's utter madness while learning that one's life is going to be different now.  While contemplating that one is going to be born again and in many ways live a new life.  And no one's going to really understand. 
     What one might need is simply to talk to others who've been through the closest one can find to "pretty much sort of the same kind of thing."  To be less alone.  To be not the only one.