Many people would agree that we live in crazy times. But I think there’s some value in trying to distinguish between the various kinds of crazy we are seeing, if only to keep ourselves (comparatively) sane.
Some of it is just flat-out randomness – the weather, for example, as with the recent multi-state tornado in December (the usual tornado season in the US is April-June). That’s an extreme example, but there have been a lot of them about lately. There’s also the kind of craziness that assumes you can treat your supporting ecosystems like a waste disposal unit without there being any blowback from such behaviour.
There’s definitely no shortage of craziness of the plain old psychiatric variety. Most, if not all, industrialised nations are seeing huge rises in what are euphemistically termed “mental health issues.” Frankly, a lot of the depression people are reporting nowadays is simply realism, given that in most areas of life and for most people in those nations things really are getting worse with no realistic prospect of getting better. In such circumstances, would happiness be more rational? Is it really mysterious that so many people turn to drugs and alcohol?
We can also find that kind of insanity supposedly defined by Einstein as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” The current poster child for this is the worldwide mania for giving people extra doses of a vaccine that will accomplish nothing of medical value. Why? For no better reason than that people think something ought to be done, and this is something which can be done, and so we’re going to do it.
Then there is the fine old tradition of the Lord of Misrule, where for a day social norms are inverted, government is handed over to those unfit to govern, such as children, and it is permitted to do all those things we are meant to refrain from doing. It is hard to contemplate the present government of the UK without being reminded of this phenomenon. Certainly our rulers have reversed plenty of social norms, such as not lying, at least pretending to be embarrassed when caught lying, not contravening the law of the land, not abusing public office to enrich their mates, not selling seats in the House of Lords in exchange for political donations, and so forth. Except that this has being going on for rather more than a day now, and some people are getting restive.
Yet another aspect of craziness is the Holy Fool: a figure who flouts every convention and yet has access to deeper truths than conventional wisdom can offer. Now there is something to be said for conventional wisdom a lot of the time. In the UK, for instance, it is the conventional wisdom to drive on the left-hand side of the road, and even if it were objectively true that it would be in some sense “better” to drive on the right you still wouldn’t want to try it on the M6.
Nevertheless in many cultures and in many times and places the Holy Fool has had an honoured place in society. One could definitely place St Francis of Assisi into that category, for instance. After all, conventional wisdom is fine for conventional situations, but sometimes you need a different perspective. That seems especially true today, because when all is said and done it was conventional wisdom that got us into this mess – or rather this intertwined mess of messes – in the first place.
Where, then, are our Holy Fools? It’s easy enough to find unholy fools; the newspapers are full of them. The College of Cardinals doubtless thought they had found one in the hermit Pietro Angelerio when in 1294 they chose him as Pope Celestine V, an experiment that was only slightly more successful than driving on the wrong side of the M6. But this was in response to a crisis: in this case, a two-year vacancy at the top due to the cardinals’ inability to agree on a successor to Nicholas IV. We have no shortage of crises at least as serious as that one.
“When you have eliminated the impossible,” says Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of Four, “whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Similarly, when conventional wisdom sinks us deeper into the mire, we should look elsewhere for advice. Of course the trouble with seeking advice from people who seem crazy is that quite a few of them actually are. This is a strategy of desperation, but if this isn’t time to be desperate I’d like to know when it would be.
So then my advice – and I might be crazy too – is to seek for answers in the margins. Look again at ideas that have been forgotten, or relegated to the attics of our culture. Listen to the people who don’t get interviewed on prime time. Listen critically, of course; as the saying goes, don’t keep your mind so open that your brains fall out. But there are more things possible – and thinkable – than we are generally led to believe. Search them out.
Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet, any more than you should believe everything you read in the newspapers. (The only thing you can believe in some newspapers is the date on the front page.) Don’t even believe this. But do experiment. Try different ideas on like clothes. Read widely. Use multiple search engines. Talk to people. Open your mind. Above all, don’t worry about what other people might think.
I call it grey sky thinking.
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