Madness and Mysticism

There’s a thin line between madness and mysticism. In her tome, Mysticism, Evelyn Underhill describes the kind of temperament you often find in so-called mystics, a term you should probably shoot me for using. But we have to call ’em something, don’t we? Those who see over the horizon, who hear a voice in the daylight the rest of us only hear in dreams.

Mystics are often remembered as sensitive, maybe a little mercurial. Some were considered mad, like Teresa of Avila. Yet in some cultures, the mad, rather than being pathologized, were considered touched by the gods.  Edgar Allan Poe observed that if you were sane in a world where everyone else was insane, they’d call you the crazy one.

So sanity isn’t really soundness of mind. It’s gettin’ with the program, even if that means sticking with the pogrom, as it’s meant many times throughout history. A man named Kohlberg studied how humans approach morality. By studying human behavior, Kohlberg found that most of us do the right things, but for the wrong reasons. He found that when they could get away with it, adults often disregarded the rules, whether those rules were chiseled out in moral codes, or legislated as laws. Oh, we don’t break all the rules when we can get away with it, and not everybody sticks their hand in the cookie jar when no one’s looking. But enough of us do it that someone thought it necessary to turn many of our morals into laws. And when we break those, there are consequences.

Caught with your hand in the cookie jar. It’s what kids do. If a child thinks they can get away with thieving an Oreo before dinner, they’ll do it. We don’t expect more from them. Who doesn’t go 5 MPH over the limit (or even, OMG, 10 MPH!) until they see the prowler lurking roadside? Who wouldn’t cheat (who doesn’t cheat) just a little on their taxes when they think they can get away with hiding a cash payment?

What does all this have to do with mysticism, and madness? A mystic is just somebody who tries to do the right thing for the right reason, and who does the right thing even when everybody else is calling them wrong.

When a whole society goes bonkers, it can cause great destruction because it thinks it’s right. When you’re on the inside looking out from the snow globe, it always feels like it’s snowing inside, even though it’s 80 degrees and the sun’s shining outside the glass. Things become normalized, often by degrees. If you cook a frog by degrees (to me, it’s insane to even think about eating a frog), letting it stew in a pot and slowly turning up the heat, the frog won’t know it’s being cooked until it’s too late. That’s what happens to a world when it decides to break bad. If you want to find out what breaking bad looks like, just pick up a history book.

Every culture does things that other cultures consider out of bounds. Would you eat dog? We eat pork, and pigs are smarter than dogs. In some cultures that circumcise, pork is forbidden. People from China don’t circumcise their children, but they eat a lot of pork. You get the picture. A lot of what we call moral is relative.

But there are some lines none of us dare cross. With few exceptions (and even those exceptions vary from culture to culture), murder is verboten. So is locking someone away for no good reason. Still, every once in a while, a society goes crazy and justifies killing outside the bounds of a just war. Sometimes, political imprisonment is justified. This insanity may be the rationalization for war, or for the imprisonment of a whole people. Yet while it’s happening, it seems sane and justified. Right now, we look at our nation. Half thinks that what the other half’s doing is abominable. The other half thinks the first half is immoral, amoral or oh, too moral!

This schism exists within nations, between nations, and between alliances. It exists within religions and between them. Every side shouts that the other side’s crazy. And it’s threatening to destroy the planet.

What do people do when they can’t see eye-to-eye? They go to war, and the great powers seem to be heading in that direction. They file for divorce, and our nation seem to be heading in that direction. Everything is splitting.

If you read the Bible, the explanation is that people’s hearts are filled with evil. If you’re woke, it’s about a lack of equity of one kind or another. If you’re American, it’s the authoritarian CCP. If you’re Chinese, it’s American imperialism. During Covid, did you mask like a fool, or were you one of those damned anti-vaxxers? We seem to be fight over everything from lockdowns to liquified natural gas.

What do morals have to do with this? They’re not on anyone’s side. What about madness? It seems that the world’s gone a little crazy, that every side thinks the other side’s nuts, while they themselves are the sane ones. And mysticism? The mystics would be the ones to call everyone else out. Or maybe just the opposite: maybe they’re the ones you’re not hearing from right now, while the loudmouths take over the planet. Maybe the mystics speak last, and speak with their silence, not judging the rest of us, regardless of political stripe, of nation, race, religion, or lack thereof.

Mystical silence carries a message: Thou shalt not judge. Thou shalt not ‘thou shalt not’ anyone for anything. When the fog of war settles, when the fires from the witch hunts die to embers and the scapegoats have all been burned to cinders or else canceled or locked away, everyone wishes they would’ve acted rather than reacted. They wished they’d have forgiven rather than fucked over the other guy. But you can’t bring back the dead. You can’t replace time stolen from those who’ve been jailed. Ruined reputations don’t often unruin the way you can iron a wrinkled shirt.

When will we learn? The world changes, but it changes sideways. So, maybe the answer to that question is: We won’t learn. And because we seem to periodically forget the lessons of history, maybe we should think twice before judging, think three times before speaking, folding our tongues in half so that they’re not in gear. And maybe we could sit on our hands before we take an action. Calvin Coolidge said that nobody ever got in trouble for something they didn’t say. When we stumble into revolution, civil war or world war, I think our problems start with what we think, get worse with what we say, and end badly because of what we do.

I can’t always help my first through. But I can change my thought about that thought. I can hold (and fold) my tongue. And I can refuse to retaliate. That’s my job here on the planet.

© 2023 by Michael C. Just