Friday, March 9, 2012

Shared insanity may be better!

      I was struck the other day by a quotation from the classic work on mysticism by Evelyn Underhill:  ". . . we have agreed that sanity consists in sharing the hallucinations of our neighbors".*   The movie "The Matrix" has a similar sentiment at its root.  To step out of the "normal" world requires that Neo take the red pill; he'll realize that he's been living in a constructed illusory world that simply seems "normal" but is really nothing less than control.   Taking the blue pill will allow him to remain oblivious to all that is really real.  
       Neither Underhill nor "The Matrix" are saying anything new.   In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus frequently tells his followers, "You have heard it said . . . ., but I say to you".  He called into question the dominant assumptions of the day, assumptions that controlled behavior and thought.  Moses' and the Israelites' covenant with God ran counter to the dominant religious/theological expressions of the ancient near east, expressions that limited divinity to one place, and worship to one primary form.  In Hinduism and other Indian religions, the concept of "maya" expresses the belief that we don't really experience the world as it is, but rather a projection that we have created, a projection that limits our compassionate interaction with others.
      It's easier, of course, to be complicit with our neighbors' hallucinations.  We don't have to think as carefully.  We may not have to confront our own privilege.  We may not have to take as much responsibility for others.  We may not have to seek to change unjust systems -- our shared hallucinations may see them as perfectly just.
      But often enough we are confronted by something that just doesn't seem right.  There's a ripple in the hallucination that may suggest to us that we are seeing less-than-clearly.  And if we give voice to our doubts, the charge of "insanity" may be leveled.  That precise word may not be used; the same sentiment may come out as "heretic", "conservative", "flip-flopper", "liberal", "[fill-in-the-blank]-sympathizer", etc.  Yet it may be just that "insanity" that is necessary.
      The aphorism "Know thyself" has been attributed to numerous Greek philosophers.  It is a sentiment with which I whole-heartedly agree.    And part of the reason for its power is that if we really do "know ourselves", we may be more aware of how much we've bought into the shared hallucinations of our neighbors.  Knowing that may empower us to break free of some of the more negative, unjust, structures we've created in order to fashion a better world.
      Maybe what's called for is a little shared insanity!



* Mysticism, 1911.

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