Exceptional Mental States, Eccentricity, and Normalcy

William James wrote an unpublished book about “Exceptional Mental States,” which was really about mental illnesses.  He made the astute observation that the difference between normal and abnormal is a continuum, not a discrete divide.  So mental illnesses are not a break from ordinary consciousness.  Rather, there is a spectrum that starts at normal and ends at psychosis.  At this point in my experience, I’m not even sure that normalcy exists at all, or how to point to what is normal.

The person who defines normal would need to be normal him or herself.  Where would we begin to define normal?  Law abiding?  Holding down a steady job?  Family?  I know someone who was all these things but morally bankrupt.  There are other things to consider in a definition of normalcy.  Culture and art may be important.  Physically fit?  Sports?  Education?  Maybe we’re now entering exceptional or “above” normal?  What about spirituality?  Can a person be normal without being spiritual?  Maybe a person can’t be normal and spiritual.  Because spirituality can make a person weird.  Read Augustine’s Confessions.

There are a couple people who dance really weirdly at a blues club I frequent.  One observer pointed them out to me.  Even laughed at them.  Asked to explain what they were doing, I said, “Half crazy, half drunk?”  The other person agreed.  I had made up my mind not to talk with them.  Too out there.  Little by little, the girl began to talk to me.  She found out I am a pastor and asked me about the sermon I was working on that Sunday.  After church, that night, she asked me how the sermon came out.  She was delighted when I gave her a hard copy.  Now She eagerly asks for my sermons Sunday nights at the blues club.  Her on-again-off-again boyfriend also dances weird–like he is teetering on the brink of a cliff.  We gradually got to know one another.  Last conversation we had was about Jack Kerouac, Hunter Thompson, and A Clockwork Orange.  This guy may not be normal, but he’s certainly intelligent and intellectual.  Maybe there’s something about intellectuals that makes them abnormal.

But the really remarkable thing about the weird dancers is the way they relate to others in the blues club.  They respond to everyone with love in their hearts.  I say this as someone who easily writes off people out of the norm, who I decide that I don’t want to talk to.  This couple cares about everyone in the club, befriending and genuinely caring about other people.  They have become treasured friends of mine.  This means something to me because Christian love means a great deal to me.  I learn about Christian love from this weird couple by observing them in the club and by my interactions with them.  I have a job, am law abiding, am in a committed relationship, own a condo, car, am a faculty adviser at a local college–indicators of normalcy.  But I don’t have the love, caring, and acceptance the weird dancers do–who don’t look normal from the outside.  We are all on different frequencies on the spectrum of normalcy, if it makes sense at all to talk about “the normal.”

 

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Well-Rounded and Alienation

In the renaissance period, the character ideal was to be well-rounded.  The various character virtues a courtier was supposed to acquire were listed in Castigione’s “Book of the Courtier.”  Among them were knowledge of the classical languages, aesthetic appreciation, musical proficiency, literary knowledge and practice, poetic ability, historical knowledge, philosophical knowledge and reasoning ability, wit and good manners, wrestling.  In general, the liberal arts.  Plato had another similar list of virtues in his “The Republic,” and Aristotle, also, in “The Nicomachean Ethics.”

Today, it is hard to figure out what character virtues western society values.  Society has become so fragmented that it is impossible to discern what the twenty-first century person is to aspire to.  Consequently, people tend to stay within the prescriptions of their career and family.  Emerson decried this form of society.  He said, “The priest becomes a form; the attorney, a statute book; the mechanic, a machine; the sailor, a rope of a ship” (The American Scholar).

I have tried to widen my horizons by becoming more of a renaissance man, a more well-rounded individual than someone defined by his profession, geographical region, and family relations.  But I have found that by being well-rounded, I am rather alienated and that I don’t really fit in anywhere.  In a bar, I sound too intellectual and like I’m putting on airs; in a university, I sound too raw and unrefined; in a church, too worldly and in my denomination, too interfaith oriented; in secular society, too spiritual; among intellectuals, too uninhibited; among scientists, too literary, etc . . . I like the character I have developed in my pilgrimage on this planet.  My soul is rich from having lived a variety of lives–academic, spiritual, philosophical, construction worker, poet, minister, lover and friend, scientist.  But for all this, I am not a dilettante.  I have a strong enough background in a discipline which I practice.  But I am not only my discipline.  I am not a form, a statute book, a machine, a rope, a test-tube, a hammer, a library.  I am a man.  A happy man.  A man with wide horizons.  I do not mind that I don’t really fit into a narrow social box.  When I was growing up I was taught to do your own thing.  I have done that, continue to do that, and my world is many worlds.