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William James wrote an unpublished book about “Exceptional Mental States,” which was really about mental illnesses.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.”


Dupery for Dupery

I was talking about God with an acquaintance who told me, “I just don’t see enough evidence.”  The absence of evidence led this acquaintance to disbelieve in God.  I made the observation that lack of evidence does not disprove.  His disbelief in God was on the same level of my belief in God.  Neither were founded on proof.  My acquaintance’s disbelief was actually a fear of being duped.  My belief was actually a hope that God is real.  His disbelief is fear; my belief is hope.  Both positions are emotive, not logical.

What I am talking about is not my own idea.  It was formulated in the nineteenth century by the philosopher William James.  I am paraphrasing James’ wordy language in the above paragraph.  James says it better—and funnier—but he is hard to read.  James says,

“To preach scepticism to us as a duty until ‘sufficient evidence’ for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. . . . Dupery for dupery, what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear ? I, for one, can see no proof; and I simply refuse obedience to the scientist’s command to imitate his kind of option, . . .” (The Will to Believe).

Dupery for Dupery.  Is my hope worse than my acquaintance’s fear?  With a philosopher’s precision, James distinguishes between two approaches to truth.  There is the quest for truth and there is the avoidance of error.  Those are two different paths.  James:

“Believe truth! Shun error!-these, we see, are two materially different laws; . . . We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoidance of error as more imperative, and let truth take its chance.”

If we are talking about something that doesn’t matter all that much—like the appearance of sunbeams being due to a colloidal suspension of water in the sky—maybe fear of being duped is more important than the quest for truth.  But if something matters a whole lot—such as whether I should devote my life to love and thereby find eternal happiness—then fear of being duped may not be as important as the hypothesis that there is a God.  In the case of something that matters a whole lot, I think holding a belief that could be true based on some evidence may be more important than disbelieving out of a fear of being duped due to insufficient evidence.

Living life spiritually is something that we cannot be neutral about.  Either we decide to live spiritually, or we wait for sufficient evidence, all the while living according to only material norms.  But we can’t wait in some neutral space between spirituality and materialism.  People can live good lives, but not spiritual lives.  Spirituality to me means living from spiritual motives, for spiritual purposes, according to spiritual norms.  Without spiritual intentionality, good people appear to be living according to civil law, habit, common sense, but not conscience.  And I think there’s a difference.

So we’re back to the quest for truth and the fear of being duped.  James quotes Fitzjames Stephen effectively.  And I’ll let James’ use of Stephen conclude my reflections, too:

“We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘ Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. . . . If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.” [Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, p. 353, second edition. London, 1874.]