Madness and beauty in the heart of darkness

Photo by EconomicForum

Photo by EconomicForum

Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through. It is potential liberation and renewal as well as enslavement and existential death.       –R. D. Laing

I begin this writing shortly after learning of the unexpected death of John Forbes Nash, Jr. and his wife, Alicia. John Nash was a Nobel Prize winning mathematician who suffered from a lifetime of paranoid schizophrenia beginning around 1959. He ultimately learned to live productively, if uneasily, with his condition. He was also the subject of a biography written by Sylvia Nasar, entitled A Beautiful Mind, as well as a movie of the same name. I am invariably fascinated with individuals who make a colorful impact in multiple areas, relating very much to a refusal to obediently and quietly remain in any one given box. John Nash’s ideas and work had a significant impact on economic theory, politics, computing and artificial intelligence, and military strategy—to name just a few of the areas where he inspired deeper work in others who carried his efforts forward.

Schizophrenia cannot be understood without understanding despair. –R. D. Laing

According to Nasar (2011), John Nash was first considered for the Nobel much earlier in his life for his work on game theory, but he was dismissed from consideration due to his evident “mental illness.” He was finally given the award over four decades later when his schizophrenia was deemed to be in remission—when he was not taking any more antipsychotic medication. Over the course of his life, John Nash somehow managed to go into the heart of his own seemingly strange fears and paranoid isolation, accepting that those terrors were part and parcel of the same phenomenon that gifted him with ability to see around corners, infusing so much beauty into his thought and work. He came through the suffering engendered by his experiences. He faced squarely the disappointment, despair, and chaos that characterized his career, relationships, and life. In doing so, he found near the end of his road a bounty of love, acceptance, and meaning. Moreover, he was able to liberate himself from his enslavement to his delusions and realize the freedom to be truly who he was, in all of his delightful eccentricity. He undertook a true initiation, a death and rebirth, of his selfhood. He could not live in such a way as to be considered conventional and normal in the eyes of professional colleagues, but he partly encountered and partly constructed a context in which he could simply be.

In London, on Sunday, May 17, Sarah Kass, Jason Dias, Louis Hoffman, and I presented a panel entitled “The New Existentialists: Re-visioning Our Being-in-the-World.” Mick Cooper (counselling psychologist, professor, and author of several books on existential therapy) attended our presentation and astutely posed a question about what exactly existential notions really have to contribute to contemporary issues and problems. He tweeted from the presentation his understanding of the consensus that emerged from our ensuing discussion. What they bring, he said, is “radical valuing of compassion, of deep human connection, and of each human being in all their uniqueness.”

Insanity—a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world. –R. D Laing

Reflection spurred by John Nash’s death, as well as these quotes by R. D. Laing, have brought into greater clarity for me a fourth quality that I would add to Cooper’s list—one that has been lurking for the past week in the shadows of contemplation following my rush to the airport and flight back to Chicago immediately after our presentation.

The fourth “radical valuing” that makes existential approaches to therapy so critically important now is the value of gently yet resolutely facing the shadows and darkness in ourselves. These approaches have a unique ability to bring to the contemporary purview much philosophical wisdom that has withstood the test of time, in conjunction with our own inner resources of embodied, intuitive insight. They help us realize that the insanity we seem to find within ourselves is actually a reflection of (and a natural response to) a world in which isolation and alienation from each other has reached unprecedented levels—even as technology has paradoxically brought about global communication and greater awareness of each other.

Conversely, we are all too ready to blame external factors for our problems as well. Racial violence, religious bigotry, conflicts about gender expression and sexuality, hostility arising from the increasing gap between the wealthy and privileged few and masses of the impoverished, and a general readiness to engage in “othering” are very real problems and are intensifying and escalating at a truly alarming rate. Yet, as Prince Ea (American rapper and social activist) has asserted, peace in the world will never happen without inner peace and a willingness to recognize in ourselves that which we loathe in others.

Existential therapies, as well as humanistic and transpersonal approaches (particularly when they are oriented to diversity and social justice), empower us to face with courage what we might otherwise numb in ourselves through medication and addictions. In facing ourselves, we might then find peace in the acceptance that what we are feeling is a true reflection of the world in which we are living together. In that acceptance, we also come to radically value our own capacity for self awareness and choice, authentically experiencing the freedom to engage in deep, relational, empathic connection with others in contrast to (and in seeming defiance of) the insanity of global human conflict. Never before have we been more in need of such a heart-centered, courageous intentional choice on the part of each and every one of us, so that we may illuminate our beauty for each other. That potential is a seed waiting to germinate in the heart of darkness.

The R. D. Laing quotes also remind me that existential work is a viable alternative to medication in addressing at least some forms of psychosis. John Nash was unhappy about the side effects of his medications, and he felt that contemporary antipsychotics offered only marginal benefit over those that he was prescribed earlier in his life. Nash learned that the fragmentation and separation from his authentic selfhood that was a consequence of his medications was little better in its way than the isolation stemming from his psychosis. Radical acceptance of his own Being-in-the-World was not possible until he was able to liberate himself from his dependency on them to be “normal” and face directly the threat of his personal demons, cloaked as they were in the violence of the world around him.

As Joseph Campbell reminds us, “the cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” While no map of the cave is available, and no warning signs of dangers ahead are evident, existential therapy—arguably more than any other approach—perhaps reveals the entrance to the cave and helps us discern and accept the invitation to enter it, our hearts pounding in unison with the one deep in the darkness within.

Nasar, S. (2011). A beautiful mind. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

— Drake Spaeth

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