November 23, 1989

How Do You Know That You're Sane?

If you can trust yourself, when all men doubt you,

Yet make allowances for their doubting too.

Rudyard Kipling: If

I learned in school that sanity had to do with reality testing and that someone who was not aware of reality was insane and vice versa. I have since found out that it isn't anwhere near that simple. Even the shrinks don't agree. For every alienist who will tell a jury that a murderer is insane, you can find one who will say the opposite.

I heard a psychiatrist say that the Kamikazi pilot, who crashed his explosive-loaded plane into an aircraft carrier, was sane since he was conforming to the mores of the society in which he lived. Can you consider someone sane who, in the prime of life, commits suicide for his country? How about someone who gives his life for his country? How about someone who just risks his life for his country? How about someone who risks his life trying to save a child in a burning building? What if it's his own child? How about someone who kills himself because life is miserable for him and he believes that when he dies he will go to a better life? Is he sane?

I'd be willing to bet that if I asked those questions of an audience and asked for a show of hands, that most people would look around to see how everyone else was voting; at least the sane ones would. There is nothing more disconcerting than to be the only one in a crowd who cheers for the wrong side.

Suppose that I rigged an audience with people who were paid to raise their hands the way that I told them to, so that everyone would vote that the man who committed suicide to go to a better world, was sane. If I put you in the audience, how would you vote? Suppose that my rigged audience also yelled yea! yea! yea! -or amen!

What does an atheist do when everyone else has their head bowed and someone is saying grace? He either bows his head and makes believe that he is a believer or he looks around to see if anyone else is also looking around. He has few viable options; particularly if he is hungry.

There was a priest-astronomer who had an outlandish theory which fit all of the known facts about the movement of the planets. His beliefs were considered heresy by his church and if he said what he believed to anyone else, they would think him ,if not mad, at least eccentric. Eccentric is what you're called if you're crazy and rich, or crazy and influential. What else but crazy, could you call a man who said that the earth went around the sun, when anyone can plainly see that the sun and moon both go around the earth? That man was Coppernicus and his crazy ideas are now accepted by anyone who knows anything about astronomy, and a lot of people who know nothing about astronomy.

One question that interests me at the moment is how does a person manage when he is pretty sure that he is right and everyone else is wrong? Almost all scientists who are at the forefront of their field are in that spot. So are a bunch of people who are crazier than bedbugs.

The psychologist Claude Steiner has a theory that said that if you are crazy and you can get seven people to see things the same as you do, that you are no longer crazy, you have become a leader and prophet. Why seven?

Shrinks are frequently asked, "Am I crazy?". Usually they can answer "No, you're not crazy," because a person who has enough of their marbles left to ask that question isn't really out of it.

ALL OF US HAVE PERIODS OF INSANITY and adolescence usually has lots of those periods. Periods of craziness often accompany personal tragedy, such as the death of a member of the family or divorce. Fortunately, we grow out of it, or it passes; usually without the benefits of "psychology". Yet, whether or not we snap out of it often depends on whether the people around us tell us that we are sane or crazy. Telling someone that they need a shrink is not necessarily a good idea. Sometimes a hug, a pat on the back or a friendly ear works better. And it's a lot cheaper.

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