WHAT'S THE MEANING OF "SANITY"
(IN A CRAZY WORLD)? [PT 1]
What's the meaning of the word “sanity”?
This might seem like a silly question.
After all, most of us “know” what sanity is.
Sure, it might be hard to articulate the exact, perfect, un-deconstructable definition of the word that could hold up on the witness stand under all scrutiny, cross-examination, and interrogation.
But still: most of us “know” what sanity is. We have a sense of it. We aren’t professional psychiatrists or psychologists, but we are human. That's enough when it comes to just having a conversation and exploring a topic.
Most of us “know” things without being able to define them. Most of us “know” what love is, for example, but we still need an assist from poets, singers, and Hallmark cards to try to wrap words around it. The same is true for things like “happiness,” “God,” “the meaning of life,” and so on.
But then again: when it comes to the definition of “sanity,” it really matters.
After all, it’s possible to be seriously mistaken in these matters.
More than a few people today are probably walking around thinking they aren’t completely “sane,” when they essentially are. And others are probably walking around thinking they’re perfectly fine, which they likely aren’t.
And at risk of stating the obvious, a significant number of people today think the rest of the world has gone “insane.” And that “rest of the world” seems to think the same thing about them.
So, who's right?
One side? The other? Both sides? Neither?
That part’s not always obvious.
These days (in 2022), a tidal wave flood of crazy seems to be crashing through the entire world.
As individuals, most of us probably can’t control too much in the way of major world events.
But we can control our responses to these events. The world might go crazy, but we don’t have to. We can work to build ourselves a sturdy boat to survive the flood.
Or we can work on our surfing skills.
We might not be able to control the tidal waves of crazy all around us, but we can avoid passively waiting for them to just crash down on us. We can work, instead, to ride them.
That seems to be our challenge these days: to surf the waves of crazy that roll our way, and stay sane – above water – despite it all.
After all, most of us just want to live a good and fulfilling life. And this usually depends on having at least some measure of genuine sanity. It means we shouldn’t let the world drive us crazy, even if it sometimes seems determined to do exactly that.
So, it might help to clarify exactly what some of this means.
Even if half the world really thinks the other half has gone crazy – and vice versa – both sides seem to agree on one point: that sanity is good thing, and insanity isn’t.
The trick, then, lies in clarifying what exactly we’re aiming for, and what we’re trying to get away from.
If it’s successful, this little effort might help everyone understand each other a little more.
It might even help everyone become a little saner.
A good, clear definition can become a kind of North Star to navigate by. Without that – when we lack a definite aim to help us orient ourselves – it can be easy to take wrong turns or wander aimlessly.
But it’s not an easy problem.
We often define “sane” to mean “someone who thinks like me.”
This sounds like a bad joke, but it also points us once again to “Know Thyself.”
But this also raises a good question.
Who defines sanity?
Are the folks defining the word sanity themselves sane?
In an age that has to ask “Who is fact-checking the fact-checkers?” or “Which media source will tell us the truth about the media?” or “Which philosophy of life will tell us which life philosophy is healthy?” – that’s the level we need to dig down to.
We can start our investigation with “the easy answers.”
These are the popular, conventional answers that easily come to mind.
If those fail to hold up (spoiler alert: they do), we can move on to what is hopefully more solid ground.
This means starting with the area of science that is supposed to specialize in sanity.
This brings us to the fields of psychology and psychiatry.
And who are the top “experts” and authorities in the field of psychology?
Some would answer the APA - the American Psychological Association.
According to the APA, sanity is “soundness of mind or judgment.”
This definition isn’t surprising. It’s safe, uncontroversial, inoffensive, bland, and generally unhelpful. It doesn’t really define the word as much as it substitutes one word for another. (If “sanity” is a form of “soundness,” what is “soundness”?) It essentially seems to put into words what we already know implicitly. All to say, it doesn’t really add much.
So, maybe looking in the opposite direction will help.
If their definition of “sanity” isn’t helpful, maybe “insanity” will be.
But when we look up “insanity,” the word becomes a legal term, not a scientific one. So, the APA punts the ball to the lawyers.
According to the APA, insanity is “a condition of the mind that renders a person incapable of being responsible for his or her criminal acts…determined by judges and juries, not psychologists or psychiatrists.”
So, this essentially puts “sanity” in the hands of lawyers and jurors – or other people who might know as little as we do, or less.
That’s not exactly reassuring.
Maybe some other authority aside from the APA has a better answer.
For example, we could refer to a book: the DSM-V (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual version 5, as of 2022.) This is often referred to as the “Bible” of psychology.
The DSM-V reads like a landfill that’s been piled high with lists of “disorders.” These “disorders” are various conditions that committees of psychiatrists thought up and wrote down in an effort to make sense of and organize certain phenomena. No doubt, everything in the book likely made its way through what was surely an exhausting series of committees.
But it offers no helpful definition of sanity or psychological health that we could find. There was no listing for “sanity” or “health” in the Index. There were, however, nineteen different chapters of various “disorders.” (To be clear: that isn’t nineteen disorders, it’s nineteen chapters full of “disorders.” Each chapter could contain a dozen or more specific disorders.)
So, when it comes to psychological health according to the DSM-5, there are scores of ways to get things wrong, but hardly any ways to get things right. Like much in these areas, it’s almost purely negative.
All to say, reading the DSM probably isn’t good for one’s mental health.
So far, then, we haven’t really moved the ball down the field. One definition is bland, another seems to list scores of problematic and seemingly arbitrary conditions, another that puts the entire matter into the hands of lawyers and those who probably know as much or little as we do.
But one other definition of sanity that deserves a mention.
Many define “sanity” as simply “fitting in.”
By this definition, someone who is “sane” basically “fits in with others.” Someone who isn’t, doesn’t fit in well with others.
The yardstick for sanity, then, is essentially conformity to society.
This is also problematic.
Aldous Huxley said it well:
“The aim of Western psychiatry is to help the troubled individual to adjust himself to the society of less troubled individuals…Counselling, analysis, and other methods of therapy are used to bring these troubled and maladjusted persons back to a normality, which is defined, for lack of any better criterion, in statistical terms. To be normal is to be a member of the majority party – or in totalitarian societies, such as Calvinist Geneva, Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, of the party which happens to be in power…Statistical normality is perfectly compatible with a high degree of folly and wickedness.” *
“Sanity,” as defined as “fitting in well with society,” assumes that society is sane.
That’s hardly a safe assumption.
Clearly, a society sometimes isn’t sane. In fact, quite often, the opposite is the case: groups or mobs can be less sane than individuals. The history of humanity is quite clear on this point. Scores of seemingly intelligent people, it seems, can be way off.
But this rabbit hole can go even deeper.
Sometimes those who don’t fit in see more, not less.
Any definition of sanity worth must account for artists, seers, misfits and sages, iconoclasts, and eccentrics.
The line between genius and crackpot can sometimes be thin. There have been plenty of times when those who were considered crazy, dangerous, or even criminal were later revered. (See: Noah, Lao Tzu, Moses, Jesus, Socrates, etc.)
These “case studies” are revealing. After all, if one of our neighbors decided to build a huge boat in the backyard, because – as he claims – God told him that the world was about to be flooded, and he was going to be ready, we’d most likely think he was crazy.
But then one day, the flood actually comes. At that point, we might rethink it: apparently, he wasn’t so crazy, after all. (See: Noah, the film Take Shelter.)
When an individual doesn’t “fit in” with others, the problem isn’t necessarily with the individual. It might be with the others. Sanity, whatever it might be, isn’t determined by quantity, popularity, or votes. A hermit living alone in the woods might be saner than an entire population.
So, where does that leave us on the definition of sanity?
It seems that we haven’t made much headway.
While we’ve followed up a few dead-end leads, the trail seems to go cold.
But we still haven’t solved the problem. That is, we’re still left with various parts of the world accusing the other of not measuring up to some standard they can’t articulate or define.
Until a better definition of definition comes along, maybe we should just try to figure it out for ourselves.
So, let’s humbly propose an alternative definition.
Let’s define “sanity” as simply being “being in touch with reality.”
But what is “reality”?
Reality is what is real.
OK, so what is “real”?
It’s what’s left over when there’s no illusion.
In other words, reality is what remains after we free ourselves from illusions.
We can know what’s “real” by backing away from the unreal.
Can this be clarified any further?
So far, we might seem guilty of playing word games ourselves – merely substituting one word for another.
Further, this definition can seem abstract. Things can get slippery when we talk about ideas like these in the abstract. They can easily get out of touch with what’s happening in the “real world.”
After all, when the word “sanity” becomes relevant and important in our lives, it’s hardly a matter of some armchair, abstract, philosophical speculation. The situations are often concrete and serious, and the stakes are often high.
At this point, instead of single, all-encompassing, abstract definitions, we can take an additional step to something more specific to the situation.
We can ask, “What’s sane in this particular situation?”
Behavior that might not make sense in one context (jumping up and down and screaming at a dinner table, for example) might make perfect sense in another context (jumping up and down and screaming at a ball game.)
There can also be nuances even within individuals. For example, someone might be very sane when it comes to work, but less so when it comes to money.
Or, someone might be calm and reasonable when it comes to routine chores, but off the rails when it comes to kids’ sports.
A person might be the coolest head in the room during a business meeting, but completely unhinged when it comes to drugs or alcohol.
And so on.
This is where “illusions” can be exposed and debugged on a case-by-case business.
This becomes a process more akin to debugging computer code (from a logical perspective) – or, to use a less abstract example, to take part in a kind of archaeological dig. The task is to clear away the dirt, mud, and rocks to reveal whatever dinosaur skeleton or buried treasure is hidden underneath.
Our main task, it seems, is primarily to clear away the specific errors.
Along these lines, we can expose illusions, logical fallacies, unwarranted conclusions, unintended consequences, and more.
We can expose these by putting things through a series of tests.
What tests? Well, it could be the same tests that determine the sturdiness or fragility of a life philosophy. Perceptions, ideas, or actions can either fail those tests, or pass.
These tests are:
1) Is it coherent?
2) Is it arbitrary?
3) Is it comprehensive?
4) Is it consistent?
5) Is it unified?
6) Is it illuminating?
7) Is it livable?
8) What are the consequences?
9) How does it compare?
The above tests aren’t foolproof, or easy measures that guarantee accurate results. That said, they are yardsticks that can sometimes be useful in revealing a degree of truth or error. A single, individual test might mean little by itself – a good idea might seem incoherent at first, or a detective’s hunch might seem arbitrary at first – but together, these test can help sort the real from the phony.
All of this so far seems like progress.
It seems to actually move the ball down the field, at least a little.
We now have a guiding principle as well as a series of yardsticks that can help gauge various perceptions, ideas, or actions in every situation.
While the approach isn’t foolproof and doesn’t offer mathematical certainty, it at least offers a few measures. It gives us something to aim for, and a way of measuring progress. The further we retreat from illusions, the closer we are to reality. The closer we are to reality, the more sane we are.
We can go even further. But first, we can to address a major question and potential problem along these lines.
This rabbit hole goes deeper.
* quoted in the Forward to Zen and the Psychology of Transformation by Hubert Benoit, Inner Traditions International, 1990