cannot bear very much reality.
T.S. Eliot “Burnt Norton
I am using this quote as a header again because I have been thinking about and having contact with various forms of mental…. What to call it? Insanity is too strong. Illness, yes but it does not seem a good fit. Madness, no. Perhaps, mental instability, a wavering between perceived realities, a nebulous hovering, havering.
Two factors caused me to focus on this, one was returning to my gym. It is absolute heaven—machines are spaced and all the windows are open. I can do my routine in an hour, not walk 10k, which requires two hours. Being able to work out on a more or less normal schedule has righted my listing mental ship but also made me aware the cant of my previous mental angle. The second was learning about someone else’s mental list.
My gardener who looks after the irrigation system on my small terrace, something I abjure all knowledge of, was supposed to come Monday. He is always on time. When he was fifteen minutes late, I called him.
In a panicked voice he said, “Oh dear, I forgot. I am at the hospital. I have the virus.”
I talked to him for a minute but he was frantic. I called the friend who had recommended him. She was shocked saying, “But I talked to him yesterday. I’ll call him now.”
She did and got back to me. He had had a break down. He didn’t have Covid-19. I can understand being utterly alone for these months one might reach a point where it would be a relief to have the virus. Being in a state of suspense, waiting to GET the virus, it would be easy to imagine the symptoms into existence.
Sanity is an insecure, unstable point on a spectrum. By the time you are forty if you have not become aware that most humans are to one degree or another crazy, you have not been paying attention. The problem is how far off we are and how much craziness we are willing to accept in others. I have, for instance, pulled the plug on an acquaintance who is into conspiracy theories and delights in a website that claims Hillary Clinton has killed sixteen people, or is it seventeen. I have also distanced myself from someone who believes Covid-19 is a hoax. I have a friend who is avoiding a woman she thought charming until she discovered the woman is taking an elixir purportedly formulated on the basis of the Trump idea of drinking bleach. She isn’t dead, so it probably isn’t bleach she’s drinking.
I agree, at least in principal, with the physicist Richard P. Feynman who wrote:
I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is so far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me.
Often I find that idea exhilarating, but on occasion, such as the present occasion, it creates in me an extraordinary sensation of loneliness and, I am trying hard to find the correct words, living without any railings or grab bars in a space much too large for me. Does that make sense? I have a serious case of agoraphobia.
What Covid has done is to dislocate us into a state where our usually self-invented idea of reality has been exposed as a fraud. Ordinarily in life we are allowed by circumstance to create a modestly secure capsule of reality in which we believe ourselves to have a certain amount of control. Simultaneously, and subterraneously, we usually know we are not in control. What is important is that we “feel” we are in control. The emotional factor is of primary importance. The actuality is that we are in control of almost nothing, not our health, not our money, not our loved one, and certainly not tomorrow. If we work hard we may have a fluctuating amount of control over our own mind.
If you look at the above paragraph dead in the eye what I am saying is that most, I think all, of us live normally in a state of self-induced delusion because inviting in the chimera of control allows us to feel comfortable. Covid ripped the mask off that illusion and left us with the reality of our powerlessness. That puts us into an anomalous, existential space, the walls are gone and we are floating, an astronaut who has lost his tether to his vehicle. What we are floating in is a reality that’s scary in its open endlessness.
The idea that we keep our sanity by dabbling in delusion, consciously or unconsciously, is a paradox but, I think, a true one.
The result of being deprived or our chimerical security blanket is not coherent thought but anxiety of a nebulous variety, fear and fear’s best friend, anger. We are in a state of continual existential dread that no one talks about, probably many just valiantly ignore. If it’s not comfortable don’t feel it. Couples I should think suffer less from this than single people; those with children possibly have so much on their hands that they escape from this state entirely. However, the best discussion that I have had of this ambiguous mental state has been with a married man.
There is nothing to be done about it but live, uncomfortably, with it.
It has made me grateful to the semi-feral, rescue cat with health and mental problems I took in just before the pandemic broke. Having another personality in the house to focus on, particularly a difficult personality, is a big help. But that’s the next blog.