Scraping Away, Pt. 2 of 2

For anyone that does not read(books) often, finishing a book can feel like an accomplishment. Even if the book is less than 200 pages with font the size of a Huffington post heading. But it is a better use of time than binge watching Making a Murderer for 10 hours. Which I also did, so, I suppose I evened out. 

I read a book called “The Wisdom of Insecurity” by Alan Watts. I was looking to scrape away all assumptions and see what life holds when it is not indoctrinated with some kind of supernatural, or unsubstantiated, belief system. Especially when these “systems” inform your way of living, your morality, and how you perceive death. A belief system is an awfully significant part of one’s life- something not worth casually going along with simply “because”. Watts is adept at articulating his philosophy on life through observable truths. He does so without dismissing or disrespecting other views, aside from the occasional witty jab. 

I do not like the idea of being duped. Especially at an existential level. I’ll eat nacho “cheese”, knowing it has no relationship to actual cheese, because it is just so damn good. But when it comes to life, I prefer something a little more…nutritious. This is the only way to give myself a fair chance at living life with intellectual integrity. I want to know what I know because I believe it to be true, and not simply because someone told me so. If I do not fully believe what I believe is real, without reservation, then that belief is in vain. At that point, I am merely believing in believing. Which, can be useful for a while, though I think all beliefs fade eventually, without a convicted foundation. 

In addition to “The Wisdom of Insecurity”, I also read about a psychological experiment called “The Rosenhan Study: On Being Sane in Insane Places”. I found that reading these two texts around the same time, at this point in my life, led to some compelling and interesting discoveries and, more practically speaking, consolation for feeling a lost. These are my thoughts:

If sanity and insanity exist, how shall we know them? The question is neither capricious nor itself insane. However much we may be personally convinced that we can tell the normal from the abnormal, the evidence is simply not compelling.
— David Rosenhan

In 1972 a psychologist named David Rosenhan conducted an experiment to test the validity of psychiatric diagnosis. His thesis challenged the long-standing protocol of diagnosing patients as either “sane” or “insane”.

He sent 8 pseudo-patients to be interviewed for admission into 12 different psychiatric hospitals. Each one was admitted under the diagnosis of schizophrenia. They all faked it, of course. Shortly after being admitted, they claimed to be psychologically healed and stable, and were subsequently released, though some were held for over a month before the psychiatrists would accept their “recovery”. 

The report was published, concluding that each patient was repeatedly misdiagnosed by some of the best psychiatric hospitals in the United States. 

One of these hospitals was particularly offended at the report, and challenged Rosenhan to round 2. This hospital asked him to send more pseudo-patients, and this time, they would not be misdiagnosed…(cackle). A few weeks later, 193 new patients had been admitted to the hospital. 41 were deemed potential pseudo-patients, with 19 others being considered “suspicious”. They asked Rosenhan how many pseudo-patients he had actually sent, and he replied:


With 12 false-positives and 41 false-negatives, Rosenhan concluded that there is no use in labeling someone as “insane”. He found that the label of “insane”(among other similar diagnoses) associated with a patient would distort an otherwise objective observation of their behavior. His experiment established that doctors are unable to diagnose a patient as “insane” or “sane” with any degree of certainty, and therefore the entire concept of a person being “insane” is in question.

In the study, Rosenhan believed that diagnosing patients as “insane” or schizophrenic was motivated by arrogance, more or less:

Whenever the ratio of ‘what is known’ to ‘what needs to be known’ approaches zero, we tend to invent “knowledge” and assume that we understand more than we actually do. We seem unable to acknowledge that we simply don’t know.
— Rosenhan David

He later stated that because of the significant lack of understanding of how the human brain works, especially in conjunction with environment, modern psychology is more of an emotional art form, than a science based study. While much has been learned since 1972, many psychologists believe Rosenhan’s experiment and conclusions still apply today. 

Well, I am not a psychologist. So what chance do I have, should I feel…..not totally sane? Am I equipped to determine my own sanity?

A couple of years ago I was talking with a new friend at my house. We had only hung out a handful of times, but we always had great conversations. But I soon realized we had only scratched the surface of how much we actually had in common. I remember we were both standing at the kitchen counter, I was slicing some bread for us to eat. The conversation was in a lull, and I looked up and said, “Do you ever feel like you’re going insane?”. 

His response was instantaneous: “Going?”.

I sometimes wonder why we do not all constantly feel this way. With an infinite universe in all directions, and an amorphous consciousness with no parameters beyond the limits of our imagination(or psychedelics), how are we expected to grasp even the tiniest morsel of reality? 

If there was a clear explanation, would I be on board? No one argues that the sun is hot or that we need oxygen. These are clear and self-evident. We observe these concepts every day. On the other hand, there are many things that are unclear. 

Sometimes I cannot tell if I should be afraid of going to Hell or not- because I do not know if God exists. Or those moments when I cannot discern between intense emotional feelings or spiritual intervention? They feel the same (assuming I have, in fact, experienced both). These are the questions that drive a desire for understanding. They also drive away people at a party. 

 This slipping of mental footing is often characterized as “loosing your grip on reality”. Of course, this assumes I had a real firm grip to begin with. 

But you cannot understand life and its mysteries as long as you try to grasp it. Indeed, you cannot grasp it, just as you cannot walk off with a river in a bucket. If you try to capture running water in a bucket, it is clear that you do not understand it and that you will always be disappointed, for in the bucket the water does not run. To “have” running water you must let go of it and let it run.
— -Alan Watts

I believe there is a key distinction between “understand” and “grasp”. Watts does not explicitly state that you cannot “understand” life, and its mysteries. He states that you cannot “grasp” it. And by “grasp”, I believe he means life and its mysteries cannot be condensed into a few sentences. It cannot be put into a box. I cannot read it in a book, take that knowledge and put it in my pocket as a memento from when I conquered existence. 

Oddly, life is the most familiar thing in the world to me, yet I do not understand it. I live life every day, yet I cannot draw a picture of God or write in one sentence what “is”.

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?
— David Foster Wallace

So I cannot necessarily grasp life. Then what can I hope to achieve when trying to understand it? 

If I really wanted to be told what life is, the answer would require an explanation of something completely amorphous, ambiguous, and intangible, using words. What good are words when dealing with such a ridiculous subject? They only get you so far. 

I cannot feel the word “wind”. I know what wind is. I know what it feels like. I can recognize it when it his me, but the word that symbolizes wind is of little use to someone trying to sail a boat without it. In the same way, someone who wants to understand life will not do so by reading the word, or a definition. They must live it. You can talk about family and love and the color of the sky and the smell of a flower all day long, but nothing will compare to the sensation of experiencing life. But to me, and maybe you, experiencing life is simply not enough. We are like engineers on a roller coaster. We know riding is fun, but we cannot help but wonder what the hell is keeping us from flying off the tracks?

A friend of mine was asking similar questions about life, and he said, “I just wish I could get to a point where I understand it enough to stop thinking and worrying about it.”

The agnostic, the sceptic, is neurotic, but this does not imply a false philosophy; it implies the discovery of facts to which he does not know how to adapt himself. The intellectual who tries to escape from neurosis by escaping from the facts is merely acting on the principle that “where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly be wise.
— Alan Watts

It is only natural to desire understanding. I feel at peace when everything is laid out in front of me. Like those Instagram photos when someone empties out their purse onto a wood floor and makes an obsessively adjacent layout. With a fern leaf and a cup of black coffee. This is what sanity feels like. It feels like I know what’s what, because it’s right here in front of me.

Sanity is feeling like you have the capacity to control your life and to know up from down. But the world we inhabit is not fully understood. Not even close. And even less do we control it. The universe is not accountable to what we deem righteous. It is indifferent to our expectations. As a species, we have more questions than answers. We understand far fewer things than there are things to understand. If this is true, are we sane? 

We wonder what the universe wants from us. That makes sense right? If we all desire to have a purpose, we must feel some duty to the universe that hosts our being. We want a purpose, so we can justify being here, like a postman needs his route to justify being a postman.

Existential frustration is common. So was convincing myself I was lucky enough to be raised in the doctrine of absolute truth. Both are ways of dealing with answers to which I may not know how to adapt myself. Perhaps the answer, then, is not to “fill in the blank”, but rather, to question if there is really a blank to begin with. Perhaps assuming there is an answer is putting the cart before the horse. Perhaps the question is simply a product of man, giving himself something to ponder.