One of the most startling ideas of the existential psychoanalytic tradition confronts us with is that “normal mental health” is itself a form of pathology. The simply “normal” person in any society has purchased that normalcy at the cost of loads of repression, denial and truncation of his or her true inner feelings and of reality in general. I suppose it is always good to be cautious in making sweeping generalizations about all societies. But this certainly seems to be true of modern technologically advanced societies, and of current American society in particular. The normal, everyday actions of normal, everyday human beings are laying waste to the very planet we rely on for our sustenance.
I got up this morning, walked the dog, and then drove a total of about 20 miles doing various errands around town. Totally normal, nothing unusual, nothing to provoke deep thoughts. But clearly, as I do think about it, my actions, in conjunction with the hundreds of thousands and millions of others acting similarly, create the markets for continued oil consumption, the lines of tankers across the oceans, the ecologically devastated refinery port areas like New Orleans (the destroyed coastal wetlands is largely what makes a hurricane like Katrina so destructive–a healthy coastal wetlands would enormously absorb and diminish the strength of the storm), the wars that are required to maintain the oil flow, and the climate change that is causing havoc all up and down the east coast and the southern belt this winter and spring. Despite my morning’s contribution to global destruction, I will curl up in my reading chair sometime this afternoon, probably with at least some reading material that will indirectly chastise me for my lifestyle. Later I will pick up my child from school, make some dinner of Passover leftovers, and with my wife attend a program of my daughter’s school choir this evening. Perhaps, if all goes according to a scenario taking shape in that back of my mind, before dropping off to sleep tonight I will have fulfilled Freud’s vision of the best we can do in terms of “normal mental health,” i.e., the ability to work and to love (to be productive and to mate.)
The fact is, in our culture, our normal everyday activities are destroying the environment we depend on for life. We daily soil our own nest. I don’t know what to do about it, what the long term solutions are–that is, as the saying goes, above my pay grade. But I am quite sure that I cannot repress or deny the facts. It is not the psychopaths that threaten our existence and the long term viability of our species. The threat, collectively, comes from everyday, normal guys like me, and you, and you, and you. From us.
I was listening again recently to a recording of a great Sondheim musical, “Anyone Can Whistle.” To put it mildly, this musical was a big flop on Broadway, probably because it is too honest about the human condition. The basic story line is that there is a mass escape from a local state mental institution and all of the patients have come to town and mixed with the townsfolk, so that no one knows for sure who is who, who is “normal” and who is “mental patient.” Soon the great doctor Hapgood shows up, charged with the task of sorting out the sane from the insane. He goes about asking questions of the people, and it quickly shows that each and every life is so full of mixed motives, repressed realities and logical contradictions that every judgment Hapgood makes as to the relative sanity of this or that person appears totally arbitrary. And in a typical Sondheim twist, the great Hapgood himself turns out to be one of the patient inmates. It really makes you think…