Sanity. Is it black and white? As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said of pornography, will you know it when you see it? Or is it a matter of degrees, a tenuous balance that we must always struggle to maintain?
As a writer, the question of how to stay sane is one I face on a regular basis. Fear not: I’m in no danger of being institutionalized, but when your job involves spending hours at a time heading down mental and emotional rabbit holes to plumb for treasure, it’s easy to get trapped underground. Or maybe it’s that I’m driven to do this work precisely because I would have been spending that time spelunking anyway, and the job just gives me a socially acceptable excuse for my behavior.
Still, I don’t think the question of how we retain our sanity in the face of modern existence is unique to writers or other creative types. To be thrown into an endless sea of real-time updates from every corner of the world—a melange of unfathomable violence, senseless environmental destruction, and profound economic injustice, mixed in with photos of your acquaintances’ latest vacations—is enough to make one beg for a sandbar. If you live an examined life in an age when the continual stream of information just means that it’s Monday, your only choice is to figure out a way to swim.
These questions have been raised again for me today by way of an article in the always thoughtful e-newsletter Brain Pickings Weekly by Maria Popova. (If you’re not already a subscriber, I highly recommend that you sign up for this free publication. And if you like what you read, consider supporting Popova with a donation.) This week’s edition includes her review of the book How to Stay Sane by psychotherapist Philippa Perry.
According to Popova, one of the book’s key ideas (and obviously the one that appeals to me as a writer) is storytelling as an act of self creation. That the internal stories we use to narrate our own lives take on a power of their own. If we are not careful and surround ourselves with nothing but darkness, these narratives become the frame through which we view reality. “You may find that you have been telling yourself that practicing optimism is a risk,” writes Perry, “as though, somehow, a positive attitude will invite disaster and so if you practice optimism it may increase your feelings of vulnerability. The trick is to increase your tolerance for vulnerable feelings, rather than avoid them altogether.”
The other part of the equation is detachment—not in the sense of being cold and aloof, but in distancing yourself from your own thoughts and patterns long enough to see them with fresh eyes. “When we do this, we might find that our thinking belongs to an older, and different, story to the one we are now living.”
It’s a beautiful notion, and one that really resonates for me. If you don’t like the story you are currently living, take a step back and write yourself a new one.