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Self-Knowledge • Growth & Maturity

The Origins of Sanity

Though politeness tends to stop us from dwelling on the point, all babies start off – as we might put it bluntly – ‘mad’. Beneath their adorable smiles and gurgles lie characters who – if they were adults – we wouldn’t hesitate to describe with recourse to large and daunting terms like psychotic, borderline and manic depressive.

If some of us are then able to become sane or something like sane, it is because we will have benefited early on from an ingredient that deserves to be identified as the building block of all mental stability: an experience of kindness. None of us is born sane, we only ever stand a chance of becoming so through love.

Drawing of a very young boy with a coral necklace
Peter Paul Rubens, Nicolas Rubens With Coral Necklace, 1619

Imagine a baby still very new to the world. It’s the middle of the night and pitch black in its bedroom. The baby is hungry and perhaps extremely wet. Its discomfort is acute. It has no way of understanding what on earth is going on or when relief will ever come. It cannot reassure itself, it can’t compare this moment with another, it can’t imagine a better time, it has no way of conceiving of endurance or of picturing assistance. It also has no hold on its own sense of goodness. It feels only primitive rage and destructiveness and, because of this, it greatly fears retribution and punishment. 

Fortunately for this baby, let’s imagine that there is a loving person in the next room, let’s call it a mother for convenience (though it could be many things besides) – and she quickly comes in to rescue the situation. On the surface at least, this appears to involve a physical intervention. She brings the baby milk, she puts it into some fresh clothes. But a substantial part of what she does is to work on the baby’s mind. Through her care, she stems its tendencies towards psychotic collapse. 

This is all done in the most unobtrusive of ways. ‘There, there little poppet,’ the mother might say in a kind voice, with a broad smile, ‘who has been an upset sweet one then?’ Through her warmth, liveliness and attentiveness, the mother attenuates the baby’s guilt at its previous viciousness. At the height of its fury, such was its despair, the baby wanted to tear the mother apart and annihilate her. But mother seems to bear no grudges, allowing the baby to forgive itself as it has been forgiven. Furthermore, the mother seems unharmed by the baby’s anger – which reassures the little person that its powers are, thankfully, limited. A crucial difference emerges between what one thinks and the impact one has in the real world: a thought is not an action. One can want someone dead and they pop into the room a second later without a scratch. 

There is also a lesson here about hope. One can be certain that it’s the end of the world and then, miraculously, it’s not. A fear is not a fact. Frustration can be born; misunderstandings can be repaired. Mother didn’t understand immediately but she did after a little while and that was enough. Repeatedly over the early months and years, a child can give its mother a slurry of panic, self-despair, fear, chaos and rage – and she will convert it into insight, kindness, perspective, and tolerance.

None of these wise concepts has to be delivered in the form of a philosophy lecture; everything happens indirectly. But let’s not miss that what is being conveyed are a sequence of very substantial ideas about sanity:

— One can want someone dead and yet not be a murderer

— One can be cross and not evil.

— There is such a thing as goodness, in oneself and in others.

— Misunderstandings between people can be corrected and connection repaired.

— One can forgive and be forgiven.

Once these manoeuvres have been enacted a sufficient number of times, we don’t need kind caregivers to be on hand any more to think clearly. We can do for ourselves what someone else once did for us. 

Understanding this process can – along the way – help some of us to fathom the ways in which we were let down. What are all those psychiatric labels we may have been given other than descriptions of early failure in the care-giving process and so in the construction of healthy minds? What is a so-called paranoid person other than someone who has not learnt – via love – to bear their own aggression or guilt? What is a borderline person other than someone without experiences that could have built up a capacity for trust? What is a manic-depressive other than someone who never experienced the right kind of assistance from without to compensate for their inevitable weaknesses and needs within?

We may be prone to mental collapse not by random accident, but because we didn’t have the childhoods that would have properly solidified our minds – and must therefore seek out all manner of compensatory moves, among which an experience of psychotherapy and of a supportive relationship may be central. We did not – at the start, through no fault of our own, for the most tragic of reasons – benefit from enough of the love on which sanity is built.

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