Nature and Social Insanity

I’ve been talking with Alison a lot over the past week about insanity — particularly insanity in societies. Obviously individual people can be insane — usually broadly defined as mental or emotional distress that interferes with functioning normally in society. But what would it mean for a whole community to be insane? Is that even possible?

Alison recently wrote a post on this over at Pagan+Politics, with some thoughts on the recent shooting in Tuscon. I’m not going to repeat everything she said there, but to summarize, some recent thinking suggests that aggregates of people can indeed collectively suffer from mental illness. In such a situation, the sane person is one who experiences mental or emotional distress.

How would we know if our whole society were insane? There are a few things I can think of, off the top of my head:

  • Just as a mentally ill person has mental or emotional distress which interferes with normal social functions, an insane community might collectively experience mental or emotional distress that interferes with normal relations with other societies. North Korea, the most isolated nation in the world, might be an example of this.
  • Communities might exhibit symptoms of specific mental illnesses. Thinking the rest of the world is out to get them (paranoia), cycling through periods of activity and lethargy (manic depression), thinking that nothing is worthwhile (clinical depression)… Unusually large numbers of people in a society suffering from these disorders could suggest insanity in the overall community.
  • Perhaps, if the community as a whole is insane, any sane individuals would appear insane — perhaps appearing to exhibit paranoia, for example, when in fact the whole crazy community is out to get them!
  • Disconnect from nature and natural law. Ultimately, we are part of the earth’s ecosystem, and if we are not working harmoniously with it, then somewhere, somehow, something is out of balance.

Maybe you recognize some parts of modern western society in what I’ve listed above. I certainly do.

I recently saw a quote from Mohawk John Kane, which touched me deeply.

“Our culture was based on and committed to nature. Those that have tried to transform our knowledge and teachings into beliefs or religion have lost their way. The good news is that nature will always be there to teach even when we fail to…

“We could lose every word or act our ancestors ever tried to hand down and get it all back if we just can return to respecting our relationship to creation. No great spirit, no hocus pocus, no faith; just awareness.”


Links, quotes, and ideas of interest from the past few days:

  • “If only I could throw away the urge to trace my patterns in your heart, I could really see you.” –David Brandon
  • Poem for Bridget on Imbolc: Welcome to the Sun. “Glad mother are you to the constellations.”
  • From our “Wedding on the Edge” blog, a post on the origin and meaning of the word ‘edge’: approaching the sharp point of decision. Also, a post inspired by this quote from Oscar Wilde: “How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?”
  • Over at Pagan Parenthood, some thoughts inspired by Bill Plotkin. Western culture is dominated by adolescent ideas, goals, desires, and worldview. What we’re doing about it.
  • “Do not speak, unless it improves on silence.” -Buddhist saying
  • At Pagan+Politics, I wrote about the turmoil in Egypt and whether the US is, or should, engage in realpolitik. How is Egypt in 2011 like Germany of 1872? Pragmatic power politics vs. the reality of social justice.
  • “Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts.” – The Buddha
  • This post was not by me, but it got me thinking: is it better to save 10,000 lives, or send your kids to college? Many of us face that choice, whether or not we realize it.
  • “Conquer the angry man by love, the ill-natured man by goodness, the miser with generosity, the liar with truth.” — the Dhammapada
  • athenaeum2008z

4 responses to “Nature and Social Insanity”

  1. An interesting point you brought up, so I’ve decided to share my thoughts.

    First of all I’ll admit to not reading Alison’s post. It has ‘politics’ in it and I don’t understand that word nor do I intend to.

    Second. What you are pointing here is the complete subjectivity of term ‘insanity’. You cannot just say that someone or some society is insane – you have to add ‘in whose opinion’.

    If you claim that for example any ‘doctor’ has the right to decide someone’s fate by stating he or she is insane, you probably know that those ‘doctors’ use common sources for determining insanity : DSM-5 for the US and ICD-10 for EU. And according to those manuals a so called ‘normal’ person is extremely rare (I suggest reading ‘criticism’ sections on wikipedia for those manuals). According to those sources a seven year old Mozart composing his amazing music would probably be medicated or locked up to prevent developing into a maniacal murderer (just in case).

    I have heard very radical opinion, that psychiatry is simply inquisition taken to the next level when the science has developed enough to render priest’s judgement unreliable. It is amazing, how societies might ridicule priests claiming that someone is possessed, while nodding their heads in amazement when a person with a comparable level of understanding of human psyche (a psychiatrist) claims someone is ‘insane’.

    In reality, I don’t believe any of those terms to be true.

    In my opinion, the only mental disorder there is, is the fear of unknown, that spawns such fierce and ruthless ‘brands’ like inquisition and psychiatry.

    I do, however agree with your point, that to ‘Disconnect from nature and natural law’ is somehow weird and counter-intuitive. But to understand that and find it potentially dangerous, we do not need the term ‘insanity’ at all either. Nor do we need treatment to find ways of returning to the nature.

    In the end, insanity is just a slogan to toss around and judge others. Unfortunately, we tend to overuse them as means of undermining someone’s reasoning to boost our own ego.


    1. Sparrowhawk — Yes! Though I’m no expert in the field of mental health, I am aware of how much controversy there is; so I tried to take care to couch my terms in phrases like “usually broadly defined” and so forth. I also agree that the word ‘insanity’ is thrown around way too carelessly these days. I tried to use it mindfully: instead of calling opinions or people I don’t agree with “insane”, I used a commonly accepted definition. …That said, I don’t think I’d agree with you that there are no ‘mental disorders’ other than fear of the unknown. I know some people with mild autism, ADHD, sensory integration issues, depression, etc., and I don’t think they arise from fear. At the same time, I do think they have a spiritual dimension, and I am not sure that the term ‘disorder’ is appropriate. If I were to hazard a guess, I think they are associated with a different relationship between the physical and spiritual parts of a person than is normally found. But again, I am no expert.


  2. I understand. I am no expert either but have given quite some thought to this matter.
    The problem is that societies seek to eliminate those individuals by putting them in asylums, when in fact a vast majority of the mental problems arises as a result of the way those societies work.
    This different relationship between physical and spiritual might just be that … different. And it might not work as effectively with the model of society we have today, but is this a reason for those people to be locked away or treated?

    I think that fear is one of the major factors contributing to the development of those issues. Since most, if not all, of the causes have social background anyway, I think ‘fear’ would be found somewhere near the bottom line to it (and by that I suggest, that some diseases might be caused by emotional distress of a pregnant woman, for example).

    The true problem is inside the society itself, within the ‘institution’ that claims the right to judge an individual, compare him to a non-existent, statistical standard. The same goes for naming some communities ‘insane’ – most of the time, circumstances and thus the environment is the cause of insanity – the same environment which then banishes the individual by labelling him a psycho.

    In the end, I do agree there are issues between the spiritual and physical that cause mental problems – but there is no such thing as ‘normal’ or ‘not normal’ in there. It’s too subjective.
    What there is, however, is the level of compatibility with so called ‘social norm’ (which is utterly subjective as well, but treated as some kind of divine law for some reason).


  3. The nemesis that awaits our civilisation is social insanity
    which in the end is always homicidal.
    Sanity means the wholeness of the consciousness.
    And our society is only part conscious,like an idiot.
    If we do not rapidly open all the doors of consciousness
    and freshen the putrid little space in which we are cribbed
    the sky blue walls of our unventilated heaven
    Will be bright red with blood.


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