“Sanity usually emerges as something substantive — as a useful and therefore meaningful idea — when it is under threat. It becomes a real thing, a plausible and possible state of mind when it seems about to disappear.” – Adam Phillips
In the “Library of Babel”, a short science fiction story by Jorge Luis Borges the whole universe is composed of a massive library of rooms containing every version of a book that could be written and all of its translations in every language. The world is haunted by despairing librarians searching for a way to sort through the impossible quantity of information. They join cults based on their understanding regarding how to sort through that information and what information can be destroyed. The desire to arrive at a clear point of perfect understanding results in madness.
The arrival fallacy conceives there will be a point in life where everything will finally make sense and all of the sharp edges will disappear. That should you acquire a good partner, a nice home, more financial stability, or the correct political leadership, life will simply cease being difficult or complicated. While these things can partially alleviate or exacerbate problems, all of them come with different problems. So you live waiting for a for conditions that will never arrive, a life that doesn’t bear any resemblance to reality.
In church I have occasionally been offered a version of this that corresponds to how much I believe. If I had more faith, difficulty would cease. All would become gold-leaf cursive stencil verses with flowers, but never the frustrated ones, never the cries for help, never the lamentations, never the confusion, never anything that resembles the full range of human experience expressed in the Bible. Definitely, no Ecclesiastes. In this environment, hardship is transformed into a coded indicator of spiritual failure, or briefly, you’re sad because you’re bad. We would do well to remember that those who are poor in spirit and those who mourn are the first two parties blessed by Jesus in the beatitudes.
I think in sentence fragments lately. All of my attention shortened into mutant forms. Was there ever a time when things seemed more clear and composed, or was it an illusion I invented to make myself feel okay about the kinds of things that I wanted to say? Maybe this is all we are ever doing, constantly rationalizing all of our motives. It took anger and frustration for me to get past the fear of being vulnerable. They are both dangerous tools, but the alternative was loneliness. I have passionately stated many things that I would now retract or revise, but I would not retract the conversations which bloomed from the raw effort to be present in my relationships. I question my heart which is my mind, which could also be my gut.
When I paint it is partially to work through unmanageable emotions by reducing them to colors and movement. A painting is a solution, but sometimes I’m not aware of what exactly it is I am trying to solve. The result is an image that is difficult to understand because the emotions driving it were also difficult. Sometimes the meaning we try to impose on an image is only a way of managing the discomfort of sitting with uncertainty. The struggle of making is also about nurturing the practice of not knowing, or recognizing the limits of knowing. The image is an intentional refusal to explain.
A long time ago I challenged myself to make a painting a day. As I started to descend into burnout, I began creating torn and folded magazine images patched together with blue painters tape. It was shortcut born of exhaustion . The folded scraps were all that I could cobble together. All art is a self-portrait to some degree and I felt like I was trying to hold myself together with tape. The tape served to reinforce the structure of a damaged thing. It wasn’t much, but it also was more than nothing. The interest in the small, folded images was created by the contrast of the bright blue color of the tape against muted, neutral colors of the background images on the paper. The binding of the folds and the tears also happened to provide a kind of beauty and consistency, like ornate bandages. So ultimately, despite looking frail, the images were alluding to a longing for healing.
When you try to creatively engage with life, you discover that you think in patterns, that there are recurring themes which keep cycling back up to the surface as if the message was inscribed into your DNA. Every time the story cycles back up, there is a new way to tell it, a new way of seeing it. In art, you are offered space to revise the narrative. Serious internal struggles are restructured into the logic of play. The opportunity to rephrase the thing that you have to say over and over again or you will burst into flames. The thing that was almost nothing, the blank surface, becomes something.
There is an unusual story in Ezekiel 37, the prophet has a conversation with God concerning a large field of human bones. He is commanded to tell the bones to rise and the bones rattle back together. He is then commanded to tell the bones to breathe and they come to life as “a vast army.” Toward the end of the encounter God says, “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel.”
The dynamic here “They say…” vs. “the Sovereign Lord says…” is about what we bring to the table and what is offered instead. It is about limited people encountering overwhelming abundance, forgetting the encounter and having to learn it again. That healing is perpetually available to those who remain aware of limitations, the various forms of insurmountable deadness that we squirrel away in our hearts. The fictional person that we all build to perform the daily play of competence does not need prayer, the person we actually are is often longing for the kind of help that is beyond human means.
Often our narratives have a tendency to invert the power dynamic, that our faith or our spirituality is where power comes from rather than seeing faith, forgiveness, hope and mercy as coming from a much larger resource. “You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay? Should the thing say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or shall the thing say of him who formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”? (Isaiah 29:16) It is impossible to claim credit for life and a skill set that all boil down to a gift, but often this is the pose that I lapse back into. It is needing the credit, needing the approval, the metrics, and the results which steal all of the joy from the simple and beautiful act of participating in whatever capacity I have been given. Trying to claim independent credit for any personal gift has the steep downside of lapsing into smug self-righteousness, arrogance, and judgment which are equally isolating and alienating.
When I think about sanity, it seems like the capacity to function and be present as the very specific person that I happen to be while also remaining able to clearheadedly acknowledge lapses, dust myself off, and try again. Then fail and try again. Trusting that this process is rich and meaningful even when it doesn’t feel particularly triumphant. Even when, maybe especially when I feel unqualified or insufficient. The only thing that we bring to a resurrection is a body. Maybe some resurrection is tedious in that it is moving beneath the observable surface of everyday life, mysterious and unknowable in its vast scale. Maybe some of its workings spin inside of the frustration of not knowing. Faith is hoping in what is unseen which can feel more like a noisy, droning dirge than a hymn in practice.
The bones rattle across the open field, they rise from the dust, a hard wind ripping the sand into the humming golden air. They do this because the voice of God not only embraces weakness, but somehow works through it. Out of the offered hopelessness springs restoration instead. In the places where God moves, death is continually being undone until it is no more. I find hope here, and hope leans toward sanity.