The one about present madness


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The worst thing about philosophy is that it can drive you mad. The best thing about philosophy is that it makes madness kinda alright. I’ve never had a problem with the word itself – as a kid, I often dreamed of interviewing people in an asylum, for the sheer experience of seeing things like they did – and in the last few years, even less.

So what if some people are mad? Like the truth, madness is not a matter of certainties, but of degrees. It’s not about whether you’re mad, but to what extent. Some, granted, are a bit more on the extreme edges of the spectrum than others. We’re all aboard this mad boat, though some have secured more premium spots. Lucky bastards.

This is a question I always ask guests in this newsletter: how are you mad? And often, people giggle, some pause for a few seconds, but everyone – everyone – has an answer. It’s a much more interesting question than “what inspires you?”, for example, because there’s something about a perceived negative that helps us get to a more interesting place about ourselves. Inspiration leads to bland answers. Madness makes you think.

The same thing happens, I like to believe, with whatever creates sorrow. And yes, much like madness, sorrow is something we wouldn’t necessarily aspire to, but it does give us something chunky to consider about ourselves. We all have it, just at different times. Maybe not always trigger ready to ruin the day, but it’s there. And it too is part of being human, because to feel sorrow means we have something to lose.

Always assume you have something to lose.

It will help you with appreciating things.

But anyway, I got to think of sorrow after re-reading some highlights from François de La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims, which is to this day one of my favourite one-liner books. Not the comical kind. The philosophical kind. For example, consider this:

“Philosophy easily masters past and future ills, but the sorrow of the moment is the master of philosophy.”

I love this idea, because it positions our world views not just as something static, but as something that lives in and across time. We have world views about the future (our aspirations) but also about the past (our personal narrative), and philosophy is a fantastic resource to handle both. It helps us contextualise a vast wave of events that have long done (why did the Ancient Greeks think the way they did), but also offers frameworks and questions for events yet to come (what’s the right ethical model for our relationship with machines?). It’s fascinating stuff, all of it.

The problem, as La Rochefoucauld points out, is the present stuff. On a general level, our brains are not designed to live in the present because, historically, to not plan for the future or learn from the past might make us more vulnerable to our environments. We always either want something, or regret something. But that’s precisely where this idea caught my attention. Because philosophy, too, has its limitations.

In therapy, a breakthrough happens when you’re able to cry in front of the therapist. I am notoriously bad at this, but getting better. And whenever I talk about therapy with others, I always say it’s “something you can’t think yourself out of”. Thinking is often the easy way out. And philosophy often defaults to imagining you can think and reason yourself out of anything. Anything! Alas, that is only true until a point, after which you gotta let the other dude drive. The emotional one. Or – perhaps – the mad one.

Which brings us back full circle. Philosophy can help us with the future stuff and the past stuff, but it too seems to fall victim to the sorrows of the present, which are very hard to shake off. Especially when it comes to things like periods of collective grief due to a global pandemic (you know, just to give an example). But maybe, when we hit that road bump, it’s time to pass the steering wheel to the mad dude who insisted on riding shotgun but was secretly influencing the entire trip without us knowing it.

Madness means doing things for the sake of them. And instead of expecting the figurative “different results”, expecting no results whatsoever. Doing things because fuck it, because “yes pls ok thx”. Madness is drawing for two hours with no aim. And feeling ok about it. Madness is turning The Weeknd’s Blinding Lights to maximum volume on a Friday night and dancing in your living room until you’re exhausted.

Madness has no point. And sometimes that’s the point. To not have a goal, just a momentary – but very present – lapse of reason. And of pure. Motherfucking. Joy.

Madness is not something to be ashamed of. In fact, it might be a great cure for an otherwise overly rational life. The secret, of course, is in the dosage, so pure madness all the time won’t do us any good too. But all thought, all the time, is not the secret sauce plenty of us fairly intelligent folks assume it is. Any therapist will tell you that, and they know a thing or two about the pitfalls and puzzles of sanity.

So spill the beans. How are you mad? The answer might surprise you.

Stay safe – and (sometimes in)sane. 😘


PS: I am doing a live thing on Instagram about madness, for the lovely new project shrtcttng by reader Nicole Ingra. It’s at 1pm, London time. Hope to see you there.

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