Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
'Tis the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur, you're straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.
- Emily Dickinson, in LIFE, XI
There is madness and there is insanity. In my late twenties, I spent a little over two years working in a psychiatric hospital. Certainly no other job affected me so much in so many ways. I learned more about humanity (and myself) working with individuals who were psychotic, neurotic, obsessive-compulsive, bulimic, angry, tortured, raped and violated in ways I’d never imagined possible.
Sometimes we (the hospital staff) could bring individuals back from the brink of insanity. Other times we failed. During my employment I never met a patient who embraced his condition as form of divine sense nor anyone who wished she could preserve her stark madness. Then again, none of these people were mad. They were insane, or close to it—and fortunately, they formed a small minority of society.
The sort of madness that Emily Dickinson refers to is perhaps more dangerous than insanity in that it has a social dynamic at its heart, a kind of societal disease that grows until it gets a grip on the population. Think of fascism and communism in the last century. There was a certain “sense” to both programs and plenty of advocates who could make a case for identifying outsiders and locking them in chains. In this case, Dickinson was prescient. Her prescience was based on the recognition that divisions in society open the door to dangerous liaisons.
All this begs the question: are we inhabiting a new age of multiple divisions? Those with clean water, those without. Those with oil, those without. Those with health care, those without. Those with weapons, those without.
If the answer is yes, then should we begin to prepare for another age where the madness of crowds directs our activity to war and conquest? Or should we begin to mend the rifts and divisions that separate us? History reveals that the first option—the path of the warrior—is futile because it often leads to more war and destruction. But the second choice—that of the peace maker—is so challenging that it seems almost impossible to achieve. Yet we’ve seen that “consensual peace” can work: in the Suez crisis, in Cypress for example.
More important, only the second choice will lead us to social sanity. The fascinating benefit of bridging the gap between those who have and those who do not, is that it nourishes the individuals who reach out to one another. This solution is social not racial, humanist not militarist.
As the gaps and divisions widen in the months and years ahead, we can consider Dickinson’s insight and determine how to respond to it. Perhaps it’ll be the most important decision we make, especially if we are able to act upon it.