31 December 2014

Questions On "Craziness", Solitude, and the Possibility of Healing

[[Hi Sister, in a question you answered for Nun's Life Ministry you said that though healing could happen in solitude you thought it best that someone needing healing mainly have that taken care of before trying to live as a hermit. But you have also quoted Thomas Merton where he says that a person cannot be truly crazy in solitude since real craziness requires other people and solitude can bring one to drop pretensions. It sounds to me like these two positions are in conflict. Why should a person have their healing "well in hand" before trying to live as a hermit? Do you agree with Merton as much as you seemed to when you quoted him?]]

Thanks for the questions. You've been doing some back reading it looks like. So, let me explain what I said in the three part Q and A Sister Julie initiated. It is true that healing can certainly be accomplished in solitude. In fact, for the personal healing sometimes necessary, especially that associated with bereavement and grieving, solitude can be a powerful context and catalyst for healing. In The Values of Solitude, John Barbour notes that healing is one of five major reasons people seek solitude and, in some cases anyway,  may live in extended physical solitude. But what is also true about solitude, and especially about eremitical or more absolute solitude which is a silent solitude, is that it breaks down and does so before it builds up.

Ordinarily, with temporary or transitional periods of solitude this is relatively gentle and limited, not least because it is "controlled" by the prospect of leaving the silence of solitude. But with eremitical or more absolute and permanent forms of solitude the absence of this same prospect actually intensifies the effect of physical solitude. The consoling and edifying power of solitude and its related silence may not be experienced sufficiently to offset this or to establish the full dialectic of solitude. If one is psychologically fragile or actually ill the results can be destructive. Moreover, even if one is entirely healthy, if one does not have a mature and balanced spiritual life which is focused on and allows for the metanoia of the whole self, such solitude can open one to the more destructive portions of one's own psyche. Thus, I believe that a person needs to have their own healing well in hand before choosing to live as a hermit.

You see,  if one does not proceed in this way a couple of things can happen: First, because the "tearing down" that happens in eremitical solitude is more intense and extensive than in occasional solitude,  it may morph into psychological decompensation.  One simply may not have the psychological health to defend oneself sufficiently, much less live without defenses, in this new and relatively alien context. When this happens, because one is alone one may not really appreciate the degree of decompensation occurring. This is especially true when psychological symptoms are covered by naive readings of traditional eremitical stories and justified with simplistic notions of spirituality which are themselves unhealthy or unbalanced and destructive in isolation. Secondly, one may actually be tempted to turn in a naive way to traditional stories about early hermits and stereotypical notions of the eremitical life to justify and/or deny the decompensation.

Merton's Comments on "Real Craziness"

My sense is that Merton's references to "craziness" and "real craziness" is not so much to mental illness per se, but to the "craziness" associated with a culture which is individualistic, geared to competition, social climbing, consumerism, and the constant need to do rather than be --- among so many other "dysfunctions" of our society. These ensure the development of the false self, a concept we also largely owe to Merton, and that kind of spiritual schizophrenia is the epitome of "craziness" for a monastic.

The pressure for all of these comes from other people and our tendency to measure ourselves accordingly. In this context Merton's comments about craziness needing other people and how real craziness cannot be sustained in the face of the sanity of trees and mountains make perfect sense and I agree completely. If we interpret his meaning to refer to actual diagnosable mental illness as found in the DSM V then his comments make less perfect sense. For instance, in some forms of mental illness isolation (physical solitude) will exacerbate the illness whereas significant contact with others will mitigate it. Merton's comments would be mistaken in such cases. That said, I can't be sure what Merton's intention actually was; I don't know of another place he spoke in the same way and clarified his terminology.