‘The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters:’ reframing mental distress as a call to action – part 1

Following are excerpts from the book, “Freedom: the end of the human condition” written by biologist, Jeremy Griffith, in 2016*. It recounts the psychological alienation felt by humans when a separation occurs between (the Grace of) instinct and the ‘knowledge of right and wrong’ inherent in the social adaptations of living in society, what he calls “the human condition”. This separation and alienation is the “Fall from Grace” which the author says, has reached its zenith in our current society with global crises such as climate change, war, disease, famine, lack of water, poisoned earth, sea and air, loss of habitat, hunger, displacement, murder and suicide.

Part 1 of this blog describes the human condition and the felt sense of it in older children and adolescents, interpreted in our western society as mental health conditions such as depression. In Australia, suicide is the leading cause of death for people aged 15-44.

“To briefly recount the description of what the human condition really is, it is worth reciting the incisive words of the polymath Blaise Pascal, who spelled out the full horror of our contradictory condition when he wrote, ‘What a chimera then is man! What a novelty, what a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth, repository of truth, a sewer of uncertainty and error, the glory and the scum of the universe!’

Shakespeare too was equally revealing of what the human condition really is when he wrote, ‘What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty!…In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? [Brutal and barbaric] Man delights not me’.

Pascal’s and Shakespeare’s identification of the dichotomy of ‘man’ is what the human condition really is—this most extraordinary ‘contradiction’ of being the most brilliantly clever of creatures, the ones who are ‘god’-‘like’ in our ‘infinite’ ‘faculty’ of ‘reason’ and ‘apprehension’, and yet also the meanest, most vicious of species, one that is only too capable of inflicting pain, cruelty, suffering and degradation. Yes, the eternal and seemingly unanswerable question has been: are we ‘monster[s]’, the ‘essence’ of ‘dust’, ‘the scum of the universe’, or are we a wonderful ‘prodigy’, even ‘glor[ious]’ ‘angel[s]’?

Thankfully… we can at long last now explain and understand that we are not, in fact, ‘monster[s]’ but ‘glor[ious]’ heroes. However, having had to live without this reconciling and dignifying understanding has meant that each human growing up under the duress of the human condition has suffered from immense insecurity about their fundamental goodness, worth and meaningfulness. So much so that the more we tried to think about this, in truth, most obvious question of our meaningfulness and worthiness (or otherwise), the more insecure and depressed our thoughts became…

The examination of this process of what I call ‘Resignation’ to living in Plato’s dark cave of denial of the human condition, and how it unfolds, will reveal just how immensely fearful humans have been of the human condition, and, it follows, how impossible it has been for mechanistic scientists to think effectively about human behaviour.

What follows then is a very brief summary of the life stages…

As consciousness emerged in humans we progressed from being able to sufficiently understand the relationship between cause and effect to become self-conscious, aware of our own existence, during our infancy, to proactively carrying out experiments in self-management during our childhood, at which point all the manifestations of the human condition of anger, egocentricity and alienation began to reveal themselves. It follows that it was during our childhood that we each became increasingly aware of not only the imperfection of the human-condition-afflicted world around us, but of the imperfection of our own behaviour—that we too suffered from anger, selfishness, meanness and indifference to others.

Basically, all of human life, including our own behaviour, became increasingly bewildering and distressing, to such a degree that by the time children reached late childhood they generally entered what is recognised as the ‘naughty nines’, where their confusion and frustration was such that they even angrily began taunting and bullying those around them.

By the end of childhood, however, children realised that lashing out in exasperation at the imperfections, wrongness and injustice of the world didn’t change anything and that the only possible way to end their frustration was to understand why the world, and their own behaviour, was not ideal. It was at this point, which occurred around 12 years of age, that children underwent a dramatic change from being frustrated, protesting, demonstrative, loud extroverts into sobered, deeply thoughtful, quiet introverts, consumed with anxiety about the imperfections of life under the duress of the human condition.

Indeed, it is in recognition of this very significant psychological transition from a relatively human-condition-free state to a very human-condition-aware state that we separate these stages into ‘Childhood’ and ‘Adolescence’, a shift even our schooling system marks by having children graduate from what is generally called primary school into secondary school. What then happened during adolescence was that, at about 14 or 15 years of age and after struggling for a few years to make sense of existence, the search for understanding became so confronting of those extreme internal imperfections that adolescents had no choice but to ‘Resign’ to living in denial of the whole unbearably depressing and seemingly unsolvable issue of the human condition—after which they became superficial and artificial escapists, not wanting to look at any issue too deeply, and, before long, combative and competitive power-fame-fortune-and-glory, relief-from-the-agony-and-guilt-of-the-human-condition-seeking resigned adults.

Delving deeper into how the journey toward ‘Resignation’ unfolds will reveal just how terrifying the issue of the human condition has been, which is precisely what the reader needs to become aware of in order to appreciate why it has, until now, been impossible to truthfully and thus effectively explain human behaviour. Yes, describing what occurs at ‘Resignation’ makes it abundantly clear why resigned humans became so superficial and artificial in their thinking, incapable of plumbing the great depths of the human condition and thus incapable of finding the desperately needed understanding of human existence.

What happened at around 14 or 15 years of age for virtually all humans growing up under the duress of ‘the imperfections’ of ‘our human condition’ was that to avoid the suicidal depression that accompanied any thinking about the issue of our species’, and our own, seemingly extremely imperfect condition, there was simply no choice but to stop grappling with the answerless question.

And so despite the human condition being the all-important issue of the meaningfulness or otherwise of our existence, there came a time (and, although it varies according to each individual’s circumstances, it typically occurred at about 14 or 15 years of age) when adolescents were forced to put the whole depressing subject aside once and for all and just hope that one day in the future the explanation and defence for our species’, and thus our own, apparently horrifically flawed, seemingly utterly disappointing, sad state would be found, because then, and only then, would it be psychologically safe to even broach the subject.

It’s little wonder then that the human condition has been described so vehemently as ‘the personal unspeakable’ and as ‘the black box inside of humans they can’t go near’—and why it is so very rare to find a completely honest description of adolescents going through the excruciating process of Resignation, of resigning themselves to having to block out the seemingly inexplicable question of their worth and meaning and live, from that time on, in denial of the unbearable issue of the human condition. Having already been through this terrible process of Resignation, most adults simply couldn’t allow themselves to recall, recognise and thus empathise with what adolescents were experiencing…

And so our young have been alone with their pain, unable to share it with those closest, or the world at large. All of which makes the following account of a teenager in the midst of Resignation, by the American Pulitzer Prize-winning child psychiatrist Robert Coles, incredibly special:

‘I tell of the loneliness many young people feel…It’s a loneliness that has to do with a self-imposed judgment of sorts…I remember…a young man of fifteen who engaged in light banter, only to shut down, shake his head, refuse to talk at all when his own life and troubles became the subject at hand.

He had stopped going to school…he sat in his room for hours listening to rock music, the door closed…I asked him about his head-shaking behavior: I wondered whom he was thereby addressing. He replied: “No one.” I hesitated, gulped a bit as I took a chance: “Not yourself?” He looked right at me now in a sustained stare, for the first time. “Why do you say that?” [he asked]…I decided not to answer the question in the manner that I was trained [basically, ‘trained’ in avoiding what the human condition really is]…Instead, with some unease…I heard myself saying this: “I’ve been there; I remember being there—remember when I felt I couldn’t say a word to anyone”…The young man kept staring at me, didn’t speak…When he took out his handkerchief and wiped his eyes, I realized they had begun to fill’ (‘The Moral Intelligence of Children’, 1996, pp.143-144 of 218).

The boy was in tears because Coles had reached him with some recognition and appreciation of what he was wrestling with; Coles had shown some honesty about what the boy could see and was struggling with, namely the horror of the utter hypocrisy of human behaviour—including his own. The words Coles used in his admission that he too had once grappled with the issue of the human condition, of ‘I’ve been there’, are exactly those used by one of Australia’s greatest poets, Henry Lawson, in his extraordinarily honest poem about the unbearable depression that results from trying to confront the question of why human behaviour is so at odds with the cooperative, loving—or, to use religious terms, ‘Godly’—ideals of life.

In his bestselling 2003 book, ‘Goya’, another Australian, Robert Hughes, who for many years was TIME magazine’s art critic, described how he ‘had been thinking about Goya…[since] I was a high school student in Australia…[with] the first work of art I ever bought ‘The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters’… the intellectual beset with doubts and night terrors, slumped on his desk with owls gyring around his poor perplexed head’ (p.3 of 435)…

That sublime classic of American literature, J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, is a masterpiece because, like Coles, Salinger dared to write about that forbidden subject for adults of adolescents having to resign to a dishonest life of denial of the human condition—for ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ is actually entirely about a 16-year-old boy struggling against Resignation. The boy, Holden Caulfield, complains of feeling ‘surrounded by phonies’ (p.12 of 192) and ‘morons’ who ‘never want to discuss anything’ (p.39), of living on the ‘opposite sides of the pole’ (p.13) to most people, where he ‘just didn’t like anything that was happening’ (p.152), to wanting to escape to ‘somewhere with a brook…[where] I could chop all our own wood in the winter time and all’ (p.119). He knows he is supposed to resign—in the novel he talks about being told that ‘Life…[is] a game…you should play it according to the rules’ (p.7), and to feeling ‘so damn lonesome’ (pp.42, 134) and ‘depressed’ (multiple references) that he felt like ‘committing suicide’ (p.94).

As a result of all this despair and disenchantment with the world he keeps ‘failing’ (p.9) his subjects at school and is expelled from four for ‘making absolutely no effort at all’ (p.167). About his behaviour he says, ‘I swear to God I’m a madman’ (p.121) and ‘I know. I’m very hard to talk to’ (p.168).

But like the boy in Coles’ account, Holden finally encounters some rare honesty from an adult that, in Holden’s words, ‘really saved my life’ (p.172). This is what the adult said:

‘This fall I think you’re riding for—it’s a special kind of fall, a horrible kind…[where you] just keep falling and falling [utter depression]’ (p.169). The adult then spoke of men who ‘at some time or other in their lives, were looking for something their own environment couldn’t supply them with…So they gave up looking [they resigned]…[adding] you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior’ (pp.169-170). Yes, to be ‘confused and frightened’ to the point of being ‘sickened by human behavior’—indeed, to be ‘suicid[ally]’ ‘depressed’ by it—is the effect the human condition has if you haven’t resigned yourself to living a relieving but utterly dishonest and superficial life in denial of it.

*Griffith, Jeremy. Freedom: The End Of The Human Condition. World Transformation Movement (WTM) Publishing and Communications, Sydney, Australia.

Image credit: The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters: painting, Francisco Goya, 1799.

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