IN MY BOOK, IN SEARCH OF OUR IDENTITY, I attempt to answer the burning question of why so many of us feel so different, as if we don't belong on this planet. This is no mere navel-gazing exercise. If other people are making the rules and demanding we abide by their norms, then we are going to be leading extremely stress-filled lives. It gets worse: Our good-faith efforts to fit in are often doomed to failure.
This is the old-school way of looking at mental illness. We're maladapters. The stresses pile up. Social transactions become challenging. If we mess up too many times, we become marginalized to the fringes. Now we really are different.
In a good many articles on this site, I urge readers to identify and work on what is holding them back. Through ruthless self-inquiry and hard work, we can often carve out satisfying lives.
But in many of these same articles, I also challenge the conventional wisdom on "normal" (see, especially, this piece). In brief: Normal is over-rated. It's a mean, a norm, it's average. Not only that, it's not necessarily desireable. If normal were a color, it would be beige. Who wants to be beige?
You see the dilemma? As I like to jokingly describe it: We're peanut butter people living in a tofu world run by Vulcans.
Unfortunately, "normal" people comprise the majority. They make the rules. They tell us how to run our lives. Often, their advice is well-meaning. They want to see us happy. Instead, by taking their word for it, by denying our "true normal," by cutting ourselves off from our core, we wind up depressed - again and again and again.
What is going on? My analysis is long and involved. You can say it started when evolution took a wrong turn at agriculture some 12,000 years ago. Overnight, our environment changed. Our genes still haven't had a chance to catch up. Instantly, in cramped and unsanitary conditions, with only one or two food sources, we lost five inches in height, plus 10 percent of our brain mass. Paradoxically, as our society became more complicated, our tasks became much simpler. We didn't need the bigger brains. In the name of efficiency, evolution excels in downsizing.
Our first mega-cities were built on forced labor. This happened on the flood plains of the Tigris and Euprhates. Sumerian mythology tells us we were born to work so the Gods wouldn't have to. And heaven help if we displeased the Gods - floods, plagues, you know the routine. Wouldn't you know it? Sumerian myth resonates across all the ancient religions, a few which have survived into modern times, this basic premise still intact.
Loose interpretation: The 99 percent are here to serve the one percent. The ancient Greeks punched a hole in this myth, which is one reason why even today we look on their civilization with profound awe. Unfortunately, we pay lip service to the Greeks but run our society according to the Sumerians.
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Whoah! You're losing me. Gotcha. Let's back up:
With the introduction of complex societies, new evolutionary niches opened up. We're speculating, mind you, but we're in the company of a lot of smart people. In a nutshell, back in our hunter-gatherer days, there wouldn't have been much advantage in gaming the system. There was only so much you could carry on your back and keep for yourself. But with a change in environment, the opportunists in our midst suddenly had easy pickings, not to mention plenty of incentive.
Plus the Gods were on their side. Surely, people could see through the myth? But what if they no longer possesssed the necessary intelligence? The process may have already begun with the switch to agriculture and crowded living. But now we have the strong suggestion of a human breeding program.
“Man is by nature a social animal,” Aristotle famously proclaimed, probably to an enthusiastic gaggle of admirers. But on another occasion, he also referred to the common folk as “natural slaves." In his own words, “the use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different.”
Indeed, this is probably exactly what happened on the Tigris-Euphrates flood plains and other river systems of the ancient world. With farm animals, the smart and curious and wild ones are quickly culled from the herd. The dumber and more compliant beasts better serve the needs of their masters. So, very soon after we learned to domesticate animals, the opportunists in our midst learned to domesticate humans.
They wouldn't have seen it as a breeding program, of course, but the practical effect would have been the same. The smart people and rabble-rousers who resisted the yoke - forced labor, digging canals, building walls, laboring in the fields - would have been killed before they had a chance to pass on their genes. It's there, inscribed into their cuneiform tablets, dressed up as myth, minus the genetics.
The transformation wouldn't have taken long. In one famous experiment, within five decades, the Russian geneticist Dmitry Belyaev bred foxes - notoriously difficult to tame - to behave like dogs, docile and friendly, with wagging tails.
Thus, in no time, the opportunists had their natural slaves to do their bidding for them. The hero Gilgamesh, we read, had a habit of “trampling its citizens like a wild bull.” The cattle didn't stand a chance.
So now the one percent had their "natural slaves," eager to please, too dumb to think for themselves, even in their own interests.
In my book, I make the argument that we were not born to think. Not even in our more intelligent hunter-gatherer days. Compared to the rest of the animal kingdom, our brains are a wonder to behold, but we were basically born to be resourceful, to respond to novel situations, plan ahead, form social and working alliances, and outwit the competition. This is not the same as "thinking."
The argument is long and complex, but what it boils down to is that we only think we're thinking. Our capacity to rationally parse information is a joke. The Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman received a Nobel for his work in this area. His book, "Thinking, Fast and Slow," is an eye-opener.
So, back to our human breeding program. What do you call someone who can't think for him or herself, is unable to come up with an original thought, accepts conventional wisdom without question, willingly works according to someone else's agenda, and expects everyone else to do the same?
The answer is simple: "Normal."
Okay, I'm being a bit harsh, but are you beginning to see why we don't fit in? One term I like to use to describe ourselves is non-linear, as opposed to linear. We see the world differently. I was discussing this recently with a friend, and she suggested "outliers." We fall outside the statistical norm. Life can be lonely way out there. But it can also be deep and meaningful and rich, especially when we manage to link up with other outliers.
The articles in this section on behavior, as well as some of those on recovery, go into this in considerable detail. Thus, as well as my take on non-linear thinking, we have creativity, intuition, thinking deep, introversion, and highly sensitive. It's not that having bipolar makes you a charter member of the outlier club, or vice-versa, but the overlaps are uncanny.
It took me to start working on IN SEARCH OF OUR IDENTITY, though, to start connecting the dots.
We're not normal. The human breeding program didn't fully take, thank heaven. Enough outliers are born to generate hope in the human race. Personality traits, by the way, are genetic. They don't change over one's life. This is who we are. We need to embrace it. Yes, we can achieve profound personal transformations, but they always occur in the context of our DNA. In my book, I described what happened to me decades ago trying to achieve success as an introvert in an extravert working environment. I turned in brilliant work. It's just that I became manic and unemployable.
Gifted we may be, but our outlier makeup comes preloaded with challenges. This came in loud and clear six years ago when I tried online dating for the first time. It wasn't just the issue of disclosing my bipolar. There was also the complication that no women reading my profile was going to exactly mistake me for normal. Could I somehow turn my outlier traits into an asset?
Believe it or not, society welcomes outliers. We attend their movies, download their music, buy shares in their companies, and so on. You probably see the catch. These are the highly successful - they have license to be as eccentric as they like. If Elon Musk, for instance, says he wants to establish a colony on Mars, well who is going to tell a billionaire he's crazy?
But most of us find ourselves in extremely different circumstances. Success may be a mere gleam. In the meantime, the rent is past due. We're caught in a trap. A conventional career, say in law, may turn out to be to our mental health what working in an asbestos mine is to physical health. But the unconventional life is fraught with its own hazards - the rejections, the humiliations, the put-downs. Almost as bad, or even worse, are the "helpful" suggestions from the well-meaning.
Of course we're going to get depressed. It's no accident that depression and bipolar are endemic in the outlier class. Maybe we were depressed first. Maybe our depressive temperaments are what drive us into thinking and perceiving the world differently in the first place. Naturally, we feel driven to write about it or sing about it or capture an image about it.
This, after all, is what we were born to do. This is where we feel alive, even - paradoxically - in the company of depression. But if weren't already depressed getting into it, we're certain to get depressed once we're into it. Maybe it turns out that we have no choice but to find a more mainstream career. That's going to depress us too, but at least there are tangible benefits.
Either path, though, we're still dealing with the same issue of fitting in. We can be outliers trying to make a success of being outliers. Or we're outliers attempting to blend in, trying to pass for normal.
On both paths, we also face the challenge of embracing our "true normal," not other people's idea of normal.
We're social animals. Successfully fitting in is crucial to our well-being. So is being true to our own selves. Can we turn that contradiction into a resolution? Oh, the challenges ...
Jan 19, 2017.
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