‘I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment.’ ~ John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley
Modern psychiatry would call this a bipolar disorder, among other things, and try to cure it with drugs.
I would call it the span of human experience.
Taken to the extreme, it can be dangerous and harmful, this kind of bipolarism, not just to the perpetrators but also to those around them. To glorify the extremes is tricky business, tripping up the human condition.
Exceptions apply, of course. It was an extreme vision coupled with extreme endeavors that brought about the discovery of the Americas. It was an extreme idea that proposed how humans are descendants of the apes, connected to them biologically and perhaps even culturally, but no doubt genetically, as we are to monkeys, to mammals of all kinds, avians, serpents, even fruit flies and bananas. The idea sounded ludicrous when it was first floated — how dare Mr. Darwin propose that we share genes and DNA with these primitive creatures, with plants, for heaven’s sake? Preposterous, totally out there, as was the idea of DNA itself when it was first proposed by those two lunatics, Watson and Crick.
And so was the proposition that the Earth revolves round the sun, or that all men are created equal, and that all men meant all women too, and all persons of color, all minorities and people, and one day perhaps all living things. Respect life as much as possible, be stewards, not butchers, at least try and mitigate the disaster. Rein in the holocaust perpetrated on life on Earth, find other ways of making progress.
Talk about extreme ideas!
It was an extreme idea that saw the birth of Hemingway’s Fiesta and Woolf’s Orlando, manuscripts that scandalized readers and critics and establishments round the world.
It was extreme minds that brought forth the notion of democracy, the principle of energy conservation, the arcaneness of quantum mechanics.
Extreme minds also created the idea of meditation. Who other than an extremist would sit motionless and silent for hours, if not days, fasting, focusing, visualizing worlds inside one’s mind with one’s inner chatter mechanisms shut down, and the totality of one’s faculties turned on? Who but an extremist would have come up with the notion of non-violent revolution, asking people to march to their ruin without ever raising a hand or weapon to defend themselves?
Who but an extremist would sacrifice himself in the name of his flock?
Who but an extremist would dedicate her life to fighting for others less fortunate, all after getting shot in the face by the persecutors she eventually went after? To sacrifice one’s entire life to the service of others is no average feat. It’s an outlier, all the way out there in the far reaches of the human condition.
So is the ability to win sixteen Grand Slam singles titles, nineteen Grand Slam singles titles, twenty-three, twenty-four, missing very few matches in the process, giving your all to the game and sport. Federer, Nadal, Williams, Court, all of them great on account of the extremes they went to.
And the people who directed movies like Spartacus and Paths Of Glory, Requiem For A Dream, Vertigo, Mirror, Apocalypse Now; the people who played the roles of Ben Sanderson (Leaving Las Vegas), Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood), Maggie Fitzgerald (Million Dollar Baby), Stanley Kowalski (A Streetcar Named Desire); the crews who shot epics like Baraka and Blue Planet.
The people who championed or funded these projects.
The people who went to the moon, not metaphorically, but the damn moon.
And the people who lifted their heads to bite the hands that fed them, the same hands that starved them and beat them and raped them into submission, they’re extremists, too, all of these revolutionaries, and thanks goodness for them. Thank goodness for this brand of extremism, the excellent kind, without which we would still be wallowing in yesterday’s mire.
Thank goodness for our hardwired irreverence and the lengths and depths, the heights and distances to which it takes us.
Psychiatry and psychology want to cure us of these outbursts, shrinking the margins. The behaviors and attitudes of individuals and groups of individuals have been pathologized to a degree that erodes the span of the human experience, taking the extra out of the formula, making everything plain ordinary.
The reality is, there are plenty of extremists out there who need minding and fixing, plenty of it. The wrong kind of extremists who need to be separated from the rest of us, stopped in their tracks and made obsolete. Charles Manson, for example — the wrong kind of extraordinary individual, long dead, yes, but a good example to start us off.
And Hitler. There was a nutcase if there ever was one. And all his followers. They needed — and still need — plenty of fixing.
And Nelson Mandela, at least before he changed his ways. He redeemed himself after all, so one can say that he did it — fixed himself.
How about Trump? The Donald. Think he’ll fix himself? Highly doubtful. He doesn’t deserve the benefit of anything. He’s an extremist of the wrong and foul kind, and the more power he wields, the worse he’ll get.
How about that guy Shkreli? The weasel who raised the price of anti-HIV medication by 5000% overnight, citing market forces. He just got sentenced to jail for inciting harm on Hillary Clinton, and he’s still waiting to be sentenced for securities fraud. Wrong kind of extremism. You know the type. Good riddance to him.
And good riddance to Hillary Clinton, too. She was so far up inside her ideal version of the world, she handed the world to Trump. Seeing the back of her will be an extremely good thing.
And the guy and girl next door, the average Joes and Janes of the world who fall victim to fanatical behavior, being racist, hateful, narrow-minded to the point of harm, open-minded to the point of narrow-mindedness (yes, there is such a thing, and it’s called shooting your cause in the foot), all these ordinary people who for some reason or other try to escape the pit of the ordinary by engaging in the wrong kind of distinction, they’re out there, and we need less of what they do. We need them — we need ourselves, because we all fall prey to this transgression — to engage in activity that makes things work instead of throttling them.
Useful and harmful extremism. We get both kinds. Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate between the two, as in the case of Mandela, or Jesus (tough examples, right?) at least until the bigger picture comes into play, and even then it’s tricky. One man’s hero is another’s oppressor, a woman’s poison, a creed’s plague and nemesis; a culture’s bane; an Other’s slave driver and castigator, but that, my friends, is another story altogether.
Until we address it — and what a great topic it is, for which I have prepared some great Spin Doctor material as well as some long-gestating WAKE OF LIBERTY stuff — keep an eye out for extremism, the constructive and/or forward-thinking kind, and don’t listen to the naysayers and ho-hummers. Don’t let yourselves be cured from your predilections, not by today’s mental health industry standards, not if you want to retain the special kind of boundary-smashing magic that comes pack and parcel with the human experience.
And if you feel that it’s getting too much for you at times, write it down. Put a little of what you’re feeling in words. It works wonders, keeping the balancing mechanisms in operation, plus it gives you something to look back to, reminisce — most importantly, something with which to ascertain your life, see where you came from so that you may figure out where to go next.
We’ve been doing this since the beginning of language. Our history and literature and religion and science, all our activities, chronicled and recorded, archived and reexamined as time streams along, offering insight on the lengths and heights and distances to which we have come during our long journey ahead.
We do glorify the extremes after all. It’s tricky business, but when done constructively, with the bigger picture in mind, great things come out of it.
I wish you a wonder-ful, extraordinary, thoroughly consequential time.
From your pathologically provocative and far-traveling Spin Doctor,
Eyes open, mind sharp.