Temporary Sanity

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We all know about being able to plead temporary insanity as a part of a trial. I think the real fact is that most of us are temporarily sane, that being able to look at ourselves and the world around us with some equanimity is a pretty fragile state.

One of the principles of universal design is that we’re all temporarily able, and that we can all be suddenly disabled, whether permanently or temporarily. One day we’re fine, the next day we fall off our bike and have a broken ankle. One day we’re typing and mousing just fine, and the next day our carpal tunnel flares up and it hurts to do our work. One day we’re out playing tennis, and the next day we’re recovering from a stroke. Eventually, we just get older, and don’t have the strength or stamina or flexibility we once did. Disability is part of all of us, it comes and goes. We can’t design our spaces as though we’re invulnerable and will be fit and active forever.

Well, just as we’re all temporarily able, we’re all temporarily sane. How many millions of people are in the process of getting a divorce? How many millions are working through the death of a friend or a family member? How many millions are raising a grandchild and worrying about their kid? Or sending a son or daughter off to college. Or preparing for retirement? Or hit with a sudden expense? Or going through a mid-life crisis of whatever sort? Our mental stability is more tenuous than we’d like to admit.

Let’s talk about mid-life crisis. We have these periods that we call stages of life, and the transitions—the points between those stages, whenever we hit them—can be moments of crisis. They’re points where the old narrative, the old way of explaining ourselves and our place in the world, no longer makes sense. Adolescence, for example, is a time when you’re no longer a child, but you’re not yet allowed to be an adult, and there’s no good place for you. You don’t really know what you are.

We make all kinds of jokes about mid-life crisis, but really, what is that? It’s a moment when you’ve gotten somewhat secure—in your work, in your family, in your finances—and you wake up one day and say “Is this what I get?” You’ve spent your whole first thirty or forty years inventing yourself, building yourself to be a certain kind of person in a certain kind of world. And at some point, you don’t need to invent yourself any more, you’ve made it to whatever goals you’d set. And now you’re no longer a person inventing yourself. And that’s really disconcerting. There’s a lot of literature about depression and confusion in professionals who’ve just made partner, in college faculty who’ve just been awarded tenure. Just at the point when the rest of the world is telling you that you’ve made it, that you’ve passed every test that anybody has ever put in front of you, and you’ve done it all brilliantly… you realize that nobody is ever going to give you a test again. Any other decisions you ever make are going to be about what you want, not about what other people want you to do. And you, maybe for the first time in decades, have to decide what you want. And that’s just scary as hell, to be responsible not merely for your actions but for your desires.

There are tons of these transitional moments. Getting married, retirement, menopause, the first time we feel a funny pain in our chest, the first time we recognize that those kids know how to do things that I don’t know. The first time you talk with a young person about a band and they say, “Yeah, my dad loves them.” The first time you’re in the grocery store and the checker asks you if you get the discount. Next year, we’re going to see the first cohort of college freshmen who were born in the year 2000. I mean, come on! That’s not even possible. But all of those are points at which the old way of understanding ourselves doesn’t make sense, doesn’t help us navigate the world. We’re suddenly different people than we thought we were. And that makes us crazy all over again.