Topic: Personal

Lem is a friend of ours who recently had a bit of a breakdown, which resulted in his leaping from a third-floor window and landing on a staircase below, with seriously bad results for his knee and arm that put him in Bellevue Hospital for a while.

He went through a scary week of secondary infection and general awfulness, as well as detox from probably alcohol and maybe something else. We visited him after that, when he was woozy from morphine, and I saw him again a week later, when he’d just switched from a wheelchair to a cane. I was there with Todd and a German friend of Lem’s named Beatrice, and we had a bit of a party in his room. I loaned him our old laptop so he could write his thoughts.

The next day, on the advice of his psychiatrist at the hospital, Lem checked himself into the psych ward, which you apparently can’t just check back out of. He wrote a series of letters while in there, which were typed up by his mother (who has been with him most of the time, fortunately) and posted on the Polenblog (1, 2).

As our friend Erin pointed out in a comment on Lem’s final post, one thing people learn in such places is that the distinction between sane and in- is more a matter of appearance than of anything more concrete or absolute. This is more profound than it looks at first: sanity is not so much the ability to construct a coherent worldview or avoid believing silly things as it is the ability to interact with others in a way that they find coherent and comprehensible. That’s why radical artists, social outcasts and crazy people are so hard to distinguish, while people who believe in the Angel Moroni or Thetans or the resurrection of Jesus can be considered fully sane and functional.

This happens to be one of the areas where I think the Neo-Confucians are right. Building on the Buddhist doctrine of no-self (which works by positing a coherent self and then asking you to find and identify it and giggling while you fail), the Neo-Confucians defined the self in relation to others. You aren’t a coherent individual separate from those around you, but rather a father, a son, a brother, a lord or servant, a husband, etc. Each of these roles is distinct, and you only exist as a human being in society to the extent that you fulfill these roles.

So, to turn Sartre on his head, sanity is other people.

We look forward to seeing Lem again on the outside and welcoming him back into a circle of friends.