I remember once sitting at a coffee shop in Jackson late on evening when a man sitting near my struck up a conversation with me. As we first started talking, our conversations seemed relatively coherent about various intellectual topics, and yet there was something just a bit off about the conversation that I just couldn’t pin down. I thought nothing of it and eventually, he asked if I wanted to read his paper that he had written and discuss it. Eager to please, I agreed and as I read the paper, what had initially been just an inkling became rather clear: there was likely some thought disorder with the person. What I read was not simply filled with the occasional grammatical mistakes, typographical errors, the occasional misspelled words, etc., etc. that could be attributed to carelessness, lack of verbal proficiency, etc. What I saw was a document that had a pastiche of various abstract words, loosely related to politics and oppression if my memory serves me correctly, but that had no real evidence of a consistent grammatical structure or coherence from thought to thought. Then, as he talked to me about it, he just kept talking to me about it, as if I should just understand what was being said; it never registered to him that what was on that paper was not something anyone would understand.
Whether the person was schizophrenic, suffered from severe form of abuse that destroyed his writing capacity, etc., etc., I would not be able to tell you. Nor do I tell this story to make light of him, as my intention is not to focus on him but on myself. Even though we seemed to early on be able to understand each other, the more I got to know more about him that evening, I discovered that there was some sort of mental illness, severely impairing him. A man who seemed relatively normal and comprehensible at the beginning began to become a person who I couldn’t make sense of at all.
Often times in life, we encounter people who wear a “veil of sanity.”1 These are people who at first glance may seem relatively normal and average, but the closer you get to them, you begin to realize that there is something not entirely right about them.2 For various reasons, the way in which they typically relate to others seems comprehensible because they have successfully learned socially interacting in that manner, but it doesn’t really reflect a deep part of their personality. Sometimes we are able to intuitively pick up on something without a real knowledge and sometimes we find that intuition pans out to be true.3
What about the opposite? Are there cases where people wear a “veil of insanity?” That at first blush, their behavior and words look entirely off, but if you just pay attention, you discover there is more to them than meets the eye. There is another person I know, who upon facing a long, steady series of significant and threatening contradictions in their lives from other people who refused to listen to them, finally acted out in a strong outrage that was entirely out of this person’s character. Initially, people saw him as threatening and perhaps a bit deranged, but as the person engaged in what my research in epistemology and apocalyptic literature has lead to call acts of “epistemic resistance,” eventually the other people began to realize that this person had been mistreated. As they began to treat him with kindness and openness, they discovered a normal, average, run-of-the-mill person who would return their kindness. What looked to be a person on the brink of insanity was actually a sane person who had been forced into a chaos he had absolutely no understanding or control over.
However, perhaps a figure you would be more familiar with who wore a “veil of insanity” is John the Baptist, who was known as a wild man, but yet when you listen to the instructions he gave to people when other asked, they are the words of sanity, not insanity, that expressed something that had been lost among the teachings of the Pharisees and the scribes. This isn’t to suggest that a people who wear a “veil of insanity” are a prophet, but only to suggest that some people whose behavior seems incredibly abnormal actually are far from it. When we encounter people who wear a veil of insanity, there is some sort of epistemic ignorance on our own end (whether it be able the person’ circumstances, the topic they are discussed, etc.) that has been created by various actions and circumstances (such as by pure chance, by manipulation, by ideology, etc.) that leads us to misconstrue the person.
While this gets a bit out of my studies in psychology, I would go so far as to even say that sometimes people who wear the “veil of insanity” are a product of people who had a “veil of sanity” that lured people in and then as they got closer, their chaos turned the other person inside out.
I tell this to you to help open your eyes to a category of people who may, on the surface, look abnormal and off, but at the end of the day, they have often been severely mistreated rather than being people with deep mental disturbances. Too often, we treat what appears to be craziness on the surface as a reflect of a deep trait of that person, leading others to ostracize and distances themselves from them. We rarely recognize those who wear the veil of insanity. Meanwhile, we are more familiar with those who wear the veil of sanity. Why is this the case?
Fear. Fear has a way of shutting down our willingness to hear, if not even our ability to adequately listen. Once we get into a state of fear about someone or something, it is hard for us to turn that state of fear off. It is hard for us to switch from fearing someone to thinking someone is pleasant. On the other hand, we can more easily switch from thinking someone is pleasant to being concerned and afraid of them, because our positive affect does not enslavingly control our thinking as much as fear does. So, we are apt to more often discover those people who wear the veil of sanity with much greater frequency than those who wear the veil of insanity.
Perhaps this is why Jesus Christ redeems a people to become free from fear, particularly the fear of death: it is these people who are freer from the control of fear and anxiety, even as they may still experience the feelings of fear and anxiety from time to time, who can sit with those who wear the veils of insanity, of sin, or brokenness, and through that bring Jesus’ light to people who have had these veils and masks wrongly forced upon them, leaving them to feel like they have been living in a great darkness. Perhaps it people whose faith in Jesus leads to both wear a veil of love and have love in their heart to bring those in the darkness out.
- I call it a veil rather than a mask, as the word metaphor of a mask has connotations of concealing.
- If you really wanted to get technical, you could try to say that we all wear “veils of sanity” that masks some type of inconsistency, struggle or chaos, as no one of us has every thought and feeling perfectly together in a perfectly rational that others would recognize and comprehend. For instance, having experienced some significant traumas, I have learned how to hide the worst parts of my traumatic experiences from others, so that what you see is a sane person unless you approach me during a circumstance where the trauma gets triggered, then anxiety floods me over and I became very scared and protective. This is not what the “veil of sanity” is, however. I say this for your benefit so that you don’t start accidentally self-gaslighting yourself thinking you see a divergence from what you show to others and then what you know of yourself. While you may ‘masking’ it doesn’t mean you are the type of people I am talking about.
- Although, to be clear, there are also times where our own intuitions end up being in clear error. Intuition should be listened to to help us pay attention and giving us potential, preliminary steps to take in response if important or necessary, but treating our intuition alone as a very reliable guide is a route to causing problems unless you have spent years training your expertise in a specific domain. In other words, just because you might think something is wrong doesn’t mean there is, or at the least, it isn’t as wrong as you make it out to be.