There is a Deity, and He/She is that Person. He/She listens to your muttered prayers in those stressful moments. There are fairies at the bottom of the garden, and if you can get to the end of the pavement without treading on the cracks, something good will happen. Touch wood. The thing that lived in your closet has travelled with you, and now lurks in your suitcase – but that’s okay because you can invoke all manner of guardian angels, good fairies, et cetera, to cancel it out.
They’re all out there, watching over you (although they look away when you enter the bathroom). There’s Dark Matter between the stars, and black holes are the points where parallel universes touch. Aliens build saucer-shaped spaceships, and NASA keeps their secrets. There are millions of parallel realities out there, in most of which I’m not writing this and you’re not reading it. Dragons exist, and one day you’ll wake up from this life and find yourself in a garden, under a tree, with a leprechaun waiting to show you around.
Never mind whether all of that adds up to a quasi-religious belief, or an attempt by your animal brain to fill up the gaps in a wholly rational universe that stands to reason even in its weirdest corners. Because either way, or in any way in between those two extremes, you’re stuck with what you believe. I find in myself a gap between what I know to be true, rationally, and what turns up sometimes in the depths of my mind. Did I really just touch wood? Why? I wonder if it’s the same for you. I’m guessing it is. And that's fine. Give yourself a break. You only have to conform on the outside.
We talk a lot about mental health these days, and what we talk about when we’re talking about mental health is mental unhealth. That state of not being able to process emotions, perceptions, beliefs in ways that fit in with the ways that the majority processes all its "stuff". That state of not fitting in. Look up the term “mental health”, and sooner or later you encounter the word “adjustment”, as though mental health is a matter of adjusting to the way the rest of us (them) think.
It’s subjective, relative, and there’s no absolute standard of mental health. Physically, I'm reasonably healthy, although I doubt that I'd pass the physical exam for anything involving effort. Or fitness, if I'm honest. Mentally, I'm reasonably healthy, although I did once flick through a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (fifth edition, 2013, put out by the American Psychiatric Association), and it turns out I have a light touch of everything. Written on the side of a mug in my kitchen are the words "I'm just a normal, functioning member of the human race, and there's no way anyone can prove otherwise." I'm pretty sure that's true. That last bit, I mean.
But there are no absolutes in this, are there? No absolute standards of mental health in the way that I think there's some kind of absolutely accurate atomic clock somewhere, keeping absolutely standard time, by which we can all set the clocks on our smartphones (disclaimer: I may have hallucinated this clock; see the Diagnostic, etc., for further details). There isn't some person somewhere, to whom we all point and say, "That's how we should think! Those are the beliefs we should share!" Imagine how completely nuts such a person would become, under such pressure – and imagine the wars that would start: every country would want their own such person, talking their own languages, sharing their own, er, biases.
I’m writing this in a place and time where I count as reasonably well-adjusted. [A heckler in a blog post, eh? Thank you so much for your input.] I could take a flight of no more than a few hours, in just about any direction, and land somewhere that required a substantial adjustment. Imagine that my superpower was to speak any language and look like a local anywhere on earth – I’d stick out in any country, if I was still adjusted to this one. In some countries, I’d be diagnosed as mentally ill, and in others I’d be taken off the street for my own protection. Or for other reasons, of course.
Now, there’s mental unhealth that is dangerous, and there are extremes of not being adjusted. This is not about them. I’m thinking of people whose not-quite-adjustment makes daily life difficult for them, without threatening the rest of us. [No, grammar check: “whose” not “who’s”.] This isn’t exactly a plea for understanding, although we could do with a few degrees more compassion, because I suspect that I'm thinking about all of us. We’re all a bit off-centre. We're all hiding something. There’s no such thing as mental health, if we mean a pure, clean, absolute, universal standard of normality to which we all adhere, because mental health is all about conforming, putting up a front. Flip that over, and mental health is what we’ll accept from other people.
You’re mentally healthy if you believe in fairies. You’re [ditto] if you believe in a Deity, follow a religious path, touch wood and hug trees, claim to be an atheist, vote for [redacted], think [redacted] talks a lot of sense, believe in reincarnation, slightly believe that you were the Emperor Napoleon, believe that politics is a force for good, pay your respects to magpies, throw salt over your left shoulder whenever you spill it, see angels, believe that your deceased relatives are watching over you and enjoy talking about Brexit.
You’re not mentally healthy if you insist on sharing all that with the rest of us. But it’s okay. You’re still sane if you just can’t help quietly believing it. None of that private stuff matters. We’re all the same to some degree. Yes, I do touch wood. Doesn’t make sense, but … what if I didn’t? The writer Stephen King wrote, “The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn't real. I know that, and I also know that if I'm careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle.” Which is what I’ve been trying to say for several paragraphs now.
We’re all human, and that doesn’t qualify us to judge our own or others’ mental health. We’re all human, and while that does give us an instinct to conformity, it can mean we’re quite weird on the inside. We just need to keep our core beliefs to ourselves, to accept them for what they are, and ideally, to get better at accepting each other’s beliefs.
Word associations – packing:suitcase. I’ve got the old rucksack I used to use ten years ago (and more) for a fitness class. Health reasons. Once a week into Truro, hour spent jumping up and down in a class-full of women wearing leotards, and I never did quite get around to asking whether I’d walked into the wrong class. I was always first or last into the shower, and while I was in there, they put a sign on the door: Man In Shower.
Yes, there was a woman who burst in one day to find out whether that was true. No, there wasn’t a lock on the door. Yes, she had just spent an hour leaping around behind me, so she must have known – never mind. Very robust rucksack, described by somebody once as my Swiss Army Rucksack*; red and black with lots of pockets. Just right for a couple of days in North Cornwall**.
Oh, and if we’re doing the full Knausgaard, I should probably mention that I’ve got various small items drying on radiators around the house. The pressure was down on the boiler first thing, so I had to fix that, then I didn’t screw the lid down properly on the Nutribullet, so … yeah. The morning on which I’m just ever so slightly short on time and want to get to work. Must remember to water everything before I go.
I remember one exercise we used to do. We were working on hips and thighs (definitely the wrong class, I know), and we had to walk around in a big circle, legs apart, wearing an elastic band. Now, you may know exactly what I’m talking about here, but in case you’re somebody I would have met in that other class – the one I should have joined – the elastic band goes around your legs, just above the knee, and you have to push against it to walk with your legs apart. This all strengthens – anyway.
There was a time in my life when my hips and thighs were, um, beach-ready. I remember thinking: all those years of so-called civilisation, and here we are. Walking around in a circle while pushing our legs against an elastic band. I never really felt out of place in that class; they were very friendly, although I think there was some degree of amusement at my presence. There wasn’t a single anything on which I could compete with any of them, which was very relaxing.
And all of that from pulling out my old rucksack for the two days away from it all. Vladimir Nabokov published an autobiographical memoir titled Speak, Memory in 1951. I haven’t read it, because it was a set text when I was doing Eng. (and not-so-Eng.) Lit. at university, but the title stays with me. Memory does speak, prompted sometimes by rucksacks. “Through memory Nabokov is able to possess the past,” says Wikipedia. Definitely my rucksack, then.
*Update. There’s a logo. Swissgear. Got it.
**Further update. The Gurnard’s Head, North Cornwall. Dinner, bed, breakfast, lots of walking on the coast path. Very enjoyable, thank you, although an embarrassing photograph seems to have made its way onto Facebook.