In the middle of everything, there’s this deep, dark, depressing hole. It’s a chasm, really, and when you fall in, sometimes there’s no climbing out. When we call it anything at all, we often call it death, brokenness, or despair. I like to call it the abyss, or, more familiarly, the hole or the pit.
A lot of us like to believe the hole is at the end of everything, not in the middle; but there it is in the middle, right in front of us. We walk around it, gaze into it, slip into it, and watch others fall into it all the time. We don’t like to think about it. It’s impolite to even acknowledge its existence.
We live at the edge of this hole; some, dancing at its rim; others, peering carefully in; most, with their back to it, as if it’s not there. We often find ourselves reeling, dizzy at the edge. We cling to something to prevent falling. Clinging to something enables us to live at the edge of the abyss more comfortably. We think, if we start to slip, we can haul ourselves out. Unfortunately, anything we cling to starts to fall into the hole, too; taking us down, with it. Everything must fall in the hole, eventually.
There are nine bushes that grow at the edge of this hole. Nine things to grab if you feel you’re about to fall. Nine supports that offer the illusion of security as long as they hold. Nine kinds of madness when they begin to give way.
If you cling to perfectionism, you’re attempting to keep from falling into the pit by rejecting everything associated with it. You rid yourself of imperfection, remove any blemish, correct every deficiency, wash yourself clean with the soap of fastidiousness. You keep up standards, both with yourself and others, and maintain scruples. You’re the catalyst for reformation, an advocate for change. You’re attentive to details. You’re determined to leave the world better than when you found it. You believe your life will matter to the extent that you succeed. If this is a mission of your life, you may have become a lawyer, an accountant, a muckraking journalist, or a preacher with a prophetic voice. You have attention to details and you don’t miss a thing, just so you could seek perfection for a living.
Every one of these bushes represent something very positive and life affirming at first glance, but, when you rely too much on them, they become the agent of your undoing. Perfectionism contains its own special species of madness. The more you try to be perfect, the more imperfections abound. You become frozen, afraid to make a mistake. You easily slip into being rigid, repressed, critical, impatient, and resentful. You take pride in being better than everyone else. In cases of advanced madness, you become an avenging angel, or violent jihadist, bent on purging the world of evil, while becoming evil, yourself.
This is the bush you hold if you say that helping others gives meaning to your life. You devote yourself to serving. You’re generous and self-sacrificing. You enliven others with your appreciation and attention. This keeps you from falling into the pit of despair. It’s how you say you matter. You may have become a doctor, a nurse, a teacher, or a therapist, yes, a therapist, just so you could help more people. If you’re a parent, you’re an especially good one, the cool kind who bakes cookies. The kind everyone wishes they had.
However, the more important helping becomes to you, the more your helping becomes the very thing that is the most destructive. You neglect yourself and your needs, thereby putting both yourself and the people you’re responsible for at risk. You become frustrated when, despite all your care and sacrifice, the people you help continue to be dysfunctional. You begin to feel entitled, under appreciated. You believe everyone else takes, while you, alone, give. Furthermore, the bright sun of your kindness casts a dark shadow, it hides a tendency to manipulate others to get your needs met. In cases of advanced madness, you may actually need to keep people dependent, irresponsible, and innocent so that you can believe you’re helping them.
If you need to be validated in order to keep from falling in the abyss, if you chase success and crave admiration, if you’re hard working, competitive, and super focused in the pursuit of your goals, then this is the bush to which you cling. You’re the star, the captain of the football team, the homecoming queen, the embodiment of the best and the brightest. The thing you most fear is to be worthless. In doesn’t matter what you do for a living, just as long as people approve of it.
Beneath this shining image, this attractive veneer, is often a person who is very empty inside. You’ve spent so much time earning the praise of others that you’ve have forgotten what you want and need. You secretly believe you’re a fraud. You have a bazillion friends, but you’re hard to get to know, because you fear that, if anyone knew you, they would never love you. In cases of advanced madness, this narcissism takes an ugly turn and you become cold blooded and ruthless in the pursuit of your goals.
If you grab the bush of individuality, you save yourself from the soul effacing-abyss by asserting what makes you different from everyone else. You develop unique talents. You may also be uniquely underprivileged or flawed, but you can be honest with yourself and own all your feelings, motives, contradictions, and conflicts without whitewashing them. You see yourself, warts and all, because it’s this ruthless candor that sets you apart and makes you significant. You can endure suffering with dignity. Your openness equips you to express yourself in the arts. What you most fear is losing yourself.
Your self-absorption easily gives way to a self-indulgence and self pity. Validation remains out of reach. No one understands you. You may not be able to understand anyone else. Because you focus so much on changeable feelings, you lack stability. You’re moody, morbid, and impractical. In cases of advanced madness, tormented by self-contempt, you drive away anyone who tries to help you.
If you look deep into the abyss and want to know more about it, it is the bush of learning that keeps you from falling in. You want to know why things are the way they are, how the world works, both the outer world and the inner world of your psyche. You create order out of chaos. You don’t accept received opinions and doctrines, you need to test the truth. You’re drawn to the sciences. You’re the geek, extraordinaire.
Lean on this bush too much and you can easily become lost in the Byzantine complexities of your own thoughts. You become eccentric and socially isolated. You get so caught up in abstractions, that you become an absentminded professor. You may become the leading expert in a very small slice of natural or social science, but, for all your learning, you’re unable to boil water. You become so engrossed with collecting knowledge, that you have no idea how to use it. In cases of advanced madness, you see patterns that aren’t there. You fall into psychosis.
If you feel small and powerless unless you attach yourself to something greater than yourself, then you are relying on the bush of loyalty. You use structures, allies, beliefs, institutions, and supports outside of yourself for guidance to survive. You’re consistent and reliable. You’ll fight for your family, your community, or your beliefs more fiercely than you will fight for yourself. You keep your head down and try not to stand out. What you fear most is abandonment.
Rely too much on loyalty and you will eventually lack confidence in your own judgment. Because you feel so insecure, you’ll attempt to build a network of trust on a foundation of unsteadiness and fear. The more important it is for you to trust, the more difficult it is to trust. When the bush gives way, you become paranoid, fanatical, and hysterical.
Since you only go around once in life, you’re going to grab for all the gusto you can. You want to live a full life, go everywhere, and experience everything. You approach life with curiosity, optimism, and a sense of adventure. You’re bold, flexible, and vivacious. You have chutzpah. This is the bush of enthusiasm. You’re the jack of all trades, and master of none. What you most fear is emptiness.
Cling to this bush too much and you will be unfocused and indecisive. As you speed up your pursuit of whatever seems to offer freedom and satisfaction, you make bad choices. You become impulsive and infantile; you don’t know when to stop. When the wheels come off, you become manic, claustrophobic, and panic-stricken.
Some people see a hole and just want to fill it in, build bridges, and make improvements. This is the bush of productivity. If this is you, then you have enormous willpower and vitality. You take on any challenge. You leave your mark. You’re a born leader. You’re not afraid to take responsibility and inspire others. When you give commands, you expect they will be obeyed. You seek power and fear powerlessness.
When you’re this much into productivity, it’s easy to overlook difficulties that’ll bite you in the ass someday. You take the health of yourself and others for granted. You’re so intent on being tough, you lose touch with how you, or anyone feels. Under a steely exterior, you’re made of glass. When the bush gives way, you’re just a bully, a sociopath, a megalomaniac Sadam Hussein with no weapons of mass destruction.
Can’t we all just get along? Chill out, man; get grounded; connect with the cosmos. Sure, there’s a howling abyss right at your feet, but look at the view! Welcome to the peace bush; have a joint. If this is you, then you are accepting and trusting, optimistic and supportive. You’re a natural peacemaker. You could be a marriage counselor, a diplomat, a mystic, or a healer. You can see every point of view and empathize with everyone.
You can be too willing to go along with others to keep the peace. Because you want everything to go smoothly and be without conflict, you tend to be complacent, simplifying problems and minimizing anything upsetting. You can become slothful and inert. When the bush gives way, you’re catatonic, dissociative, and incapable of facing anything.
If you think the character traits I presented were stereotyped and cartoonish, then you got the point. If you thought one of those stereotyped and cartoonish descriptions were about you, then read on. By all means, read on, please.
The point is that, when we are faced with an existential crisis, when we see a vast, howling abyss right at our feet, when we are reeling at the edge of brokenness, despair, and nothingness, then we tend to grab on to something and get rigid. The nine kinds of madness are the things we grab onto. Perfection, Helpfulness, Achievement, Individuality, Learning, Loyalty, Enthusiasm, Productivity, and Peace don’t look like madness; but, when we rely too much on any one, when we put too much weight on it, it starts to give way and carries us down in the very pit we were trying to avoid.
There’s no point in saying, step away from the edge of the abyss. We live at the edge of the abyss, whether we chose to acknowledge it or not. So, what is there to do?
You’ve got to learn to swing from bush to bush. Grab on to your bush, by all means, but, when it starts to go, then look for another.
For example, if you’re into productivity and find that you’re starting to get bossy, reach over for the helpfulness bush and try doing things someone else’s way. When you’ve been clinging to helpfulness and you’ve lost yourself, then swing on over to individuality and find yourself again. When you’ve been hanging on to individuality too long, so that you become envious and emotionally turbulent, then try a stint of perfectionism, just to get more objective. Getting too hung up on perfection? Get a dose of enthusiasm and become spontaneous again. Too scattered now by all your enthusiasms? Go to learning and get more focused. Getting too impractical, professor? Well, go back to productivity, again. Do the demands of loyalty have you tense? Then chill out at the peace bush. Are you too chill, now? Then get fired up to achieve something.
Of course, this means you’re going to have to let go and reach across the void to grab on to something unfamiliar. You may look crazy, swinging from bush to bush over a bottomless chasm like a mad monkey; but you’ll be the most sensible person of all.