I’m Not Insane!

I might be insane, and I might do the same things over and over again expecting different results, but I might not be insane for doing so. Whoopie!

Looking for a definition of “New Media” for my latest AC Blog post, I bumped into this post by  The Fat Man in which he shares his pet peeve frustrations with this quote:

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

It was funny timing, as just this morning in my personal journaling I was writing about how I feel like I’ve had a sudden, major shift in my thinking regarding the ole nature versus nurture dialog. I won’t freak you out by quoting myself, but the gist of my thinking is that I feel as though I’m suddenly seeing that my nature is my nature is my nature — regardless of whether I like it or not. In other words, who I was born to be might be a much more powerful force in regard who I actually am than the Freudian thinking I was reared on will allow me to accept.

I’m not downplaying the importance of nurture to make or break one’s life (or day). (Hell, all that Freudian thinking certainly influenced my thoughts about — and my reaction to — the nature of my nature.) Rather, I think I’m starting to accept that, to use another famous quote, “I am what I am.”

For me, I think this might have profound (if subtle) implications — especially in terms of being less frustrated by my making the same mistakes over and over again. This head-banging frustration makes me feel insane, even if I’m not, especially because I think I should (or at least can) change how I act in many cases, when in many cases I act the same.

I can see that this abstract thinking is better left for a personal journal entry, so I’ll get back to The Fat Man and his ragging on the “definition of insanity” quote, which has made me, too, cringe since the first time I heard it. The funny thing is that I heard it from a very smart person whom I respect a great deal, and I think I totally got the sentiment she was sharing. If that had been the last time I heard the quote that would have been fine, but like The Fat Man, I kept on hearing it, often thrown out like wisdom when it doesn’t seem very wise at all.

The last time I heard it was just last week, from Veronica, and I didn’t say anything because she’s way smarter than I am and she comes up with the best, wittiest original quotable material of anyone I know. So I let it pass. But I’m glad that The Fat Man did not.

He notes that it this quote was never said by Benjamin Franklin (a source I had never heard quoted) and that “It isn’t the definition of insanity” and “It is harmful advice.”

I’m not so worried about strict definitions (are there any?) and I don’t really see it as harmful advice, but I do think that it might be harmful in spirit.

Everyone I know does the same stupid stuff again and again, so rather than being the definition of “insanity” this quote might better serve as en example of “common human behavior.” We’re all struggling, and we all make the same mistake a lot more than once.

The most interesting part of the post by The Fat Man is the comments. There are 103 and the last one was made just seven days ago, even though the post is four years old! Whoa. A lot of strong feelings about this quote.

The best comments are those in which people chime in with a spirit of fun, using many famous quotes to express their thoughts. But a lot of people out there are tender to any insults directed to this quote. My favorite quote-liker is Meredith Peterson who says:

This quote is used a lot in rehabs and AA groups, because, in essence, it helps people realize that they can’t keep pursuing negative habits and expect any result but the same outcome over and over again.

And who ends her comment with:

I am clinically insane…..and this quotation keeps me from repeating negative patterns.

Ms. Peterson might be clinically insane but she’s smart enough to point out that if a quote is helpful a quote is helpful. In other words, it might not be right but it can be right for a given person.

I should end here, but I can’t resist the opportunity to rag on AA. I can’t stand AA, which I see as a destructive cult, not a sane way for all people to go about reducing alcohol intake. I have such venom toward AA because I’ve seen its cult-like approach really screw over a few people I know. On the other hand, I know people who have been immensely helped by AA. In other words, AA might not be right but it can be right for a give person.

This AA information from Ms. Peterson made sense. The person from I first heard the “definition of insanity” quote is a regular AA-er. She, for one, has been helped immensely by the cult. So there’s one for AA!

Ultimately, I wonder why The Fat Man and I are so irritated by this quote. He gives a number of logical reasons why the quote is idiotic, but idiotic quotes don’t usually rub our skin so rawly. And his logical reasons incite people to agree logically or react emotionally. This makes me think that there is something cult-like about this quote.

I’m not even sure what that means, but my sense is that it has something to do with trying to influence people — for better or worse — in very specific ways using very vague information, which sounds very specific. I mean, think about it. The real problem with this quote — that starts with “The definition of insanity is” — is that it is not a definition at all. It has nothing to do with insanity. It is about behavior, but it is vague, and so even though it sounds very specific it is not saying anything at all. So it seems that if we are hearing this, someone is trying to influence us, using non-information information.

I’m glad that expression (not a quote at all) is working for my friend who has been helped by AA. And I’m glad that it helps the thoughtful Ms. Peterson in avoiding the repetition of negative patterns. Sweet.

For me, I’m starting to think that perhaps the worst negative pattern I have been engaged in throughout my life is to think that I can avoid the negative patterns that are part of who I am, and to act on this thinking. And if there are qualities that are part of who I am that I cannot avoid, should they be labeled negative?

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