Since the Enlightenment the western world has worshipped at the altar of reason. Foucault described how reason was elevated to its present position and the mad marginalised. I can still hear my old philosophy teacher repeating in her heavy Eastern European accent that the purpose of philosophy was to separate sense from nonsense. The last word was delivered with the force of a Victorian headmistress thumping her fist down on the table, jolting the afternoon reverie of her charges.
But within the realm of non-reason lies our dreams, imaginings, spiritual odysseys and, for some, religious beliefs. Studies show that people lacking a strong religious commitment are more at risk of substance misuse and suicide. A spiritual faith can also enhance recovery from mental health problems. According to Jung, people who lacked a symbolic life with spiritual meaning were more likely to develop a neurosis.
Spirits invaded our world at a very early point in prehistory. Every object had its own life, its own soul. Although science has thrown these beliefs to the dogs, trees still whisper and stones still witness. Metaphorically, at least, we remain held to these beliefs.
Our senses can be deluded. Kant used up volumes of paper to tell us what our prehistoric ancestors already knew. Our senses limit our experience of any objective notion of reality. Neither can we discover the nature of reality by pure reason alone. Compared with most other animals our senses are puny. Our gift of imagination gives us compensation. Our imaginings and visions may inspire and also mislead us. They empower us and propel us forward to an unknown future.
We choose our own narratives and decide whether to walk with spirits or just a saddlebag of money and a hip flask. But the absence of an inner life creates a vacuum. Aided by easy borrowing this has been filled by the latest addiction: consumerism. It’s own pantheon of plastic deities are paraded each week in glossy magazines.
So what’s our story? Are we just socially conditioned beings, part of nature, red in tooth and claw? Or in our imaginings and our dreams do we catch glimpses of ourselves celebrating the unreal, reaching to a land of nonsense, magic and myth? Retail therapy is a worn out joke. Not so developing a spiritual, inner life – its therapeutic value is backed by hard evidence. And anyway, it may not get us to heaven but it’s a much better story to tell.
Nigel Leaney manages a mental health residential service