For a long time I’ve contemplated the relativism of insanity. I’ve seen people – usually homeless – sitting on the city sidewalks and murmuring to themselves or screaming nonsensical outbursts. Most people probably look at these individuals and, if they don’t ignore them entirely, they dismiss them as crazy. Perhaps they are, but sometimes I wonder just what that means. If perception is completely subjective, and reality is quite different for everyone with the exception of the few observed phenomena that humans generally agree upon, who’s to say that those murmurs or outbursts aren’t perfectly sane within another person’s reality?
Steel Rider, by Rachel Manija Brown, has a protagonist by the name of Corazon, who is a one of these titular riders. What these riders have in common is that they all somehow managed to gain access to some “other desert” within the deserts of the United States southwest, perhaps another dimension, where they were mentally bonded with giant steel robots called steeds. Each of the three women that we know this to have happened to in the story also experienced some sort of psychological trauma: the death of a husband, the massacre of a family, years of abuse.
As a child, Corazon heard voices in the things around her, and she often had trouble making sense of them, instead trying to block them out. But her experience with these voices encroached upon her reality, the accepted reality of her family, making it so that she was unable to care for herself and her family was unwilling to do so. They locked her in her own room for two years, until her sister, in a moment of mercy, left the door open for her to escape. Corazon ran out into the desert, shifted into that “other desert”, and returned in command of a steed called Nocturno.
The woman cocked her head toward the steaming pan, as if it might whisper the answer. I listened idly, now that she’d put the idea in my mind, and the pan began to recite nonsense poetry full of sibilants. The world is so talkative when I’m not riding Nocturno. [p. 145]
Upon her return to this world, this dimension, this reality, whatever the distinction may be between the two places, Corazon could still hear voices, but they no longer troubled her, and she could now make sense of them. In fact, the voices became a part of her new reality, practically another sense, with mountains and rivers or desert sands and frying pans communicating with her on a wavelength that others simply cannot perceive.
This is quite the interesting concept, and it brings me back to my earlier reflections about the relativism of insanity. We cannot know what the so-called “crazy” person experiences that causes them to act as they do, to act in ways that most of us find perverse or intimidating.
I recall a conversation with a woman who was in the process of getting her degree in clinical social work, her program involving work with patients at a local mental hospital. As she explained her work to me, and described several patients with a mostly compassionate outlook, she still could not refrain from referring to some of them as “just plain crazy”. Of course it is the fact that there is nothing plain or ordinary about their behavior that makes us perceive them as crazy in the first place.
What that conversation told me was that even amongst those who better understand the underlying conditions and the variables that can lead to someone having a perception of reality that conflicts with the surrounding world, there is a consensus that it all amounts to illness, rather than mere difference.
We take it for granted that our perception of reality is grounded in some objective truth. We do not even consider the possibility that there is no such thing, that instead “reality” is composed of a multitude of overlapping spheres of perception, the shared spaces together making up those aspects of reality that we agree upon – the collective consciousness, to give it another name.
What was it about traveling to that “other desert” that allowed Corazon to reconcile the disparity between her world of voices and the collective consciousness where such things were dismissed as indicators of insanity?
Is it not possible that the agreed-upon reality is restrictive, that it was the limitations of the collective consciousness that created the disparity, rather than any physical or mental dysfunction of Corazon herself? If so, then perhaps being able to detach from this reality momentarily, by traveling into that other world, she was able to gain some clarity, and emerge in a better place, where she is able to navigate the inner and outer spaces more fluidly.
Although I do not come away from my reading of Steel Rider with any greater clarity on the matter of mental illness versus differing perception, it is a story that I think could get people to think about psychological disparities in a different light. This may not be a matter of compassion, but also of advancement as a society, because it has always been those who “think differently” who have enabled us to evolve from the ordinary into the extraordinary.
Perhaps the paths to those other realities that are postulated by physicists and experienced by shamans are not opened by any physical tearing of time or space, but rather an inner journey between modes of perception.