Understanding August 1985
THE RELATIVITY OF REALITY
Almost everyone today, whether they realize it or not, thinks of ‘Reality’ as an absolute and invariable environment of fact. Most psychiatrists use their own concept of reality as a standard reference from which to judge the mental health of their patients. Those who have, in any manner, acquired a concept of reality that is, to a noticeable degree, wider in scope than the ‘average’ or ‘normal’ concept are said to have ‘escaped from reality’ or to be psychotic. They attract a certain amount of sympathy and an equal amount of good natured ridicule. They are urged by their friends to seek the aid of a good psychiatrist who can assist them in trimming off those portions of their ‘reality’ that extend beyond the limits of the accepted pattern. If they accede to their friend’s wishes, and the operation is successful, they are considered to have been ‘cured’ and are congratulated upon their return to the ‘norm’. However, it is always a moot question, and one which can only be resolved by a study of individual cases, whether or not the subject of the ‘realitectomy’ has become thereby either a happier or more productive member of society.
All textbooks on psychiatry deal extensively with reality, and the danger of allowing one’s mind to venture beyond its absolute and custom established limits. Perhaps it is time therefore, that someone pointed out the fact that there is not, and has never been such a thing as absolute reality! Let us consider an example with which history books have made us all familiar; the case of the Italian navigator, named Christopher Columbus, who traveled in Spain during the fifteenth century, and who was obsessed with the idea that the world upon which we all live was spherical! Almost everyone who had any contact with him knew, of course, that he had escaped from reality, since it would be impossible even to conceive of a spherical world, where the people on the underside would be walking with their heads down and did not fall off!
Columbus was a very intelligent and well educated man, who was apparently perfectly sane except for his one fixation concerning the shape of the world. Nevertheless, history records that he was frequently greeted on the street by hoots and catcalls from his adult compatriots, and occasionally by over ripe vegetables from the younger generation. It was not that anyone had any reason to dislike him, it was simply a natural means of expressing mild disapproval of one whose reality extended beyond the limits of their perception.
If a competent psychiatrist had been available, perhaps Columbus might have been cured, but since there were none in his time, and since Columbus himself had a rather persuasive personality, his delusion, instead of being overcome, began slowly to spread to others. Among the victims of this contagious obsession were certain members of the Royal Family of Spain, who eventually provided Columbus with the means by which he could indulge his fancy to its logical conclusion, by sailing WEST in search of the EAST!
While the voyages of Columbus did not produce any concrete evidence to support his belief, the publicity attending his departures and returns, caused many persons to open their minds to possibilities they had never before considered. The result was that, within a few generations, the reality of most of the people of Europe had expanded to include a spherical world! Today there are very few who still insist that the world is flat, and these few are accused of refusing to accept ‘reality’!
If any person of two hundred years ago, however intelligent and well educated, were to have spoken of television, computers and space travel as realities, he would quite correctly have been considered to ‘have escaped from reality’ since these things were not realities they were the most ridiculous of impossibilities.
It is obvious that the realities of today are not the realities of yesterday, and they will not be the realities of tomorrow!
When we speak, as historians often do, condescendingly and almost pityingly, of the ‘grave and learned savants’ of a few hundred years ago, who sat in solemn conclave, expounding ‘nonsense’ which they believed to be the realities of the universe, we are inclined to forget that our descendants, a few hundred, or perhaps only fifty years hence, will certainly say the same of us!
Let us therefore be more tolerant of those whose ‘reality’ includes things beyond our comprehension. Their ‘psychosis’ of today may be everyone’s ‘reality’ tomorrow!
(signed) Daniel W. Fry