The Benefits of Madness: How Cultivating (Or At Least Experimenting With) a Fringe Perspective Will Help Save the World

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“I stared out to sea and said nothing for a while. But somehow I knew she was right. Yes sir, I said slowly to myself, I have the soul of a teenage girl in the body of an elderly dope fiend. No wonder they can’t understand me.

This is a hard dollar, on most days, and not many people can stand it. Indeed. If the greatest mania of all is passion: and if I am a natural slave to passion: and if the balance between my brain and my soul and my body is as wild and delicate as the skin of a Ming vase—

Well, that explains a lot of things, doesn’t it? We need look no further. Yes sir, and people wonder why I seem to look at them strangely. Or why my personal etiquette often seems makeshift and contradictory, even clinically insane… Hell, I don’t miss those whispers, those soft groans of fear when I enter a civilized room. I know what they’re thinking, and I know exactly why. They are extremely uncomfortable with the idea that I am a teenage girl trapped in the body of a 60-year-old career criminal who has already died 16 times. Sixteen, all documented. I have been crushed and beaten and shocked and drowned and poisoned and stabbed and shot and smothered and set on fire by my own bombs…

All these things have happened, and probably they will happen again. I have learned a few tricks along the way, a few random skills and simple avoidance techniques—but mainly it has been luck, I think, and a keen attention to karma, along with my natural girlish charm.”

Hunter S. Thompson, Kingdom of Fear

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This world is a wide and weird place, and its surface is thicker with people than cats at a milk and mouse convention. We’re barreling toward eight billion of them (people, not cats), and barring some unforeseen (or in some cases, highly foreseen) catastrophe, that number is going to keep right on climbing.

Eight billion people means eight billion different perspectives. It means a unique point of view from behind sixteen billion eyeballs, and one individual human context for every 4.6 acres on Earth.

4.6 acres per person – that’s a pretty decent amount of elbow room. The thing is that the vast majority of those eight billion people won’t have anywhere close to those nearly five acres to breathe. Most of us are and will be crammed seemingly shoulder to shoulder, front to back, and head to toe in increasingly jam-packed cities and slums.

This being our situation, we’re going to have to learn to get along or else dance with the consequences of conflict.

The solution involves learning to understand and appreciate the perspectives of others, but in a society that seems to be pushing polarization above all else, how are we to accomplish the proverbial “walk in someone else’s shoes”?

The answer – make a concerted effort to step out of the herd and into the fringes.

The Dangers of Limited Perspective

When you’re caught up in the hustle and bustle and nestle of everyday life – surrounded by likeminded friends, colleagues, neighbors, and other compatriots of a similar headspace – it can be extremely difficult to find a vantage from which to gain the perspective needed to understand outside, well, perspectives.

Whether you’re an American who has never ventured to foreign shores, a Christian or Muslim snug in the comfort of your own church or mosque, a liberal pontificating with fellow liberals from the safety of social media, an academic discoursing within the confines of academia, or one who is part of any of the innumerable “manys” that pass as the clubs, cults, and collectives that make up the quilt of our culture, it can be rather difficult to take into account the perspectives of others when you’re surrounded by people who are constantly agreeing with you.

And even if they’re not necessarily agreeing, they’re at least using the same jargon and treading on a common ground. Anyone who steps too far beyond that shared language and terra firma is considered an outsider, a threat, an enemy, a freak.

This is dangerous for what should be obvious reasons. We start wars and genocides over our lack of perspective. We isolate, villainize, fear and as a result victimize our neighbors simply because we don’t understand them. We shun otherwise useful and sometimes even great ideas for no other reason than because we didn’t think of it first, and we don’t trust the “foreign devils” who devised them.

In the end, it results in a lack of empathy and progress. Instead of embracing one another to work toward a common solution, we insulate ourselves further. Rather than solve a problem using an idea that others have proven to work, we allow the problem to go on out of a suspicion of concepts that are not our own.

Heading Out into the Weeds

The solution to all of this is to break away from the pack, at least temporarily – to head out into the psychic weeds and watch from afar, like some hermit of yesteryear. Trick your brain into thinking new ways, and into opening up to new perspectives. Learn to develop your own ideas, independent of the influences of your typical crowd. Try experiencing life in a manner different from the accepted existence.

What I’m saying is, spend some time at the fringes of society.

When you’re living on the fringe, people often mistake it for madness. To live, talk, question, worship, think, and even do something as inconsequential as dress differently from the accepted norm can be considered crazy. And it can be uncomfortable to be thought of as mad.

But discomfort is okay. In fact, discomfort is one of the oldest and surest tools for gaining new perspective. And the fringes are often uncomfortable, if not physically then mentally and spiritually.

Existing outside the realm of the typical is exhausting. For those who take it too far and allow themselves to be carried over the edge, it can even be devastating.

Some people spend their entire lives living in the fringes, flirting with the edge like it was some girl who caught their eye at an eternal party. This life isn’t for everyone, and society would probably cease to function entirely if we were to all follow suit. But then again, if everyone went to the fringe, it would no longer be the fringe – just another norm – and then the most committed explorers of the edge would have to venture even further to find new frontiers.

But that’s beside the point.

I’m not advocating that we all cash in our chips and leave the table. But I am arguing that taking a little break – the occasional vacation into madness – would probably do us more than a bit of good in terms of gaining perspective.

Dante didn’t unpack his bags when he went to the Inferno – he just visited for a little while.

And during the Bacchanalian festivities of old – when everyone became wine-wacked and masters became servants and servants became masters – things returned more or less to normal at the end of the celebration. But everyone stepped back into their old roles with a bit more perspective.

“I am not a prisoner of my reason,” wrote Rimbaud, and nor should you be. But how to experience the freedom of the fringes and the bounty of expanded perception without careening over the edge? (As Rimbaud, admittedly, did.)

Here are a few techniques that will help you take a few steps closer to the fringe, and open yourself to new ideas:

  • Travel

Nothing opens your mind quite like seeing the world and experiencing the widely-varying cultures and people that it has to offer.

But be warned – merely winging off to a foreign destination will not suffice if you are not willing to truly experience it when you get there. The people you meet who come back from Paris and say that the French are snooty or whatnot are people who went there expecting it to be the same as what they left behind.

When you visit a place, go where the locals go, eat what the locals eat, and don’t complain about differences and discomforts. It’s all part of the experience, and when you return you’ll have gathered a great deal of insight into living outside of your own perspective.

And you get bonus fringe points if you visit someplace that is totally outside your concept of reality, such as the Third World. Or Pluto.

  • Do something new every day.

This can be as simple as taking a new route to work, talking to someone you don’t know at a bar, or trying a new food. The simple act of breaking routine will not only open you up to new experiences, but will push you to take it further and further. Change is addicting, and mini-adventures begat bigger adventures.

  • Change your look.

It might seem silly, but changing your appearance can have a dramatic affect not only on how others perceive you, but how you perceive yourself. Your external appearance is just a costume or a uniform intended to gain you entrance into certain social circles.

Experiment with showing up in the wrong uniform, or with dressing for then showing up at an occasion that is outside your purview. Turn life into a costume party.

  • Put yourself in physical danger.

Mountaineering, skydiving, snowboarding, surfing, skateboarding – there’s a reason why people who pursue these and other “extreme” sports tend to have fairly expansive worldviews.

There’s something about placing yourself in a potentially dangerous situation that opens you up to possibility. Closeness to pain and death makes superficial differences laughable – who cares about a difference of opinion when you’ve nearly pirouetted off this mortal coil?

A quick note: remember that while adrenaline junkies flirt with disaster, they almost always do so with the proper training and safety equipment. The point is to dance with death, not move into its guestroom.

  • Take drugs.

Now, I prescribe this one with a warning – drugs are certainly not for everyone. There is of course the risk of overdose, addiction, or simply not coming back from wherever they take you (although I must say that this final risk is far overhyped).

LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, and even the oh-so-gentle and oh-so-beloved Mary Jane can all provide fantastic vacations into clarity, madness, and expanded horizons. Drugs are the tried and tested shortcut to the fringe – the elevator straight to the top.

Quick tips: Drugs are like any other tool – used properly, they’re highly valuable. Used incorrectly and pretty soon there are a lot of holes in the wall and sawdust everywhere. Hallucinogens and marijuana are as safe as they come in terms of overdose risks. The real risks are mental and legal. It’s all about set and setting. Make sure you’re in the right mindset for the experience, and in an environment in which you are safe physically, mentally, and legally.

  • Meet people. Lots of people. All the people.

The surest way to gain perspective is by meeting, speaking with, and listening to as many people as possible.

How does this carry you to the fringe, you might ask? Well, is there anyone weirder than those social magicians who seem to have a super power for talking to and getting to know everybody?

  • Dance.

Just trust me on this one.

There are literally an endless number of suggestions I can make that will help you tread nearer the fringe (try living in your car for a while!), but these are a few that leap to mind immediately, and are the most accessible.

The thing about living on the fringe is that it’s not only informative, but for many people it’s flat out fun. And gaining new perspective is equally exciting – the more you’re open to, the more opportunities for enjoyment.

In the end, we’re not going to make it as a species if we can’t learn to empathize with each other, and that all starts with stepping out of our individual comfort zones and into each other’s shoes.

So in the words of a great writer, don’t worry when people look at you strangely. Or when people think your personal etiquette seems makeshift and contradictory, even clinically insane.

Sometimes it means that you’re on the right track.

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