A Chestertonian Allegory (Inspired by The Journey)[1]

 

I was panic-stricken upon the discovery that my upper body was constrained by a tight white jacket of sorts. The jacket was covered in buckles which made moving nearly impossible. All I could see around me was white and padded. The room was small; not much bigger than a walk-in closet.

Am I in a psych ward?” I thought. “There’s been a mistake. I shouldn’t be here.

Just as soon as I had assessed this horrible predicament, in walked a man with a pen and pad in hand, sporting a white lab coat. I felt initially frightened by the sheer size of the man. Standing well over 6 feet in height and as round as he was tall, the moustached giant peered at me through a pair of round spectacles.

“I’m Dr. G.” He said. “You aren’t well. But I think you still may be able to recover.”

“Now wait just a second!” I shouted. “There has been some sort of mix up. I am perfectly fine! I shouldn’t be here. I’m no mental patient.”

The doctor’s face remained unmoved, and he calmly asked, “You really believe there’s been a mistake?”

“Yes of course!” I shouted emphatically.

Dr. G. peered over the top of his spectacles and looked sternly into my eyes. “And just why do you think you shouldn’t be here?” he asked.

“Because I am sane!” I yelled, angry and frustrated to the point of tears. “I have no idea how I got here! What I do know is that I am intelligent, mild-mannered, normal, and completely capable of functioning in society.”

“You sure seem to think so. But how am I supposed to know that? Am I just supposed to take you at your word?” asked the doctor.

I thought, “What kind of question is that? Can’t he see that I am sane?” But afraid of insulting the large man all I could utter was a simple, “You’ll just have to believe me.”

“Do you believe in yourself?” asked the doctor.

“Of course I do doctor,” I replied. “I just need you to believe me.”

“Come with me,” said Dr. G. “I want to show you something.”

“Could you at least take me out of this jacket so I can move my arms?” I asked, feeling quite sorry for myself at this point.

To which he rudely replied, “That remains to be seen.”

Dr. G proceeded to lead me out of the padded room and down a long hallway where we passed several doors marked with numbers. Behind each door was a patient; many of which seemed to be much better fitted to the asylum than me.

Take, for example, the man I saw wearing feathers strutting around like a chicken on a farm, flapping his arms as if they were actually wings while squawking at us.

I thought, “Now there’s the man that needs this straight jacket.”

Across the hallway from the chicken-man, I saw another patient carving mathematical equations all over the walls. In fact, there was not an inch of the room that wasn’t covered in numbers or symbols. He had even inked long complex mathematical theories, numbers, symbols all over his body. He sat in the corner of his cell with a glazed look over his eyes repeating mathematical formulas to himself.

As we continued walking down the hallway, Dr. G pointed out each of the patients he treated in this wing. One claimed to be Jesus Christ. Another claimed unwaveringly to be a famous actor while proceeding to put on the most terrible performance I’ve ever seen.

But more surprisingly, there was an unusual number of logicians and mathematicians akin to the man who carved all symbols all over the walls. A part of me wondered if some of these men were geniuses who had traded away their sanity for a kind of so-called genius, for the line between the two can be very thin.

Finally, Dr. G stopped at the end of the hallway and looked down over his spectacles at me. He asked, “What do these patients have in common?”

To which I quickly responded, “Well, they are obviously all lunatics.”

“How do you know?” asked the doctor.

“Just look at them” I said.

“I look at them every day,” replied the doctor, seemingly annoyed. “You said before you are not one of them because you believe that you are sane. You clearly believe in yourself. But do you think that they are aware of their own insanity?” he asked.

“I suppose they’re probably not,” I replied.

He continued, “Exactly. They believe that they are completely sane. The actors here believe they are the best actors in the world. The man you saw dressed like a chicken, really believes he is a chicken. The mathematician you saw believes that one day he can resolve a completely logical and final explanation for everything we see in the world. These patients believe in themselves.”

“And you also believe in yourself. So how do you know you aren’t just another patient here?”  asked Dr. G.

As I tried to respond, I began struggling to find the words to say. “I um … well I, I don’t know … I suppose I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

And for the first time I felt the icy chill of self-doubt. How could I prove my sanity to the doctor if he viewed me as just another one of these lunatics? Or worse, could I be a lunatic myself?

Dr. G appeared to read my mind, and in a sympathetic gesture, he said “Let’s take off your restraints. You seem harmless enough and there are other rooms I’d like you to see.” He removed the straight-jacket and led me to an elevator in which we descended down another floor.

As the elevator opened, I noticed several patients walking through the halls freely. There were no straight jackets on this floor, no locked rooms, no restraints. Rather, the patients on this floor were free to walk about, free to talk with one another, and they were even free to leave if they chose.

Still, they remained. This baffled me.

“Excuse me … Dr. G? … Why do they not leave?” I asked. “Don’t you worry the patients on this wing could easily escape?”

“They don’t want to leave,” he replied. “The patients on this floor remain here for fear of the outside world. Many of these patients barely leave their room, much less the hospital.”

“But don’t stare at them!” ordered Dr. G.  “If you so much as look at one of these patients for too long you could cause a panic. Many of the patients on this wing fear everything unknown to them. They would read a conspiratorial significance into your every move.”

“And why do you suppose they behave this way?” uttered a strange deep voice from behind both myself and Dr. G. I turned to see a man who was also dressed in a lab coat. He introduced himself to me as Mr. Suthers, a local psychiatrist here to perform routine evaluations of the patients.

Mr. Suthers proceeded, “The patients remain here because they are incurable. Their sickness? They act without any rhyme or reason. They may stay here because they fear the unknown, but they have no reason for this fear. There is nothing about their actions which one could call sensical. Their causeless actions are why we call them mad.”

He continued, “You see regarding sane people, there is a cause for every one of our actions. For example, I chose to speak to you because I think Dr. G has misled you, and I felt compelled to correct his mistake. These men are not free to leave here any more than I was free to approach you a moment ago. We don’t have free will. But while our free will is robbed by reason these patients lost their will to insanity.”

“You see…” continued Mr. Suthers, “every action causes a reaction, and every effect has a prior cause. These men cannot leave because unlike sane men, they have no rhyme or reason for doing anything. They likely stay here simply because they’ve lost the ability to reason. If they could reason at all, they would no doubt have left long ago.”

“Wait a second!” I blurted out. I don’t know why I interrupted him other than that I genuinely needed clarification. “I thought you said every effect has a prior cause?”

“What’s your point?” asked Mr. Suthers.

“My point is that if there is no good reason for these patients to stay here and yet they do… have they not broken the chain of causation? If causation can be broken for a madman, can it not be broken for a man?[2] And if we, the sane men, can’t break the chain of causation, are you then suggesting that the lunatics on this wing have more free will than I do?”

As I spoke up, I could see the eyebrows of Dr. G lift as he grinned from ear to ear.

“Very well,” said Mr. Suthers. “Perhaps lunatics have broken the chain of causation because their actions are void of reason and therefore causeless. If you call that free will, so be it. But what you’ve called free will, I call insanity.”

Dr. G cleared his throat. “May I ask you something Mr. Suthers? How long exactly have you worked with lunatics?”

“Well, for my entire career, sir,” replied Mr. Suthers confidently.

“I hope I don’t come across as condescending.” said Dr. G, “But in my experience, these patients are great reasoners. As a matter of fact, all they are good for is reasoning.”

“Think about it this way, Mr. Suthers.” said Dr. G, “There is a grave difference between a healthy man and a lunatic. The healthy man may whistle as he walks; slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heels, or rubbing his hands. He does these things without care whatsoever. The madman, on the other hand, would think that the lopping of the grass was an attack on private property. He would think that the kicking of the heels was a signal to an accomplice. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything but his reason.”[3]

Mr. Suthers looked perplexed, yet, in some last ditch effort to save face, he declared, “I will not leave this hospital until I have formulated an adequate response to this conundrum. In time, I will have a better explanation for the great illusion of free will. You’ll see.” And Mr. Suthers headed off towards the other patients.

“I suppose it’s time for you to leave,” said Dr. G, looking at me in the manner of a proud teacher when his pupil has mastered a subject.

“Really?” I asked.  But then I thought, “Where will I go? How do you leave a place if you don’t know how you got there?”

I looked around the room for an exit, but when I turned to ask Dr. G for directions, he was a great distance off, whistling and rubbing his hands as he walked away.

Just as suddenly as he had appeared in my cell. He was gone from my side.

There were, however, two double doors ahead of me. Above the doors hung a red and white exit sign. After breathing a sigh of relief, I began racing toward the exit.

When I opened the doors, I was shocked. The doors appeared to lead directly out of the hospital and into a moonlit night sky. But I wasn’t outside. I was still in a room, for I could see the perimeter of walls surrounding me.

I also noticed that I stood in a garden of sorts. There were colorful floral arrangements which would make for a stunning view except they all appeared to be artificial. The garden didn’t have the smell one would expect of fresh flowers, nor was there any warm sunlight.

Looking above in curiosity I saw a model of the entire cosmos. There were stars, planets, and galaxies which looked much smaller than I had imagined.

Because of the small size of the planets, I began to wonder if this was a museum or an art class for patients; the whole thing was eerie. While it seemed odd that a museum would be connected to a madhouse, I had begun to assume anything was possible after all I’d seen. The galaxies above me were just plastic models of the universe. I could reach out and touch every one of them.

“Excuse me, sir. You’re standing on my flowers. Can I help you?” said a voice over my shoulder.

“Oh I am sorry.” I looked down to discover I had crushed about a half a dozen artificial daisies while looking at the plastic cosmos above. “I’m lost. I was just er …  discharged from the hospital, and I thought I had found the exit. It appears I’m mistaken.”

“No, no, no! You aren’t mistaken. My name is Mr. McCabe. I am the keeper of the grounds here. You’re no longer in the hospital. But you can always go back inside if you’re lost.”

“Okay. So how do I leave this museum, or garden, or wait, where am I?” I asked.

“This is no museum or garden,” replied McCabe. “This is the universe,” he said as he went back to watering his artificial plants.

Suddenly I feared I’d wandered into another patient’s room. This time Dr. G wasn’t around to breathe some sanity into the situation.

I began to notice small trees throughout the garden as well. But they had no roots, so it seemed to me they could easily fall over.

“Mr. McCabe,” I said, accidentally bumping into a plastic tree as it tipped over behind me, “Suppose I want to leave this ‘universe’ of yours …”

“Impossible!” interrupted McCabe. “For how could you leave everything that is. There is nothing beyond what you can see here.”

“Well then, how did you get here?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” questioned McCabe who now seemed to be suspicious of me.

“I mean if this is all there is… were you always here? Where did you come from?”

“It’s simple,” said McCabe. “A series of events brought me here. Events out of my control or one could say a complete accident …  Have you not met my friend Mr. Suthers? I’m sure he could tell you how causation works.”

“Yes, but the planets above you are just plastic models. There is a real world outside of this small room.” As soon as I said this I remembered something Mr. G had said about lunatics being great reasoners. To change McCabe’s mind would be more like casting out a devil than arguing with a philosopher.[4]

“And how do you know that?” asked McCabe. “You don’t even know how you got here much less, how you can leave. I suppose you also believe in magic or elves and fairies,” said McCabe mockingly.

For good reason, I didn’t deny this accusation. I thought McCabe maybe a bit deranged when it comes to what’s real or not.

McCabe rolled his eyes as I blankly stared back at him. “Well then, so be it. I’ll leave you to your absurd imagination.”

As he walked away the word “imagination” lingered with me. Imagination. I looked up at the plastic cosmos above and thought of a plan.

Somehow I managed to ascend one of the plastic trees. Of course, I had to do my best to balance as it began to wobble beneath me.

I began pressing against the model of the plastic cosmos and to my delight a ceiling tile opened above me.

Pulling myself upwards, I could see a light above me, leaving the artificial and harsh light of the white-washed asylum walls. I could feel the warm breeze blowing on my back as the sun touched my skin. Before long, I stood on top of the roof. Looking across from the hospital, I noticed a sign that read Hanwell Lunatic Asylum.

Relieved to be free, I closed my eyes and breathed in the fresh air. But suddenly I heard a loud ringing.

Someone’s phone was ringing loudly in the once quiet library to which I had come to study for a philosophy exam.

Startled and relieved that I had only been dreaming I thought, “I’m awake. Thank God I’m awake.”

Suddenly I had lost interest in further studying A Treatise on Human Nature. Instead I elected to crack open another book; one that would keep me from falling asleep again: Phantastes.

As I opened this classic fairy tale, I was reminded again of how it felt to walk out of a padded room and have the straight-jacket removed.

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Citation Information

Clark Weidner. “Escaping the Madhouse.” An Unexpected Journal 2, no. 2. (Advent 2019): 167-180.

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com/escaping-the-madhouse/


Endnotes

[1] Peter Kreeft, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996).

[2] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York, NY: Image Books, 2014), 12.

[3] Ibid., 13.

[4] Ibid., 16.

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