Tuesday, July 14, 2009

My Favorite Clausewitz Quote

Originally published in Blog Them Out of the Stone Age on April 27, 2005

In a previous post, I alluded to having a mood disorder called bipolar disorder, once known as manic-depression.

Note the formulation: "I have bipolar disorder," not "I am bipolar." Though I'll need to sketch some background first, the thrust of this post turns on that distinction, and on the utility of combat as metaphor in making the distinction helpful.

Bipolar disorder is, strictly speaking, a malfunction of one's biochemistry whereby the mind is tricked into varying degrees of euphoria or despair with scant regard to the actual circumstances of one's life. I have often been discouraged by health care professionals from regarding it as a true mental illness at all. I tend, however, to regard such admonitions as well-intentioned efforts to spare me from the shame of mental illness. But rather than duck it, I'd rather work to dispense with the shame itself. If a tenured professor cannot summon the modest courage required to do so, then I don't know who could reasonably be asked.

Most of the stigma derives from the "mind/body split," the view that the mind and body are two almost completely different things and that the one does not influence the other: thus you cannot meditate your way out of a physical malady, on the one hand, and a physical malady does not affect the operation of your mind, on the other. While most people nowadays would reject so extreme a formulation, within broad limits the idea remains influential because it reflects our common experience of everyday life.

And because the mind is where we primarily locate our identities, a physical illness or impairment does not so readily shake our sense of who we are. There are always exceptions. An athlete might find her or his sense of self profoundly changed by the loss of a limb, for example. But a mental illness offers a fundamental challenge because it hits us where we are most intimately ourselves. The diagnosis of mental illness therefore confronts the affected individual with a basic choice: Is the illness something external to self, or is it a part of self? Most people, if asked, would promptly reply that the former is the correct formulation, but I have seen many instances in which people with bipolar disorder choose implicitly and sometimes explicitly to imagine the illness as a part of them. And why not? The whole thrust of the "mind/body split" argues that it is.

I have therefore always worked very hard to locate bipolar disorder as something external to myself, notwithstanding the fact that the biochemical fluctuations influence my moods and therefore my subjective experience of life.

As it happens, I can think of at least one other area of human life in which moods are artificially, systematically, and powerfully modified: war.

Indeed, I have found that war offers a very rich metaphor for understanding the illness and mobilizing one's resources to manage it. I consider myself to be in a permanent state of war against an enemy that will never cease in its efforts to kill me, one way or another--which is about as strong an "othering" of the illness as I can imagine.

"In war," wrote the Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz, "the best strategy is always to be very strong, first in general and then at the decisive point." (On War, Book III, chapter 11) This point seems incredibly obvious, but like a lot of obvious points, it is easy to miss.

I have met my full share of people with mood disorders, for example, who were reluctant to take their prescribed medications because they thought they should be able to control the disorder by themselves. This sort of thinking is exactly like a general needlessly going into battle with only half his forces. Stupid, right?

Meet Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, a Civil War general who famously did go into battle with half his forces--and got his clock cleaned as a result. Indeed, as Clausewitz observes, "It seems incredible, and yet it has happened a hundred times, that troops have been divided and separated merely through a mysterious feeling of conventional manner, without any clear perception of the reason."

No self-respecting military historian wants to emulate Joe Hooker in any area of his life. Consequently, when a person with bipolar disorder is offered such things as medications, therapy, self-help books, support groups and/or the support of friends and colleagues, the correct response is not which of these resources to select. The correct response is to take as many of them as possible and to be continually on the lookout for even more.

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