I’m not much of an army man, but I did own a pair of camo pants back in the nineties. I’ve also read a few books about the army. Maybe seen a war film or two. I’ve also killed more people in computer games than I’d care to think about. Point is, my army experience has taught me a lot. Above all, it has taught me a little something about insanity. I’ve read about men driven to death by their madness, who died gazing boldly into the abyss of the human heart, muttering about what a horror it is. But I don’t want to talk about the extreme edges of the mind. I want to talk about the insanity of the everyday. I want to talk about the madness that lies in you. And if, when I’m done, you want to go ahead and call me crazy, then I’d very much appreciate it.
One of my most immersive militaristic escapades involved my reading of the book Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I was too young, then, to fully understand what I was getting myself into, but that book did teach me the meaning of insanity.
I’m sure you know what a catch-22 is. But if you don’t, I’ll tell you: A catch-22 is a conflicting situation out of which there is no escape. The whole, “needing a job to get experience, but needing experience to get a job” thing is a common catch-22.
In the novel, Heller outlines the definitive catch-22:
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to.
What this means is that a sane person knows they’re crazy. A crazy person doesn’t. So calling yourself crazy is the sign of a sane mind.
Kids these days. They say things like, “I’m crazy, I know.” But the truth is, we’re all at least a little bit crazy. I don’t think any of us truly has the capacity to self-diagnose our behaviour as “crazy.” The best we can do is to realise when things outside of ourselves, such as situations or other people, deviate from our expectations of “normal.” Carly Rae Jepson comes to mind. She’s the one who sang that catchy song, Call Me Maybe. I guess Carly Rae Jepson was being a little bit reckless when she gave her phone number to someone she didn’t really know, but at least she had the wherewithal to identify it as such. I mean, she’s right, her behaviour was outside that of what might be considered normal. But what is “normal”? Another thing I learned from my time doing army things, is that “normal”, literally, does not exist.
The Jaggedness Principle
My second military lesson was something I picked up in the US Air Force in the 1940s. Or, rather, when I learned about something that had happened in the US Air Force in the 1940s. There was war on the wind, and the Yanks needed a way to cut costs and increase efficiency. One way to do this was to design one standard cockpit that could accommodate the average fighter pilot. That way, important tax dollars wouldn’t be wasted on calibrating each cockpit to each pilot’s physical dimensions. A slurry of measurements were taken from a group of over 4 000 pilots in order to determine the perfect shape of an average fighter pilot. And do you know, Dear Reader, how many of those measured pilots were able to comfortably fit within the newly designed one-size-fits-all cockpit?
No one. Not an one.
This curious phenomenon is known as the Jaggedness Principle. Despite the cool name, it has almost nothing to do with the Rolling Stones, and everything to do with maths. Take a collection of measurements from a group of people, and no single individual in the group will match all the measurements. The average person does not exist.
I’m thankful that I came out of the army alive and more knowledgeable than before I went in. For one thing, my military experience has taught me that no one is normal, and everyone is at least a little bit crazy. But I guess one thing the army hasn’t taught me is what to do with this knowledge. I suppose we need to stop trying so hard to fit in, because the maths tells us that we never will. At the same time, be content to be crazy, because it’s the sane thing to do.