What About the World’s Geniuses?

Individual Therapy Bethesda MD

On June 5, we learned of fashion designer Kate Spade’s death by suicide; less than 72 hours later, on June 8, we learned of chef and writer Anthony Bourdain’s death by suicide.

Since that time, many worthwhile things have already been written about these events: that there is help and hope for folks who are struggling with suicidal thoughts; that the stigma surrounding mental illness and mental health treatment is dangerous and should give way to curiosity and compassion; that certain cultural values—i.e. political and economic individualism—may allow hopelessness to fester by deterring compassion and undermining a sense of connection and belonging between people.

Without hope or pretense of redirecting the larger dialogue away from these important issues, I wish to explore the events of two weeks ago from another perspective: specifically, a perspective outlined briefly, but powerfully, by mid-century psychologist D.W. Winnicott in his seminal book The Concept of a Healthy Individual.  He wrote:

So we ask ourselves the question: how wide a spectrum of these people who are making good in spite of what they carry round with them (genes, early let-downs, and unfortunate experiences) do we include among those that are healthy? We have to take into consideration the fact that in this group are many uncomfortable people whose anxiety propels them to exceptional achievement. They may be difficult to live with, but they push the world forward in some area of science, art, philosophy, religion, or politics. I do not have to decide the answer but I do have to be prepared for the legitimate question: what about the world’s geniuses?

Frustratingly, but honestly, Winnicott does not take the step to translate his observations into actionable solutions.  [As an aside, anyone who is so inspired has my full blessing to go back to the source material and question my interpretation.  Winnicott is a brilliant read and his ideas are fascinating and enlightening—if at times undeniably and problematically dated.]

The question here is not which is better—to have health or genius—or how to preserve both, or anything else geared towards the pragmatic or practical. Just, what about them? If they accomplished less, might they also hurt less? Do they hurt more in order to accomplish more? These questions are a red herring that distract from an uncomfortable and at times incomprehensible reality: people—lots of people—accomplish great feats at the same time as they suffer great pain. Their genius as well as their pain are realities—realities far more substantive and enduring that any of the mass of ideas we construct to try to make sense of either or both.

I would argue that our mass of ideas often falls short because of the false dichotomy we draw between strength and pain. If someone is strong, competent, successful, high-functioning, then they must not be in pain. Geniuses do not feel worthless. They do not feel inadequate. They do not feel desperate. They do not believe the world would be better off without them. They are not failures in their own estimation. Geniuses are not victims. They do not suffer trauma. They do not suffer loss; if they do, it is only a plot point in their generally glorious narrative. Geniuses do not carry wounds that do not heal.

False.

We have seen over and over that being hurt and feeling pain is an equal-opportunity fact of human existence, and no one is spared. Not icons and moguls who successfully parlay their talent into money and fame; not writers whose words inspire wisdom and love and courage in millions of readers; not athletes who storm the global stage with staggering feats of strength and grace. The geniuses are as fragile, they are as broken, as any non-genius—they may be even more.

Trying to understand suicide and suicidality from an intellectual standpoint is challenging verging on dangerous, as it poses the dual hazard of either validating the action, or invalidating the pain behind it—so let me make it very clear that I do not believe that suicide is ever the correct response to pain. Conversely, in my personal and professional observation, suicide is a method of correcting the cognitive dissonance caused by the fact of “I feel bad” with the underlying and culturally reinforced belief that “strong/good/worthy people do not feel bad.”

Many of us unconsciously ascribe to these same beliefs: that if I were good, I would not feel bad. If I were strong enough—beautiful enough, smart enough, successful enough, lovable enough—I would never feel pain and no one could or would hurt me. Simply, If I feel bad, it is because I am bad. Many of us unconsciously ascribe to these beliefs. They are often harmful in some way. Sometimes they are fatal.

Another phrase that has stuck with me is from a different book, Home is Where We Start From, in which Winnicott writes “Health is tolerant of ill-health.” We have heard many times it is OK to feel bad. We have permission. Well, thanks, I guess. But pain, and the negative emotions we feel in response, do not ask for permission: they exist, they happen, and they will find a way in whether they are permitted or not. We do have some control, though: we have control over how we perceive them, what we tell ourselves about them, what meaning we make of them. I say it is not just OK to feel bad: it is inevitable. It is normal. It is part of health.

This is the challenge I pose to all people: to start saying to ourselves—and then to our friends, and parents, and children, and partners, and coworkers—”I feel bad sometimes. It does not mean I am bad, or that I have failed, or that I need to try harder, or that I should give up because I will never be good enough. It is normal and healthy to feel bad sometimes.”

And maybe end with “I am in good company—lots of geniuses have felt this way.”