Mental Illness, Part 3

Mental Illness, Part 3

We don’t live in the world of reality, we live in the world of how we perceive reality. Filmmaker Bryan Singer[1]

Last week I introduced this diagram (Figure 1) as a representation of one person’s reality. Everything within circle A can be perceived by this person – physically, intellectually, and/or emotionally – while everything outside of circle A in area D is imperceptible and therefore unreal to the person. Each of us has our own circle A which, although unique to us, is similar in size and scope to those we are closest to. Everything in area D, though unreal to this person at this time, is a potential reality, significant portions of which can enter area A by the expansion of A’s boundaries. Just because we are unable to perceive what exists in area D does not mean area D is unreal, except to us. In fact, there is limitless possibility existing outside of circle A.

We know the boundaries of our conscious awareness, circle A, can be expanded significantly into what was once area D through education and experience. Most of us have boundaries that have widened considerably over the course of our lives in spite of the limits of our physical senses and intellectual and emotional capacities. A conscious limiting factor to the scope of our area A is in how much of area D we are willing to allow into our awareness. In terms of being acceptably integrated participants in society, however, it is important that our area A be mostly inclusive of the collective awareness circles of others in our society. When our area A exists too far outside of the majority of society, or when it constricts into a limited portion of society’s collective area A, we will struggle and likely be labeled as mentally ill (which I define as behavior outside of societal norms).

Everything within the boundaries of area A is something we feel some measure of understanding about and control over. If anything or anyone challenges the integrity of our boundaries, we feel threatened and become defensive, sometimes violently so. The intensity of our response depends on how far outside our accepted boundaries the new possibility we are being challenged with exists. Most of us are open to having our boundaries stretched in gradual ways, but few will welcome a major or sudden shift because we self-identify with our boundaries – what is within circle A is me, what is outside is not me. A threat to our boundaries is personal. Interestingly, the less socially active and involved we become, particularly across racial, cultural, and socio-economic divides, the less malleable our boundaries become. We are less willing to consider other realities, understandings, truths, possibilities, and definitions of right and wrong. We become increasingly closed-minded, or in biblical verbiage, hard-hearted or stiff-necked.

It seems that hard-heartedness has accelerated during the isolating periods of COVID because we have spent far less time in the physical and emotional presence of others. Increasing numbers of people have transitioned their social networks into virtual platforms like social media, video-gaming, and/or commercialized news shows. These types of non-physical social networks constrict our reality because we experience only a small, carefully-crafted sampling of the realities of a limited number of people within an artificial social structure. We become hard-hearted, intolerant, and judgmental when we allow the boundaries of our individual world to be defined by a small, artificially-crafted reality. Our boundaries not only shrink but they become increasingly hardened, making it even more difficult for new ideas and understandings of reality to enter. In other words, more of the wider social reality becomes unreal and threatening to us as we become increasingly isolated from a representative cross-section of humanity, and we progressively display characteristics of mental illness, individually and collectively.

Arguably, we are experiencing a hardening and shrinking of individual boundaries today like no other time in recent history. This is clearly evident in American politics, where Democratic and Republican circles of acceptance have contracted into much smaller, more entrenched versions of their former selves. Their shared realities, where compromise and working together for the collective good are possible, are seemingly miniscule. Millions of Americans shrink their circles accordingly.

The problem with the hardening of our boundaries is that area D is the realm of new ideas, life-altering discoveries, peace, creative solutions, and everything needed to move our species and our planet forward in positive ways. We cannot, however, advance our lives, individually or collectively, if our area A boundaries will not budge. The solutions in area A have already been found and implemented. Without open-minded, intimate social and cultural interactions, we cannot escape imprisonment within our own boundaries.

Next week I will explore where spirituality and religion fall into this model.

This is the 19th in a series of Life Notes titled Guns, Mental Illness, and Jesus. The opinions expressed here are mine and are not intended to imply the agreement or support of other individuals or organizations. If you wish to engage with my thoughts, or if you wish to explore contemplative spiritual direction, please contact me directly at

[1], accessed September 27, 2022.

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