Years ago while perusing the crowded bookshelves at the Librairie Book Shop on Chartres, I stumbled across a gem of a self-help book called Be Glad You’re Neurotic. Written in 1936 by Louis Bisch, a New York-based psychoanalyst, the book is an unapologetic love letter to eccentrics everywhere.
Chapter titles range from “To Be Normal Is Nothing” to “You Hate Yourself. No Wonder!” A quiz is provided within the pages to help readers determine just how neurotic they really are.
The same year the book was published, the Terman-Miles test was put into use. The test, which was a standard until the 1980s, judged how “normal” patients were based on their responses to true/false statements like:
I get angry sometimes.
I don’t always tell the truth.
I like mechanics magazines.
I would like to be a soldier.
[Note: If you ever find yourself transported back in time and forced to take this monstrosity of an assessment, the last two questions are always true if you’re a man and false if you’re a woman. Or else. You’ve been warned.]
It seems like every year since, we’ve become more bent on identifying each trait that might make a person woefully abnormal and then medicating or therapizing that trait out of existence.
Bisch’s perspective, given those circumstances, is magical even by today’s standards, an aspirational handbook to guide you towards creative maladjustment.
In the book’s opening chapter “I’m A Neurotic Myself And Delighted,” Bisch shares his wife’s concerns about the chapter’s title. Wouldn’t patients be wary of a doctor who admitted he was neurotic? Isn’t being a weirdo a bad thing?
Here’s his response:
I want to allay neurotics’ doubts and fears, stop their self-accusations, remove their guilt and convictions of inferiority. I want neurotics to realize what they really are, not what others would have them believe they are. Particularly do I want to prove that the neurotic, instead of being handicapped, actually is in possession of an asset. Therefore I say, be glad you’re neurotic! …All the great thinkers and great doers were glad. Take Alexander the great, Caesar and Napoleon. Consider Michelangelo, Pascal, Pope, or our own Poe, O. Henry and Walt Whitman…Every single one of them was neurotic.
Neurotics, by Bisch’s definition, are merely people who think differently, a trait that the most successful entrepreneurs, authors, and artists share. What makes neuroticism unhealthy isn’t the difference, it’s how the person perceives the difference. If I want to be like everyone else, if my goal is normalcy, then the knowledge that I think differently is a terrible weight to bear.
On the other hand, if I embrace Bisch’s ideology, being neurotic, being abnormal, being different is precisely what sets me apart from the competition. More importantly, it makes life worth living:
The neurotic who succeeds is undoubtedly far happier than the non-neurotic. At least he scales the heights where the view is broad and clear and the air rare, pure and piquant. He may stumble and fall and scrape his shins as he strives to climb. But for all that he breathes more quickly, his blood races faster, the vitality and flow and sparkle of sheer living are in him.
Rather, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:
The salvation of the world lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.