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Think Different: Mental Illness Linked to Creativity, Not Violence

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With the news that Apple founder Steve Jobs will be taking another medical leave of absence, I, like many, recalled his company's famous "think different" ad campaign, whose narrator hailed "the crazy ones" including Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan and the Rev. Martin Luther King.

The Apple commercial might also have cited Wordsworth, Coleridge, Van Gogh and any number of other writers, artists, scientists and political leaders who suffered from severe mental illness yet who dared to think differently, who charted new terrain in poetry, painting, physics and governance.

As Kay Redfield Jamison wrote in Touched with Fire, "Most people find the thought that a destructive, often psychotic, and frequently lethal disease such as manic-depressive illness might convey certain advantages (such as heightened imaginative powers, intensified emotional responses, and increased energy) counterintuitive."

Yet it is undoubtedly true that some of the world's greatest geniuses were and are mentally ill.

Consider Abraham, David and Jesus, three of the most sublime figures in history. All of them either heard voices or saw visions that no one else heard or saw. Would anyone doubt that Abraham, founder of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, was a schizophrenic? How else can we characterize a man who hears a voice telling him that his people will be as numerous as the stars if he uproots his family from the town of Ur, travels for weeks through the desert, all in the pursuit of the promised land, a land unknown to him?

Then there is David, who writes in the Psalms, "All that hate me whisper together against me: against me do they devise my hurt."

With Saul's army chasing after David, it is no wonder that the future king is deeply paranoid. When he writes, "An evil disease, say they, cleaveth fast unto him," David may be delusional and psychotic, but he, not Saul, is blessed by God. David unifies the tribes of Judea and Israel, and he founds Jerusalem as the capital of his people, a vision that is bolder and more imaginative than that of any of his predecessors.

While David fights many wars, few would say of him that he fights in an evil fashion, like Jared Loughner, who murdered six innocent civilians in Tucson; in David's most famous battle, he uses a slingshot, evidencing courage and creativity in defeating Goliath and the Philistine army.

As for Jesus, whether he is a God or a man, he is a descendant of David and has the genius to articulate a new religion, one based on love, not vengeance.

Whatever one thinks of Hemingway's womanizing, macho posturing and shooting of animals, the deeply depressed novelist ushered in a new form of prose with his pared-down style, and he had a genius for life as well, in seeking adventure and confronting death wherever he could.

It is true that Hemingway may have been brutal toward some of his friends and wives, but the person he harmed the most was himself when he committed suicide.

What about Coleridge, the Romantic poet, who tried to temper his severe depression by taking laudanum? Not unlike Jared Loughner, the Tucson killer, Coleridge was discharged from the army, but he was not a violent man. And while Loughner is simply a drug-using psychopath who produced a video that is as moronic as it is chilling, Coleridge wrote, among other poems, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," a work that few have surpassed in originality and that was almost assuredly influenced by the poet's hallucinations.

It is true that Coleridge and his Ancient Mariner have dark visions, but all of us, if we are willing to admit it, have had dark thoughts. As Bob Dylan once wrote, "If my thought-dreams could be seen, they'd probably put my head in a guillotine."

Thankfully, no one has guillotined Dylan, a bard for the modern age, who has fused an idiosyncratic voice along with transcendent lyrics and melodies to create what King David would call a "new song."

Is Dylan mentally ill? Is Steve Jobs?

It's hard to tell, but they think differently and are among "the crazy ones" we should cherish forever.