“Normal” is such a loaded word. And, before I type up the conclusion-like thoughts I’ve been having about “normal” recently, I’ll first confess that I’ve had my own moments of both pursuing and rejecting “normal” based solely on the fact that it was normal. So I’m talking to you, but I’m also talking to myself. And, just in case you aren’t interested in reading all these words (none of which are likely funny because, wow, this appears to be a very serious topic to both normal and abnormal people and my thoughts have been formed over the whole of my life…and I’m not sure any of the ways I have a laugh over this topic will fit into this entry), I’ll state my bottom line at the top (as well as the bottom).
“Normal” is not the problem. The thoughtless glorification or vilification of “normal” is the problem. The broad application of judgments to “normal,” based only on the fact something is or is not normal, is the problem.
The argument some of you are going to make, because it’s the first I would have made in the past and the first a friend made the most recent time the topic arose, is that there’s no such thing as normal. To you, to past me, and to my friend, I must say that I strongly disagree. Forgive me as I start out really basically. I’m not trying to insult any of our intelligences. Rather, I’m reaching back to my experience in getting my degree in Philosophy, and I’m going to start by defining my terms. Or, rather, by defining my term.
Here are some definitions (from assorted actual dictionaries, which I hope will make you less inclined to argue about what the word means) of normal:
- conforming to the standard or the common type; usual; not abnormal; regular; natural.
- approximately average in any psychological trait, as intelligence, personality, or emotional adjustment.
- the average or mean.
- the standard or type.
- usual; regular; common; typical.
- conforming to the conventions of one’s group.
- the usual, average, or typical state, degree, form, etc.
Whilst I will readily agree that it is unlikely anyone is normal in every aspect, and whilst I will acknowledge that the connotations of the word aren’t addressed here, I feel like the definitions make my argument. There is such a thing as normal. I particularly like the one that is “conforming to the convention’s of one’s group.” Because even with the ways in which I, for instance, am not normal in the context of society at large, I can attest that I am likely normal in some ways (many ways, in some cases) in the context of the groups of which I am part. Even if the norm of your group is something so small as “we all like this music,” that’s still a “normal.” So, when you like that music, you are, in that way, normal in the context of your group, however abnormal your group may be.
For me, the next logical thing to consider is why some of us do (or did) put forth the “no such thing as normal” fallacy. I’ve heard it put forth and talked about with much support both by those who weren’t, for whatever reason, up for more than a “yeah, man!” response and by those who were ridiculously intelligent and could follow their agreement with all sorts of fancy words and concepts. I’ve seen it championed by those who were abnormal in dramatically obvious ways and those who seemed good candidates for being official representatives of normal. So the next obvious thing, to me, is to talk about why we want to believe “there’s no such thing as normal.” The reasons here are either reasons I’ve had, reasons I’ve been told, or things that would make sense to me. If you see yourself in there, as I’ve already said, I’m certainly in there and not judging you. And if you have another, especially if you can say it in a non-mean way, I’d love to read it in the comments.
Those I’ve known who were, in general terms, normal but still making this claim have, when I pressed them, had one reason. It turns out that even many normal people have ways they don’t feel normal. And some of them even have ways they don’t want to be normal (and sometimes it’s as wee as just wanting to do something funky with their hair). Because there’s so much pressure, as is normal in societies, to conform to the norm, those who seem normal (and, I’m guessing, those who don’t) would rather have the pressure removed. That pressure can make one feel guilty when they don’t conform to some norm or other. I’ve even seen it happen to people in non-conformist/alternative groups when they realise they don’t totally conform to the norms of those groups.
In general, as humans, we want to belong. If we don’t feel like we are normal (in the terms of whichever society we want to belong to, whether that’s the larger society or the small society of just one or two friends we love most), and we know that a lack of normality might get in the way of us feeling like we belong, we might disbelieve the thing that gets in the way of feeling we belong. If I’m sure I don’t fit the larger societal definition of normal enough, it makes me feel better if there’s no such thing as normal. If I’m part of a non-conformist group, disbelieving helps insulate me from the pressures of society at large and also helps me more easily feel the legitimacy of my non-conformist group.
And those times we try to be normal and it seems we fail…Well, denying that there’s such a thing as normal is an easier way to cope with the disappointment or other negative feelings than to just learn to be okay with the ways we aren’t normal. In the immediacy of ugly emotions, it’s a lovely, quick bandage to apply to our wounds.
And, when we apply that bandage enough times, whatever the reason, it just becomes one of our mantras or knee-jerk reactions. We don’t have to think about it. It’s just one of those things we treat as one of our truths. I have treated it as one of my truths, and I thought it was going to free me.
Personal anecdote time. I was in a class once with a woman who pressed me to give her answers to homework just because she asked. (We weren’t friends, we’d only ever had small talk as we waited for class to start, I’d never given her or asked her for answers.) This was one of those cases that felt like cheating, so I refused. It just so happened to be an humanities class, and we just happened to be discussing the Romantics that day. When the instructor asked why the Romantics might have dressed and acted in outlandish or different ways, she glared at me as she rushed to respond that maybe they did it because they were incapable of even pretending to be normal or of fitting in with normal society. My fabulous teacher, who was himself a bit flamboyant, simply said, “Huh.” And then turned and asked what I thought of that. To be honest, I had often felt that I couldn’t fit in, that I couldn’t force myself to be normal. But, in that moment, I realised the ways in which I had managed to make myself fit into the greater societal norms when necessary (I’ve had jobs that required business wear, for instance). I processed the implications of my epiphany later, because I needed to confidently communicate it to all those eyes looking at me (judging me, I assumed). “I think that most people could fit in and appear normal if they exerted enough energy, but perhaps the rewards or results of appearing normal weren’t worth it or just weren’t attractive enough.”
Having made that comment with every hope of making her feel small (I wasn’t always the most graceful and kind of people when I felt attacked), the fact is that I suddenly saw both that I could force myself to fit in and that “normal” has its daily uses and value. It’s normal, for instance, to follow traffic laws, which is handy in terms of me not getting into accidents. And when you go in for a job interview, the fact that there are normal ways of behaving and looking at whatever place you’re interviewing makes it easier for you to figure out what to wear and how to act with the interviewer. Without norms, there would be social chaos to a degree that would make even those who claim to hate all normality cringe. Not just social chaos, but norms in how people work, whilst not often norms of which I’m fond, allow companies to go on. Given that it takes companies to make electricity and computers and the internet function, I’m unable to buy into a complete lack of norms.
And, in some situations, things too far outside the norms are dangerous. (For instance, whilst they might fall into the norms of their group, serial killers fall outside of at least some set of psychological norms.) And things falling outside certain norms can sometimes act as warning signs so that we know when it’s time to get away.
I should also probably acknowledge that, when one is trying to find a way forward in the arts, knowing the norms can help you figure out what path to avoid if you don’t want to get lumped in with everyone else. (And, for me, as long as I’m still being true to my artistic instincts and creating with integrity, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.) So, yes, there is a use to both following and going against norms.
Once you realise that norms have their uses, it might be a step toward letting go of the knee-jerk hatred of “normal” that some of us have (especially those of us who’ve been harassed for not being normal). As I moved away from my own knee-jerk judgments, I found my life opened up. I found less energy wasted.
I was always being, or trying to be, genuinely me. But, like (maybe) everyone, I can’t guarantee I’ve always known exactly what it meant to be genuinely me. I think it takes time to figure out who you are. I think that you evolve and change naturally due to your brain changing and your life experiences and such. I think that there are so many filters, that we can’t fully escape all our filters ever, so that who you genuinely are can be obscured even to you by filters. And I think that the deep inner craving to belong, whether to one person or to a group (whether a specific group or in a general sense), can impact you without you consciously realising it. And the “normal” thing figures into to most people’s pursuits of genuine self and belonging.
I think that a lot of time and energy can be spent evaluating whether or not a thing is normal (or maybe you’re thinking more in terms of hip, trendy, cool), so that you can decide whether or not you’ll do it, feel it, wear it, want it. This goes both for those who are trying to conform to some set of norms and to those trying to avoid a set of norms. If you can figure out where that’s really necessary (for instance, to keep a job you really want or need), and let go of it other places, I think that’s the healthier path.
Another personal anecdote. After seeing photos of me at a gig, one of my sisters hesitantly said, “I don’t want you to get upset, but you look really hip in those pictures. In a good way. I don’t want to offend you…” She was lucky, because this conversation happened after I’d stopped avoiding all things normal just because they were normal. By that time, I’d decided that my actual criteria for clothing and entertainment and food and most other things were, “Do I like it? Does it suit me?” And this means that there are normal things in my wardrobe and in my music collection. But I’ve not yet been accused of being normal. In fact, whilst there are still some groups of which I’m part in which I’m quite abnormal, I don’t hear much about my normality or lack thereof. Maybe I was just hyper-sensitive to it before, or maybe I acted in a defensive way back when I was both avoiding normality and constantly feeling I was under attack for that, so maybe nothing has changed or maybe it’s because I finally live somewhere less judgmental…But these days, when people talk about me, to my face or where they don’t think I’ll hear, my genuineness seems to be one of my defining characteristics. Given that, when I was opposed to the greater societal concepts of normality, it was because I just wanted to be myself, that seems like mission accomplished.
(I won’t say much about this, but I definitely see that many of us who didn’t want to be normal were, by trying not to be normal, letting the norm determine our choices. Again, no judgment. I did it as part of trying to be my true self and not let society tell me who to be…In a discussion of “normal” and us not-normal kids, I feel like this needs to be noted.)
As I’ve changed my approach, I have at least tried or given a chance to more that is normal. And I can tell you that “normal” is everywhere. And some of it is, to my tastes and ethics and such, not good. And some of it is quite good. And some of it is neutral. As with most things (and groups and people) in this world, it’s not so straight-forward, not so black and white, as might be comfortable and easy for most people.
I’ve also been able to look at those around me who are or appear to be much more normal with, I think, a clearer eye. I’ve been able to see that, in fact, there are people who truly do enjoy and fit mainly normal-seeming lives and ways of living and looking. And to see that everyone has some little quirk or other, at the least, that isn’t normal and that they don’t hate. Even if they just secretly love it. I’ve seen the relief in anti-normal friends’ eyes when I don’t take the piss over some normal thing they confess to liking (or, even better, when I like it as well). Or seen them be clearly relieved when, in the midst of some kind of dramatic reaction to pain (like a breakup), I can assure them that their response is quite normal. Just as I’ve had more than one normal person who seemed to see me as a safe confessional, who confided in me (sometimes cautiously and sometimes giddily) something non-normal about them. And seen plenty of normal people (most, really) who were proud of the things that made them special. (And special, by definition, isn’t normal.) We’re all more mixed than most realise, but our judgments about normality keep most of us hiding facets.
Now that I’ve written The Longest Blog Ever, and not been at all funny, here’s my thesis again: “Normal” is not the problem. The thoughtless glorification or vilification of “normal” is the problem. The broad application of judgments to “normal,” based only on the fact something is or is not normal, is the problem.
Also, here’s a picture of me and the cat. Bet now you feel like this read (or the scrolling down past all the reading) was worth it. Ha!
Now, go out and be you, whatever norms that might or might not fit.