What is normal?
By David G. Markham, L.C.S.W. R.
I have a bumper sticker that says "Normal People Scare Me?"
What is normal?
That is a question that as a Psychiatric Social Worker for over 50 years, I have struggled with for five decades.
That is a question which many of my clients ask me who come to see me because they are mystified, and in great distress. Often these clients grew up in dysfunctional families, have been through a failed marriage, and now find themselves in their 40s with problems in their love lives, at work, with their neighbors, or in the social circle of friends and they wonder who is crazy, them or me? And because they grew up in crazy families they really don't know what normal is. And so they have come to ask me if they are nuts? What they want from me is a point of reference. They want a navigational north star. What they want most of all is validation, affirmation, and reassurance. They want to hear, if appropriate, that their intuition, their instincts, might be right after all, when the whole world seems crazy to them and they are being told that they are the one that is crazy. They want to check it out.
And what am I to say? Am I the arbitrator of what is normal? How do I set myself up as the navigational north star? What does psychology, or social work, or counseling have to offer? What does philosophy or religion or the humanities have to offer? What can I possibly say to this person that will help them find their way?
M. Scott Peck, is a Christian Psychiatrist, who wrote a book in the 80s that was immensely popular entitled, The Road Less Traveled. He is the only person I have ever heard talk about the idea of a therapeutic depression. He says that sometimes people struggle to extricate themselves from dysfunctional relationships and when they have succeeded and they are healthy, and they look back and realize how screwed up everyone else is, they get depressed.
When the Buddha became enlightened he was off the wheel of samsara and free to go on to nirvana but he chose to stay and help his fellow humans and so his nickname is the Compassionate Buddha. Karl Jaspers, a great American Psychiatrist-Philosopher, defined tragedy as awareness in the excess of power by which I think he meant, to be aware of how things could be, should be, ought to be, and not having the power to make it happen is a tragedy because that awareness fills us with sadness, helplessness, and loneliness sometimes. That's why they say that ignorance is bliss, because if we didn't know any better it wouldn't bother us, but we know and can't do anything about it.
And so, what is the answer to the question, what is normal? There are a few ideas I would like to share with you that might help us figure out a way to begin to answer that question.
Lawrence Kohlberg, a Psychology Professor at Harvard, divided moral development into three stages: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. At the first stage of moral development people do the right thing to avoid punishment and to gain approval of others. At the second stage people do the right thing because they want to be a "good boy" or a "good girl" and they are following a moral code like the Ten Commandments or the Law of The Land. In the third stage people do the right thing because of their appreciation of the interdependence of life and the welfare of other living things, and some universal principles of life: Cosmic Consciousness. At this third stage people begin to realize that there can be such a thing as an immoral law like segregation. People recognize that legality and morality can be two different things.
If by normal we mean conventional then Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn't normal, nor was Jesus of Nazareth, nor Buddha, nor Mahatma Gandhi, nor Nelson Mandela. Nor was Frederick Douglas, Henry David Thoreau, Joan of Arc, or Susan B. Anthony.
I have worked for over 50 years in the Mental Health Field and one thing that I and my colleagues recognize is that you have to be a little crazy to keep from going insane. Being crazy has a long and revered tradition even if not often acknowledged. The court jester made fun of the pomposity and arrogance of the king with his satire and was seen as a necessary part of the court culture to help keep the King's feet on the ground. In First Corinthians, 4th chapter, 10th verse, St. Paul talks about being a fool on Christ's account. And everyone loves a clown who mocks and pratfalls and spoofs every aspect of our humanity.
How do we become Holy Fools? How do we step outside the bounds of "normal" in a way that contributes to our growth and development? Playing the fool, refusing to be "normal", listening to one's own drummer and marching to one's own beat, has a long and illustrious history which has captured the curiosity of the timid, and the delight of the child like sensibility such that Jesus said we can't enter the Kingdom unless we become like little children. I wonder sometimes if "normal" people go to heaven. As I get older, I doubt it more and more.
There was a psychiatrist from Georgetown University, who is now dead, named Murry Bowen, who developed a whole theory called family systems theory. Dr. Bowen has revolutionized the way we think about symptomatic, dysfunctional, and not normal behavior.
Back in the old days we used to study the individual's personality to see what made him or her tick. We could do the MMPI, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, or the Rorschach, the ink blot test, to understand better the individual's personality traits. We believed that if we understood the individual's personality traits well enough we could predict how they might behave in future situations. But then about 50 years ago along came systems theory which says that how people behave may have more to do with the context of the situation they find themselves in than their individual personality traits. For example, we all have hundreds of different sides to our personality. You can be one way with your mother and one way with your father. You may be one way with your significant other, and a different way with your friend. Each person that we have a relationship with, and each situation we find ourselves in, brings out a different side to our personality.
Dr. Bowen said that the goal of our individual growth and development is what he called "differentiation". What he meant by that was the degree to which we have become differentiated from our family of origin. In other words, to what extent do you have a mind of your own, can you stand on your own two feet, are you captain of your own ship, and master of your own fate?
We are all born into a family. And from our family we receive our "psychological legacy". The psychological legacy is made up of the beliefs, opinions, values and ways of doing things, or practices, of the family. There is the Markham way of doing things, the Hood way of doing things, the Reidell way of doing things, and the DelaCosta way of doing things.
If you ask people why they believe certain things, or why they do certain things they will tell you "Well, I don't know. That's the way I was raised" or "That's the way I was brought up." So if you ask people why they are Jewish and not Catholic, or Baptist and not Methodist, chances are they will tell you that they were raised Jewish etc. Why do we speak English and not Chinese? Is there something genetic about it? Does it run in families?
Most of us do not question our psychological legacy until we have children of our own because now we must decide, if we are thoughtful about it, the extent to which we want to raise our children the same way we were raised, and the extent to which we want to do it differently.
"Differentiation" does not mean you have to do things differently. It only means that you have made a conscious decision about it, and not just go along with it unthinkingly. So there are some good beliefs, values, and practices which you believe were good for you and you want to pass them on to your children, and there may have been some bad beliefs, values, and practices which you consciously decide you would like to do differently and pass them differently on to your children.
And so you have started to have a mind of your own. You are standing on your own two feet, and not just going along with the herd, with your conditioning.
Now, if you want to change some of the beliefs, opinions, values, and practices from the family of origin, or any group of participation, the group will experience this as "rocking the boat", "going against the grain", "disturbing the status quo", and "upsetting the apple cart". The tension and the anxiety in the group will go up.
The members of the group will feel threatened and they will do one of three things or if they are skilled, they may do any combination of these things. They will say that you are being bad, mad, or disloyal. That is, they will say that you are being bad, naughty, and that you need to be punished. So they will try to scold you, send you to your room, deny you the privileges of the group, or they will say that you are mad, meaning crazy, and will dismiss you with statements like "Ah, you're nuts" you should see a shrink and get on some medication, or they will ridicule and mock you, or three, they will say that you are disloyal, a traitor, the Benedict Arnold of the group who is no longer worthy of membership and they will shun you, excommunicate you, send you into exile, or otherwise let everybody know that you are a persona non grata.
How do you handle it when the group you love and care about thinks you are not normal? Bowen's theory suggests three steps in managing the group. First, you need to take a clear stand and a clear position. Waffling around usually doesn't help. Second, when the group says that you are bad, mad, or disloyal, you need to stick to your guns. They would love nothing more than for you to relieve their tension and anxiety by "knuckling" under. And third, and here is the critical step, you need to maintain a connection. You can't let them cut you off. If there is a cut off then the emotional system is paralyzed and stagnates and the conflict and dysfunctional behavior can be transmitted to future generations. So we all know the story about Romeo and Juliet or the Hatfields and the McCoys where conflicts in preceding generations had a way of transmitting themselves to subsequent generations. So maintaining a connection is critical to the growth and development of all concerned. The goal here is not eventual agreement although that can sometimes happen, but rather respect. We can agree to disagree and still stay in relationship.
So the point here is that sometimes it is bad to be normal if by normal we mean submitting ourselves to the status quo, to the conventional wisdom.
I am for continuous quality improvement, for continuing growth and development until we become the fully realized human being that we are meant to be. Bowen said that descriptively, we could put differentiation on a scale of 1 - 10 and most adults are lucky if they make it to 5. Jesus made it to 10. Buddha made it to 10, and other enlightened masters made it to 10. They became fully realized, aware, conscious human beings, and we each can do that too, but not if we are content to be normal.
We all can be post conventional when we become aware of the uniqueness and the interdependence of all life. As a differentiated, mature person we become aware of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, the importance of justice and compassion in our human relations, the acceptance of one another and the encouragement of each other's growth, the free and responsible search for meaning, respect for the right of conscience, the goals of peace, liberty, and justice for all, and the respect for the interdependent web of existence.
As I said at the beginning, "Normal People Scare Me."
Remember "You Are Unique Just Like Everybody Else."
Because of your uniqueness you are destined for greatness, and being great means that you have to take the road less traveled, you have to take the high road and not the low road, and taking the high road means that you are traveling way above normal. You are becoming a Holy Fool. People thought Jesus was nuts and they killed him. People thought Martin Luther King was nuts and they killed him. People thought Gandhi was nuts and they killed him. People thought Malcom X was nuts and they killed him. People thought Joan of Arc was a heretic and they burned her at the stake. People thought Susan B. Anthony was nuts and they imprisoned her. It is dangerous to be post conventional because the normal people will kill you. However, like Frank Sinatra you can sing I did it "My Way" and maybe even make a significant contribution to the world. Gandhi said "Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it."
Being normal is nothing to strive for.
Actualizing our potential challenges us to be extraordinary.
Actualizing our potential challenges us to pursue truth and meaning wherever it may take us, to love each other no matter how "different" we perceive the other to be, to celebrate life even when the Eyores of the world are full of doom and gloom.
Don't be afraid to speak your truth and let your little light shine.