Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Normal

It’s hard not to notice all the studies, statistics and stories published that ask us to judge ourselves on a scale of “normalcy.”  We’re barraged with information about what’s normal, what’s in the normal range, and how to be normal.  Yet, the stories we tell ourselves, the protagonists we follow, the heroes we have, are all about being different.  We rejoice when someone’s difference is discovered, cherished, when they beat the odds. In the end, everyone congratulates the person for their difference, their difference is what saves the day, what makes them, in the end, loveable. They are special, exalted.

In the real world, difference carries a high price. Along with the measurements of normalcy come the stories of prices paid for difference: homelessness, job loss, brutal death.  It’s not all bad news, but it’s certainly not a walk in the park. I’ve been reading Andrew Solomon’s exhaustive, incredible “Far From the Tree” about children with what he calls “horizontal identities”: deaf,  little people, gay, mentally challenged, prodigies, schizophrenic, even children of rape. Interestingly, each group is put off by being included in a group with the others, but each share a common characteristic – their difference causes challenges for the parents, and for themselves.

I don’t mean to get into a discourse about how challenging it is to be other – as Solomon points out, there are rewards as well, including increased compassion, generosity, and a discovery of community among many others.  I’ve always been interested in the disconnect between the stories we tell ourselves and how we live our lives.

Perhaps stories are told by others, people who feel different or left out for whatever reason, and they cast themselves as hero.  Perhaps it is that the heroes journey is always one in which he finds his true self, and some kind of difference or feeling apart from is necessary for the journey to begin.

I’ve always thought that one of the reasons its hard for me to grasp on to any religion or mode of thought begins with my sexuality; that being forced outside of the norm by my very being I’ve had no choice but to question.  But I know many gay people who find comfort in religions, finding ways to exist within the structures even though some of the structures are built to exclude them.  Some feel the exclusion but spend their lives trying to get back in.  I suppose that’s not it then.

I took a Meyers Briggs personality test once, and I am pretty clear on the first three metrics – ENF (Extrovert, Feeling, Intuitive), but the last metric (Judging/Perceiving) I am neck and neck.  This last one is the predictor of what kind of life you like to live; how you are in the world.  Do you like schedules or freedom? Do you like habit or variety?  Would you rather be normal, or make your own way? At least that’s partly how I understand it, thought it’s also a predictor of whether you are feeling or thinking, depending on your level of extraversion.  And it’s really important I know this so I know how normal I am. And I am very much oversimplifying, but I'm mostly going off the questions I answered in that section. It all felt like whether I wanted security or freedom.

I’m joking, to a point, but I wonder sometimes. Would things be easier if I had some clear sense of how I wanted things, an assuredness that I have the right answer and the right answer for everyone? Or would that just make me boring and possibly dangerous?  When I look at some of our recent politicians I can’t help but think that’s true. I think difference makes that kind of surety impossible.  Compassion does somewhat, too.  More becomes gray area.  Maybe those stories we tell ourselves are because we all feel slightly unsure, even in our most secure moments, since we don’t know what will happen. The idea that our inside feeling of aloneness and difference will be embraced, cherished, celebrated, resonates deep within every one of us. For a lot us that’s part of what drives our search for religion, for purpose, for meaning. We are looking to be less alone, to feel a part of something, or accepted as ourselves. No wonder so many people believe what they find will work for everyone else.  But we’re back to Meyers Briggs – there is no one size fits all.

Or maybe, we’d like to believe that we’d find someone else’s difference charming and amazing if confronted with it, rather than terrifying and off-putting, or at least come to that, perhaps after a struggle. The world says most of us don’t.  Our stories say its possible.  Which are we to believe?  Are any of us normal?  How would we even know if we were?

I don't pretend to come to any conclusion, I just think it's an interesting question.

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