Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Defining "Normal"

It's hardly a revelation that there are as many definitions of "normal" as there are people who use the word. In all actuality, it's become quite a cliché, hasn't it?  We're all different.  We're all individuals.  Even those who do their best to conform, to not stand out in the crowd, will have a certain amount of of individualism, even if it's only a tiny shred.

What got me thinking about all this, actually, is the fact I recently had a particularly bad cold. "Bad" as in monstrous coughing fits, headaches, a dry, sore throat (and the almost complete loss of my voice, which is particularly frustrating for people like me who absolutely love to sing; fortunately my vocal range is now almost back to what it usually is) and loss of stamina to the point where a bit of exertion would absolutely wind me—an unpleasant feeling at best, especially as my usual walking pace is quite brisk.  And my resting heart rate, which is generally somewhere in the low 60's—probably because singing and playing the bagpipes both involve the intake and expulsion of a lot of air that my body doesn't really get the chance to use, so I've adapted over the years—was frequently somewhere in the 80's.  Normal for most people, but for me it's somewhat annoying and not exactly comfortable.  I notice it when my heart rate is faster than usual, and I don't like being aware of my heartbeat without paying any unusual amount of attention to it.  It's distracting.

And, as these things tend to do, given my strange little mind, it made me think a little about the nature of normality.

The older I get, actually, the more I come to believe that we all live in our own realities; even if some aspects of those realities are shared, "the world as it is" will always mean different things to different people.  On a physical level, to me "the world as it is" currently involves a lot of snow and ice—a product of the cold and sometimes harsh Northern Ontario winters I've experienced every year of my life since I was born.  (I didn't have to wait long for my first winter, by the way; I was born in early November.)  From what I'm seeing on my statistics page, some of you who read this blog will be able to sympathize on that account; others, less so.

On a mental level, "the world as it is" also involves a fair amount of uncertainty, since I'm currently unemployed and looking for work that, even if I don't love it, won't make my life unbearable.  (I'm a teacher by training and inclination, but the education job market isn't great in Canada right now, and for a number of reasons I don't have the option of leaving at the moment.)  It also involves recovery from depression and a particularly vile eating disorder that's made more difficult than usual to recover from because I actually am fat, so certain behaviours and attitudes that would be recongnized as dangerous in a thin person are actively encouraged in me.  Fortunately, it also involves a sense of humour, a loving family (drawn closer by the death of my grandfather and our shared concern for my grandmother), friends in real life and online—and yes, I do believe that online friendships do count, though that's a rant for another day—and a spiritual life that's becoming richer, more surprising and more fulfilling all the time.  And tea.  As far as I'm concerned, there really is nothing quite as relaxing as a good cup of tea after a long day.  Again, some of you will be able to identify with some of these things, and some of you will not.

What we see, do, hear about and feel most often will become what is normal for us.  (I'm reminded of an incident in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale in which Offred, the narrator, realizes that although makeup, revealing clothing and high-heeled shoes had been part of her life before the formation of the Republic of Gilead, when she saw a Japanese tourist wearing them they looked strange to her after she'd been subject to the Republic's strict sumptuary laws for a number of years.)  There's nothing wrong with that, comparisons with an imaginary dystopian society quite aside.  The problem comes when we think that what's normal to us ought to be normal for everyone.  There's not much that should be normal to everybody, and those things are things like dignity, companionship, medical care, consistent access to good food, good water and good shelter, and the opportunity to do something meaningful with our lives.  Beyond that, I question this need that so many people apparently have to make their normal into everyone else's.  To stick their noses into other people's health, sex lives, social lives, eating habits, excercise habits, tastes in literature (or lack thereof), favourite TV shows (or lack thereof), income level, choice of neighbourhood, language (and dialect), clothing choices, and so on, and arrogantly say that what they personally prefer is superior to another choice in some way, so everyone should prefer it.

And don't get me started on the harmful stereotypes we're so often exposed to regarding people with mental problems—especially in the aftermath of the recent shooting in Arizona which killed several people and put several others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, into the hospital.  As someone recovering from depression, and who has a severely autistic cousin and a good friend who's obsessive-compulsive, I find those stereotypes to be particularly loathsome.  You don't have to be insane to kill people, and not everyone who's not neurotypical will be driven to violence.  Got it?  I hope so.


For all that so many of us hold "normal" up as a sort of Holy Grail to which all of us should aspire, "normal" is a profoundly subjective word.  As far as I'm concerned, we should stop focusing so much on what's "normal" and start focusing on working together no matter what "normal" means to us.  No matter how isolated you think you are from the world, what you do affects other people, and what other people do affects you.  I don't think that's a profound revelation or anything—it's just life.

But who am I to say?  After all, that kind of thinking is what's normal to me.

No comments:

Post a Comment