Segmented Essay: What Is Normal?


Friday, December-13-13

By Dave Hood

“To be normal is the ideal aim of the unsuccessful.” ― Carl Jung

“When your ideas shatter established though, expect blowback.”—Tim Fargo

What is normal? Webster’s dictionary suggests that normal means to conform to a “particular standard” or “desired pattern.” People who abide by the laws, social norms, morality of the particular society, are normal, and those who don’t are “abnormal.” I believe that most people believe that a normal person is free of defect, not mentally ill or physically handicapped. I also believe that most people view normal as  embracing the “human condition,” the desire for love, respect, freedom, belonging to a family and community. They also hope to achieve success, peace, satisfaction, and happiness, —-and to be free of pain and suffering. When asked what normal means, most people will provide some answer that supports the status quo, conventional wisdom, the herd mentality.


We have various definitions of normal. The Diagnostically and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness (DSM IV) identifies and defines what is normal behavior and desirable personality traits. Alcoholism, narcissism, mental illness , such as  bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, are forms of abnormal behavior. A man who beats his wife has an anger management problem.  A man who in love with himself has a personality defect. A person who has no sense of guilt is a sociopath. The problem with labeling is that it results in stereotypes and stigma. Furthermore, labeling polarize members of the human race as “good” and “bad”, “desirable” and undesirable.” There is no middle ground. To be normal is desirable, anyone else is a “social misfit,” to be pilloried or laughed at. I suggest that to think in terms of “normal” and “abnormal” is harmful, and undesirable.


The culture in which a person lives determines what is normal and abnormal. Sociologists refer to this as “cultural relativism.” It implies that truth and what is “normal or desirable” are relative to the culture in which a person lives. It is view and theory that a person’s values, attitudes, beliefs, behavior, fashion, goals, dreams, and so forth, should be understood by others in terms of the culture in which the person lives. The culture socializes the person to embrace established values, beliefs, social norms, laws and order. Furthermore, the idea of right and wrong, moral or immoral, desirable or undesirable, are relative to the culture. For instance, in most Islamic countries, women are expected to cover their faces and bodies with a veil. To not wear the veil is sinful and disrespectful. However, women who wear “the veil” in western democratic countries are often viewed as women who are oppressed, subservient, backward, unsophisticated.


There are many institutions that help define what is normal, such as family, school, religion, police force and legal system, mass media. In a family, children learn what is right and wrong, normal or undesirable, from their parents. In a typical family, when a child does something wrong, he or she is punished. The school system socializes the student to embrace certain values, knowledge, and behavior. If the student punches out another kid in the schoolyard, he or she is often reprimanded or punished by the principal. If the student uses words that are disrespectful, such as telling the teacher to “fuck off,” he or she is punished, usually with suspension. Other students view the difficult student as “different,” not like the herd. All religions preach moral code to their flock, such as thou shall not kill, thou shall not commit adultery, and thou shall not lie or steal. The police force enforces law and order. If a person violates the law, he or she is charged with a criminal offence. If the offence is serious, perhaps the accused robbed a bank with a hand gun, he or she will be locked behind bars until a trial is held. The courts determine what is “right” and “wrong, “normal” or “abnormal,” convicting those who are guilty of bad behavior.

The mass media enforces what is desirable or undesirable behaviour. When a public figure breaks the law, violates expected social conduct, ,does something wrong, or makes a stupid comment in public, the newspapers and television and radio report on what the public figure said or did. The media mocks or embarrasses the celebrity, politician, bank president, CEO. Drunk drivers, swindlers, philanders, exhibitionists, those who lack morality are “called out,” publically humiliated with stories and articles, analysis and commentary. The public figure is embarrassed in front of society, who then judge his/her conduct and comments. A good example is Rob Ford, the mayor of Toronto. He has been ridiculed by the media for his outlandish behaviour, “smoking crack” and associating with members of gangs. Recently, in a television interview, Ford suggested that a media photographer, who was taking pictures of his children, might be a pedophile. The photographer is threatening to file a libel suit against the mayor.


I suggest that we all have a dark side or  shadow. And so, none of us is “normal.” Place someone in adversity—and their darkest fears or undesirable impulses will emerge. For instance, normal men have committed acts of atrocities in times of conflict. Some would argue that this is the “banality of evil,” which we all possess. We can also be socialized to commit acts of evil, as  well as be indifferent to it. Our conditioned attitudes shape our beliefs of good and evil, as well as our actions. We are socialized by the mass media to “hate the enemy.” Engage in just war. But is killing ever justified.

Thinking back in history, I recall the American’s dropping the A-Bomb on Hiroshima. With the passage of time, I believe this act is one of the most ruthless actions of modern man. And yet, read the history books in the West, and you read “the justification” of killing innocent people.  The extraordinary act would have been to ignore the impulse to punish, and find some other way to force surrender. Government and mass media aspires to generate loyal patriotism, at any cost. Hatred of the enemy becomes the “new normal.” But is it ever successful? No. And that is why the atomic bomb has never been dropped since the WWII. Men must resort to extraordinary policies and behavior to find peaceful solutions.


 Some people will suggest that the death penalty is normal. These people believe in “retribution,” or an “eye for an eye.” Alas, man’s basic instinct is “to respond with revenge.” To not engage in the normal reaction of revenge requires extraordinary effort and mental fortitude. Nelson Mandela was an extraordinary man, and so is the Dalai Lama. These are men who are successful because they don’t engage in “group think,” don’t embrace the status quo or conventional wisdom.


For the longest time, psychologists supported the theory of “desirable personality traits.” In other words, normal people have a particular personality type.  In recent years, psychologists have learned that most people have some “defect of personality.” We are all dysfunctional in some way. Perhaps the person has anxiety, or suffers from depression, or is guilt ridden, or is a liar. Unless you get to know the person, you never see the private persona. Instead we view the public persona on in the public theatre. We can all appear normal, abiding by the laws and social norms of society in public. But in private, we can be pathological. For instance, the narcissist can marry, have a career, acquire the trapping of wealth, power, and status, and seem normal to society. But then someone discovers the dysfunctional personality trait, such as the inability to feel compassion for others. Often the victim will make the accused or their abnormal behavior. In serious cases, the person who has a defect of personality is exposed in the media and by legal system. Example: Bernie Maddoff,  a successful investor, loved by friends, family, and co-workers, was exposed as a swindler, cheating them out of their lifesavings. In many ways, Maddoff presented himself as a normal person. He had a wife, children, career, wealth, power and status. However, the defect of judgement and inability to feel guilty, contributed to “abnormal behavior.”


Normal doesn’t result creativity. If we always followed the “status quo” or “conventional wisdom,” there would be no invention, no discoveries. Read any biography of inventors, creative people, anyone who discovered—and they challenged assumptions,  searched for alternatives to the “normal” ways of doing things, broken the rules. If we always follow “social norms,”  there would be no smartphone, Internet, tablet, or iTouch.  There’d be no modern or post modern art, music,  short fiction, free verse poetry, and so forth. Edward Munch’s “The Scream” is memorable painting because it is not a “normal scene” of a pretty face. Read up on singer/song writer, Bob Dillon, and you will learn that he revolutionized music because he defied the status quo of  musical sound and song writing. Nelson Mandela changed South Africa, because he refused to accept prejudice and racism as “normal.” Terry Fox ran across part of Canada on “one leg.” If he had accepted the view that “only people who have two legs can run”, he would have never become the hero we admire today.

Creative people discover new ideas, create art, invent products that change are way of life, discover new life saving medicine, by breaking the rules, searching for alternative, asking what if, using metaphorical thinking, and so forth. They toss away conventional wisdom or the status quo. Sometimes what is successful isn’t the best way. This is what Steve Jobs did. By searching for an alternative he was able to discover a better idea,  which he transformed into a better product. Examples include the iPhone, Tablet computer, and ITouch music player. The creative person is able to look at what people see as “normal” and see “something else,” such as a different idea, process, and view. Creative people are able to transform the “ordinary”  into the extraordinary.” This is true of painting, poetry, fiction, music. For instance, the painter, Vincent Van Gogh painted a memorable night scene painting called “Starry Night,” Kandinsky painted abstract with lines and shape and colour, Arnold Newman took powerful and memorable photographs in ordinary settings, such as a black and white photograph of Igor Stravinsky sitting next to his piano.


I suggest that “to be normal is rather dull.” Most of people, places, food, films, art, music, fiction, photography, popular culture that is normal will be forgotten. For instance, if you eat a normal meal, you forget it. When you see normal walking past you on the street, you quickly forget it or don’t see it at all. When you eat something delicious, you remember it, savor it, and desire to eat it again We are attracted to extraordinary people, such as a glamorous movie star, charismatic politician, and eccentric pop artist. . When we listen to music that sounds like something we’ve heard before, we turn the radio station or insert another CD into the stereo system. When we open a novel for the first time,  read a few pages, and the mind starts to wander, we lose interest—and search  for something extraordinary to read. We aspire to travel to exotic destinations, meet charismatic people and not the everyman, and change the routines of our daily existence because we seek something more than normal. We seek the extraordinary,  the best of everything— fashion, music, sex, people, places, memories, art, routines. The ordinary is dull. The problem is that much of life is filled with normal routines.


I believe that we all have a public persona and private persona. We display the public persona on the “stage of public life,” in the workplace, at family gatherings, in church, driving the car, and so forth. Our public persona usually embraces the “status quo,” social norms, laws of society. Our private persona is revealed to people we trust, such as friends, family and lovers. It is our “dark side” or “shadow, some undesirable personality trait, which is revealed in times of  difficulty, conflict, stress, or adversity. It is the  For instance, a person loses his job and becomes angry or begins to drink too much. When the dysfunctional personality trait becomes a pattern then it is a problem that must be addressed.


There is no single definition of normal. Cultural relativism shows us that there are many definitions of “normal.” Following the status quo and conventional wisdom are often wrong. Bob Iger said, “The riskiest thing we can do is maintain the “status quo.”And so, we should always consider and explore alternatives to the status quo and conventional wisdom, those experiences, people, places, ideas, modes of thinking, which provide alternatives to our “normal” ways of living, acting, thinking, and creating. Often when we break the rules, look for alternatives, we discover something new, like an invention or discovery or useful idea. The extraordinary is not normal, and that is why we value it, seek it, embrace it. This is what makes life interesting and extraordinary.-

About Dave Hood

Lover of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction. Professional photographer and writer. Without the arts, life would be rather mundane, like a walk down the same old path on a dull day.
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