At a party long ago a guest came bearing a copy of some pseudo-intellectual journal that proposed a fatuous definition of normal. He spent the night sharing his find with each of the guests in turn, posing the question – do you know anyone who fits this description? Have you ever met anyone who does?
The party was a hoot, in large part because it got us all thinking. What really is normal? The best I could come up with is a variation of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s take on defining obscenity – I know it when I see it.
The term “normalcy” was used by the political campaign of President Warren D. Harding in his successful 1920 campaign for the White House. At the time is was an unknown term but everyone knew instinctively what it meant – to get back to normal after the drama of World War I, the deadly flu pandemic of 1918-1919 and the U.S. failure to sign on to the League of Nations.
However, the term normal, at least when applied to people, suggests mediocrity. A normal person does not find cures for deadly diseases, lead cultural reforms, launch great enterprises, write influential books, become rock stars, climb Mount Everest or knock 600 home runs. To achieve such things you must be driven to excel above the norm. You keep working or practicing long after the workday is over. Such people are not normal; they are extraordinary. We all want to be stars if only we had the innate genius and drive, and usually a bit of luck, to get there.
At the same time, most of us want to be normal in the sense of being regular people, having friends and families, earning enough money to get along and staying out of jail. We dread the idea of failing conspicuously and being embarrassed. It is a given that people who dare to stand out evoke jealously and attract criticism. Being normal has its satisfactions.
Most of us tend to avoid both extremes. We do well enough, avoid controversy and generally muddle through life well below the spotlight as the super achievers roar by us in their European sports cars on the way to their palatial homes on the lake. Most of us, rich and poor, at least in this country, get along okay. As Andy Warhol said Coca Cola is a great drink available to all. “A Coke is a Coke,” he said, “and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.”
But all human beings whatever their status suffer from inner anxieties stemming from adverse events in their lives that disturb their sleep and trouble their waking hours. It simply is not human nature to be content. We have a strong inclination to magnify small problems, overreact to criticism and fret about an endless array of discontents. We all have quirks that potentially expose us to ridicule. Happiness and contentment come grudgingly. We crave reinforcement from others to embellish our self-esteem.
Some years ago I challenged the notion that Obamacare should cover mental illness. I did not question the need for mental therapy but rather the potential cost. I contended then, and contend now, that every last one of us – including you and me – is in need of therapy. We all need it and most of us try to get it, not necessarily from a professional in an office, but from another family member, a close friend, a professional colleague, a good bartender – someone we can talk to.
The true test of being normal, to the extent there is such a thing, is the ability to conceal our quirks and self-doubt well enough to function effectively in society without causing disruption or sinking into despair. When we begin to lose this this ability, when we alienate our friends and family and get in trouble with our jobs, we really do need professional counseling.
For some people chronic abnormality is a blessing. In my life I have known people beset by tragedy who are irrepressibly cheerful. Their children die of obscure diseases, they lose their jobs and homes, their marriages come apart – and yet they stroll through life in a state of apparent bliss, always reaching out to cheer others. Nothing gets them down. I have always thought of these people as abnormal …and wished I could be like them.
The reverse is true. I have known physically attractive, healthy people born to wealth who go through life bouncing from one success to another but who are actually miserable, unsatisfied, ever and always on the brink of despair. Any professional shrink knows such people because they are sitting impatiently in the waiting room. In any event, being attractive, wealthy and successful is not normal.
“I'm for anything that gets you through the night,” said Frank Sinatra, “be it prayer, tranquilizers, or a bottle of Jack Daniels.” If your personality quirks and insecurity are bringing you down, a lot of money will not bring relief, any more than isolating yourself in a monastery living on bread and water will. In all likelihood your unhappiness is largely self-inflicted and therapy can help you rise above it. As I said, we all need it.