When Normal Becomes the Ideal

These thoughts are the result of a FaceBook discussion started by a friend of mine.  She was disturbed by the public acclaim surrounding a young woman’s decision to commit suicide because of the diagnosis of terminal brain cancer.  Not much of a news reader, I hadn’t known about the story until she mentioned it.  I can empathize with the anguish, the pain, and the fear that this young woman has experienced since she received her diagnosis, all of which no doubt led to her decision to end her own life.  I do not believe she should be ostracized nor condemned, like the suicides of other times who were not accorded burial in holy ground.  I am concerned, however, by the publicization of her story, in an attempt, it seems, to make suicide seem to be a laudable and therefore eventually a normal response to the overwhelming difficulties one may face in life.

When I studied Experimental Psychology as an undergraduate and again in graduate school, I became familiar with terms such as “average,” “mean,” “mode,” “median,” “norm.”  These are all different ways of assessing frequencies in populations.  These measurements impact our lives in many ways.  For example, if you are a parent, you may have had your infant’s growth marked on a chart that shows curves of “normal” growth.  The general developmental milestones of children are also laid out in terms of what is “normal.”  I don’t deny that these tools can be useful in understanding development and in determining causes for concern.  However, in reality, there is no such thing as “normal.”  “Normal” is just another way of saying “average”; it is a concept, a statistical construct whose purpose is to make it easier to assess and to categorize groups of people or things.  I wonder if the concept of a normal human body temperature, for example, is calculated from the average of a variety of inputs or from the most commonly occurring one.  Instead of just being used as a relative measuring tool, however, “normal” has come to mean “ideal.”  It has become a measuring stick against which many of us find we fall short.

The use of the concept of normal is particularly egregious in the public education system.  The whole system – philosophy, methodology, and materials – is geared toward a fictional normal child instead of the actual flesh and blood individuals who populate our schools.  It is more than frustrating for teachers, parents, and students to be hampered in the learning process by a bureaucratic system based upon holding up an average as an ideal; it is wrong.  It is wrong not only because it is largely inefficient but also because it labels children, categorizes them, and declares some of them to be less than “normal.”  The “normal” child does not have autism, Down’s Syndrome, or a learning disability.  To be normal, a child may not be gifted intellectually but also be socially awkward; he is not ahead of his peers in one subject and behind in another.  The “normal” child, who is on the designated grade level in all areas and fits exactly where he should on the pediatric growth charts, does not exist.  In an attempt to gear our pedagogy toward an ideal of normal, we have achieved a norm of mediocrity.

But the educational system is just a piece, albeit a large one, of the effect of the concept of normal on our society.  We have allowed the present culture to define what constitutes the normal life to which we are all, by assumption, entitled and therefore encouraged to achieve.  If you have read Lois Lowry’s The Giver or Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, you have read  descriptions of the logical devolution of societies in which all pain is to be avoided, the lives of children are a commodity, and the desire for security builds a prison of regulations that ensure the normal life will have no surprises.  However, what is considered to be normal is not always what is right.  When we lose the compass that points us to God, when we have no way of determining what is right or wrong, then actions that are wrong become acceptable and then “normal.”  Abortion and suicide are just two examples.  The giving and the taking of life is in God’s hands, not ours.  Our job as people made in His image is to come alongside those suffering enough to consider either of these actions, to offer help and love, but not to accept the actions themselves as a normal part of life in our time.

Life is full of pain; to avoid pain at all costs is to become like a rat in a Pavlovian experiment.  To seek out pain is to be mentally unstable.  But to accept pain as it comes and seek the lesson it brings, that is to be fully human.

Life is full of surprises, some good and some not.  To regulate one’s life so carefully so as to avoid surprises is to become a robot, an automaton, not a human being.

Life is full of grief, but to try to avoid the sadness that is part of all human relationships would mean closing off the vulnerability that enables those relationships to exist and to have meaning beyond the surface of polite interaction.

Life is full of fear and anxiety.  We may fear bad things that we know are going to happen and also those that are even more frightening because they are unknown and unpredictable. Courage is pushing through these fears so that they do not govern our actions.

Life is also full of joy, but that joy is only fully realized in the context of a relationship with God.  That is the relationship that enables each of us to walk through the pains, the surprises, the griefs and the fears of life, accepting them with the knowledge that our God, the Giver of all good things, is bringing us through all of that to a life so much more than “normal.”

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Exile

An exile can be defined as a separation, voluntary or forced, which may or may not be prolonged, from one’s home or country.  It is a pretty broad definition, but it can fit most cases of exile, whether they be of individuals, families, or people groups.  Some exiles settle down in a new location and make that their home, no longer wandering, but at rest.  Others wander from place to place, intending to return home someday; some fulfill that hope, while others do not.  Someone told me that I could view my upcoming move to Indiana as an exile, hopefully temporary.  This thought prompted the following musings.

When I was a child, I sometimes felt that I must have come from another planet or, more often, that I had been born into the wrong century. I had a close-knit loving family and good friends, I generally did well in school, I spent summers in the mountains running wild, I read profusely, but I always felt somehow – apart.  I never seemed to quite fit in anywhere.

Part of one line from the William Wordsworth poem, Ode: Intimations of Immortality, has always stuck in my head:  “trailing clouds of glory do we come.”  In the broadest sense, my whole life on earth is an exile; my true home is not here, but with God in Heaven, and the intuitive recognition of that is probably the reason why I have never felt completely at home anywhere that I’ve lived. Yet even without that completeness, each place I’ve lived has become a home, and leaving that place of security and familiarity to start over somewhere else becomes another, smaller exile.

Sometimes I envy people who have lived all their lives, if not in one town or city, in one geographical area.  Certainly that is true for many of my friends here in Stedman.  Their lives are rooted, not so much like trees, but more like bushes, which not only grow roots down but also grow branches outward, which entwine with each other so much that it is hard to tell where one begins and another ends.  These entwined bushes become a hedge, a place of safety and security, and sometimes of insulation.  The TV shows I watched growing up, which still draw me and fill me with longing for the kind of life they portrayed, were shows about families deeply rooted in their neighborhoods, towns, or lands:  Lassie, Father Knows Best, Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons.  Though many of my aunts and uncles lived in their own homes, and my cousins grew up in neighborhoods in Long Island, that was not my life.  We moved from apartment to apartment, each one in a little “better” neighborhood as my parents’ income increased.  Each place we lived, for however many years, had its own defining markers: schools attended, friends made, milestones of growing up experienced, family memories made.  But there was not that solidity and stability, that my cousins and friends had, of having my own home.  We were more like the Israelites, striking our tents and moving on, each time with a combination of anticipation and trepidation.

We lived in four different apartments in four different neighborhoods in Brooklyn from my birth through my college years.  I was extremely shy, up through college, when a concerted effort by a professor and some classmates encouraged me to break out of my fearful position as an observer of everyone else’s life to becoming an active participant in the world around me.  The life rope that sustained me through ten of those years, from age four to age fourteen,  was made of strands woven from our summers in the Catskill Mountains, in a small bungalow colony (that’s what we called them back then) named Muldavinville.  I hid myself during the school years, but I ran wild and free with my friends during the summer, and perhaps that is why I’ve always considered myself a country girl.  I believe that was the hardest exile of my young years – not going back to the place that held many of my happiest memories…

The next big leap, not long after college, when I’d been working for a while at a job in the city, was to move out of my parents’ home into my own tiny apartment in the Village.  It was a statement of my independence, but it was a hard one, not only for my parents, who couldn’t imagine why I would want to leave home, but also for me, because I was terrified to live alone.  There were other apartments, houses, temporary dwellings – the details of which I will fill in when I finally start writing the longer story of my life – in which I lived alone or with others, in New York, in Brooklyn, in Woodstock, and finally in Cincinnati, Ohio, where my first husband and I moved to go to graduate school.

It wasn’t until I married my husband Paul that we actually bought a house, in Dayton, Ohio, where we lived for about thirty-five years.  We had four living children (two more lost in miscarriage) born there, all but one of them born at home.  We had church families, good neighbors, great homeschooling friends.  We had station wagons, dogs, and a fenced in yard.  We definitely had a home, a home in which we had many wonderful times with our friends and even with people we didn’t know.  Yet, somehow, to me, and to my four children,  Dayton was not a place we wanted to stay forever.  We could still be there, and our kids would have some place to come home to and visit, but, to me, that was inconceivable;  I always had the feeling that Dayton was only temporary, a longer exile from the place I eventually would be able to call home.

Our next move was to North Carolina, to a tiny town in the Piedmont called Salemburg, where my husband and I took a position, for a year, as houseparents in a maternity home.  We fully intended to return to Dayton after that year, but towards the end of that time, we realized that our work there was not yet finished, so we decided to move to North Carolina, selling our home in Dayton.  We only stayed another year at the home, and the story of our time there will be the subject of another blog, but we moved from there to a single-wide trailer we rent in Stedman.  Lacking the mountains, it is country living that reminds me of my childhoods in upstate New York.  In eight years there, we have become pretty well grafted in to the community.

I’d forgotten I’d started this blog, and I’m finishing it after being in Indiana for six months with another six months to go.  Leaving my life in North Carolina, even temporarily, was hard.  What drew me here, caring for my grandchildren and helping my daughter and son-in-law, was a stronger pull than the regrets.  I have a nice apartment here in a small town called Chandler, a few minutes’ walk from their home.  I treasure the time spent with them and the enjoy the luxury of the time I have alone.  I know that leaving them to return to North Carolina will be hard, as all these partings have been hard, but I look forward to returning home from this exile.

I do feel, however, that this will not be the last trip I will make.  Whenever I think of actually settling somewhere, as in our buying a house and planting ourselves more permanently, something holds me back and I sense that my wandering days are not yet over.  Perhaps there is a place on this earth that I can settle in and feel that I’ve really come home, and I have not yet found it.  Perhaps I never will, and I will continue to be in exile until God finally calls me Home.