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.”