I think back to myself growing up sometimes: to the achiever wanting to do her best, wanting to please her parents and to be acceptable and likeable in the eyes of other kids, and with any luck to be invited to their birthday parties. I certainly would have been horrified, devastated even, at being considered not normal. Who would want that? In many ways it was easier to be average rather than the achiever at school. Average was synonymous with normal, and this is what made you acceptable in the eyes of the other kids. Yes, accolades can be nice, although not necessarily if you are painfully shy, as I was. Being singled out in the school hall or the classroom always gave me the shakes and sweaty palms and a furious blush for all to see. And of course being too much of an achiever can be alienating—you can end up being regarded as different by the other kids, when all you want is just to be part of things– regular, ordinary even. More than anything I just wanted to be normal, acceptable, one of the group; not to be told by the boys, as I recall as a Tween ballet dancer: “Your legs are so thin they are just not normal.”
Normal is a big word: it talks to us of where and how we ‘should be’, it lets us know how the ball park has been set out, where the safe area is, where we need to be to at least be known to be functional and ‘healthy’. Normal is also a very small, mean word; one used freely by those who judge us to be not really accepted or acceptable in their small, mean opinion
I think for most of us when growing up, first prize was that feeling of being accepted by family and by friends and the world at large. And if you were an achiever, you wanted it to be in a way that was acceptable: not intimidating for your school friends and at the same time impressive enough to keep your parents and grandparents happy, and which allowed you to still be completely normal and likeable. A regular guy or gal. Phew.
And now as an adult you no doubt want to be at least be regarded as functional by society at large, where you can hold down a job and be a good enough parent, but maybe not so normal as to be considered average, predictable, unimaginative, forgettable, ordinary and other things that you fear may cry Boring or Loser or something like that. But then maybe you don’t care. Or care only a little teeny bit.
Most of us want to stand out in some way, to be noticed. These are perfectly normal (there it is again) aspirations. Many of our problems start when we are young and anxious to fit in, where we end up making choices in pursuit of impressing our friends, peers and family. If only we could feel free as young people to make our choices from a place of honesty, where they are in line with our true values and convictions, not from pressure from outside, where our or insecurities drive us to take on the mantle of being something that we are not. Hopefully we can at some stage of our adult lives reach a point where we don’t, frankly My Dear, give a damn, because after all, who are we trying to impress?
There may have come– or maybe it’s still there, bubbling under– a stage in your life where you considered going against the grain in some big way—of doing something controversial, rebellious, different, brave, to challenge the accepted norms of the day with your beliefs, your lifestyle, personal choices or goals. I think though that it is easy to romanticize this notion, to revel in this idea of being seen as very different from one’s peers, of being ahead of your time, a renegade, a visionary perhaps. This is not to be regarded lightly, as it’s safe to say that most of the world’s great thinkers, creatives, scientists and the like have at some point in their lives been rejected, alienated, physically threatened, even put to death by those who didn’t approve and even feared them even for being the radicals, the visionaries of their times. These special individuals are relatively few and far between– think of the astronomer Copernicus, the environmental scientist Rachel Carson, and the visionary and artist William Blake. Most of us do not go down in history for our revolutionary thinking, theorizing and creating in the worlds of science and art. Our work may not be quite that trail-blazing, but no less important nonetheless.
But maybe you have in fact been that person, the one who put themselves out there—risking professional reputation and relationships with your nearest and dearest in order to be true to yourself and to make your message clear. This could not have been easy.
Secret rivalries, professional jealousies, consumerism, insecurities, unmet needs—all those inner fears and private worlds– can put us in a very unfortunate position with ourselves, where we forget to be ourselves, forget How to be ourselves, where we place a lot of time and resources into being what we think we need in order to be someone else’s acceptable, or even someone else’s normal.
There is a saying- “Dance like no one is watching.” I like to do that sometimes. I think that if we took some of the things that we do in private (barring the very personal, of course) and unleashed them upon our neighbours, we would be very soon be seen as not normal. I like to hug the pear tree and the walnut tree in our garden, they have such beautiful strong woody trunks as you wrap your arms around them and close your eyes and just sigh deeply. And their rough bark is just so cooling on a hot day, when you turn your head and rest your cheek against the bark. I also like to talk to my plants, especially when they look as if they need a bit of moral support in the hot, dry weather. And then on days when I am at home alone and couldn’t be bothered to make a lunch just for myself, I like to open up the fridge and take out all the screw top jars and Tupperware containers of leftovers, line them up on the kitchen counter, and eat straight from the containers– last night’s remains of creamy broccoli pasta and all. Ok, maybe that’s a little too much information (TMI ;)). And then on a cool morning or late afternoon I like to take my yoga mat and meditation stool out onto our small patch of lawn and do my thing. If anyone is watching, that’s fine, and I don’t need to know what they may be thinking. Because after all this is my normal, and if it’s not theirs, then that is fine too.
Now that I’m older (by a lot) and no doubt wiser, I see that things have changed. While I doubt very much that anyone I know would consider me not normal (although there are apparently some individuals out there who consider things like vegetarianism and free dancing and tree-hugging to be strange practices), it wouldn’t matter much to me if they did think that. I have learnt over time that other people’s opinions usually say more about them than it does about me, and that’s fine. And we are all entitled to our opinions of course. By the same token, a lot of people would consider me to be very average—that there is nothing exceptional or special or different about me at all. And they may well be right. I am not in the business of worrying about how others might prefer me to be, if indeed they are even interested in what I do or should do. Until and unless I ever get a professional diagnosis that states I am Not Normal in some way, then life goes on 🙂
One of the most successful business people that I know is a fifty something single woman in Cape Town who runs her business as a trader at the V&A waterfront and is one of their longest standing tenants. I was telling someone I met recently met about this friend, and her response was something like, “Oh… is she married; does she have kids?” Just goes to show that one person’s normal is another person’s poison. My friend has never wanted to have children and she has never (as far as I know) met anyone that she wanted to marry. She has chosen instead to invest her resources elsewhere, and for instance, has every year since I’ve known her, taken herself off on an overseas trip to some amazing new place. Not everybody understands that, because they wouldn’t choose that lifestyle for themselves. Knowing this friend as I do, perhaps it’s not average, but it all seems perfectly normal to me.