What is “Normal”?


“Well, that’s normal around here.” “Well, that’s just not normal!” “Can’t you please behave like a normal person?” And to quote Bill Watterson in Calvin and Hobbes: “I think we’d know normal if we saw it.”

Well, what the heck is normal? “Normal” is simply whatever you are used to, according to your beliefs about how things go in the world. That’s all. But notice that “normal” must therefore be individual to each person’s experience. What is normal for you may or may not be normal for anybody else. What is status quo according to your past experience, could seem weird or just inexplicable to someone from a different time or culture. The mistake that people make is assuming that everybody agrees on what is normal. Assuming is often not a great way to proceed. Like judging, it’s easier than thinking through the possibilities while taking into account another person’s likely life experience, but it’s often off-base and leads to misunderstandings.
To you, getting in a car to go shopping might be the most normal activity in the world. But to a person belonging to an indigenous tribe deep in the Amazon jungles, totally out of their experience. Not only would riding in a car not be normal, the would probably see the activity as alarming. They wouldn’t necessarily know what to make of a car, let alone agree to get in the thing or consider learning how to drive it. It they watched and saw what a car could do, they might try it. Or they might do something that makes more sense to their life and experience. They might ignore it, bury it, see if there was anything useful in it that they could make use of. To them, that would be rational, normal behavior.
There is another important facet to “normal”. You filter your sense input to match your beliefs. Really. You see mostly what you expect to see and can process easily, often ignoring everything else going on that doesn’t jive with your version of reality. So, your idea of normal dictates to a large extent what you observe and what you miss. Sometimes, you have no choice; abnormal shows up at your door and it’s too big to ignore. There is a Category 5 hurricane or a wind-driven wildfire headed straight for your home, and you are going to have to leave your comfort zone fast and figure out what to do about it. Whatever you choose, “normal” activity is probably not going to ensure your survival.
You are on a tour of India and come upon a swami calming sitting three feet above the ground in lotus position. Your belief system will do its best to figure out an everyday, rational explanation, but it could also be mistaken. You might to have to change your beliefs to include what you have seen. When your beliefs shift, so does your perception of what is possible, and in time, what is “normal”. Hey, lucky you, you just won a huge lottery prize! Even after the IRS has taken its share, you suddenly have more money than you ever dreamed you would. “Normal” may have just changed for you in a big way. The funny thing is, do you know what happens to many lottery winners? They spend or lose the money and go back to what they think of as “normal” living. They had been thrust outside of their comfort zones and had to get back in. It was more important for life to feel “normal” for them than to seize the opportunity and run with it.
If you are one of those exceptional people who keep learning, growing and evolving throughout their lives, who grab opportunities and run with them, your sense of “normal” is going to change. It will evolve with you. As you inwardly learn and expand, what at first seems impossible or miraculous, as you come to understand what is happening, will eventually be accepted as “normal” by your belief system. My grandfather was born around the turn of the twentieth century and grew up living and working on the family farm in Ohio. He rode a horse. Both he and his brother were smart and decided they had aspirations beyond farm work. They went off to college. My grandfather became a reporter and later an editor. Compared to his childhood experiences, think of all the new events and phenomena he witnessed and reported on: the evolution of automobiles, planes, and later on, jets. He lived through the Great Depression, many administrations coming and going, great changes in fashions, credit cards, the first man on the moon, the advent of antibiotics and vaccines, the birth of rock and roll, the huge popularity of rock and roll, inexplicable to his generation. He had to relearn and adapt to how the news was collected and reported. His sense of “normal” changed hundreds of times over his life. By the time he died, just a few weeks short of his 90th birthday, he and any who had also lived during that time had witnessed more change to everyday reality than any generation previous in our history.
So, why do people think “normal” is so important? Typically, when a person experiences something entirely outside their experience, they doubt what they have witnessed. It is a defense mechanism that works to keep them feeling “safe”. Since radically new phenomena or information cannot always be assessed, for safety’s sake it seems better to stick with what they already know. That can give them a calming sense of control and mastery, even though those feelings may be erroneous. Ever hear of someone with their “head stuck in the sand”? They reflexively try to stick to what is normal for them and ignore what isn’t.
Unfortunately, a habit of doubting and rejecting new experiences keeps a person from learning and growing, from increasing their understanding and capabilities through new experiences. If you are interested in exploring, growing and expanding, doubt is not going to help you much. It is a reflexive reaction triggered by fear of the unknown. Compare that to genuine curiosity, which will not hold you back or cause you to miss so much. So, let’s be clear. Doubt is not a sign of analytic intelligence, it is a defense reaction. Lively curiosity is. It is also a sign of a healthy belief system, not so concerned about what is “normal”.
The knee-jerk reaction of doubt can be released by working on the way you think and believe. When you move past automatic doubting, you can begin to experience new information, opportunities for expansion, on a broader spectrum of levels that you were previously blind to. Are you the kind of person who wants to always stay safe, or are you restless to see how far you can go?
The American author John A. Shedd once wrote, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”

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