Waiting to be normal
New Voices: By and about young adultsby Sharon Kniss
Friends in the mental health field assure me that “normal” is unreal and often an unhelpful construct. What is normal?
• In the United States, it’s still relatively normal for people to attend church regularly. In the United Kingdom, only 15 percent of the population attends church once a month or more.
• I associate frequently with a community of people where few have driver’s licenses due to unpaid child support, court fines, convictions or disability. I’ve been a part of this community long enough that it no longer feels normal that people around me will have a driver’s license. I’ve twice asked middle-class, educated, resourced individuals whether they had a driver’s license, once causing offense before I explained my sense of normal.
• I work with two different nonprofits who operate with different understandings of normal as to paid salaries. The same position is paid at 40 percent higher salary at one nonprofit than the other. Within each organization, the salary is considered normal.
Normal is contextual. Normal in one arena is not necessarily normal elsewhere. Yet the above are also fairly benign examples of normalcy. What about definitions of normalcy in sexuality and intimate relationships, in spirituality, in families, in emotions and beliefs?
I’m a single woman in my late 20s. Though I’m told this is becoming more normal nationally, in a small town in the United States, it feels strikingly unusual. Most of my peers are married and with kids. However, on a recent trip to London (where I lived for three years), any of my age-peers there who were married or with children would not be considered normal. I didn’t feel there was something wrong with me in London, whereas I sometimes question my lack of normalcy when I’m in the United States.
We want to be normal. We ask our doctors, Is this normal? We ask our pastors and counselors, Is this normal? As we experience life and deal with the consequences of our circumstances and our choices, we want to be normal because the heart of being normal is the sense that I am OK.
Certainly there are times when feeling abnormal can be a trigger to noticing areas of weakness in our lives that need attention. And there are times, well-documented through nonconformist Mennonite tradition, where not being normal is a good thing.
However, I’m thinking of the majority of time, when seeking to be normal is a desire to be accepted and validated, to be considered a person of worth. I’m thinking of the times when we think we’re not normal, when we feel shame and a weakened sense of self.
We perpetuate damaging self-images when we label things and people normal. We compare ourselves to an arbitrary definition and feel shame when our actions or beliefs or circumstances don’t feel normal. In seeking to be normal, we’re seeking to be accepted, validated, loved and forgiven. On the surface it may appear to be chasing the Joneses. Underneath, however, the truth is more vulnerable.
Jesus set a clear example of welcome. He showed that each individual is loved by God. We see in countless examples in the Gospels that those who may be considered “abnormal” are told and shown that they—and by implication we—are OK. We see that all of us, despite whatever trajectory our life has taken, can be forgiven.
Wherever we may find ourselves striving to be “normal,” let us stop the striving and remind ourselves that we start and end from a place of unconditional love from God. No matter what. Let’s escape the trap that keeps us comparing against each other, seeking what we already have been given from God—acceptance, validation, love and forgiveness. But let’s not only accept this as a truth for ourselves but for our sisters, brothers, neighbors. Despite our best intentions, we tell others that they aren’t normal—sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly. We must stop the labeling and seek to love, welcome, accept and forgive. We grow when we’re in a place of love and support. We wither when we feel shamed and alone.
I’m learning that wanting to be normal will ultimately end in disappointment. As much as I believe wanting to be normal is normal, it also leaves me wanting.
Sharon Kniss is director of Our Community Place in Harrisonburg, Va.
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