When I hear someone say they hope they’re “normal,” I cringe—but not for the reasons you might expect. The people who typically object to the word “normal” are those who see everything subjectively, meaning that everything’s ‘all about them.’ ‘What’s normal?’ they ask defensively, challenging you to prove to them that reality is objective. What they don’t want to hear is that reality MUST be objective, since nothing can be proven without first making use of objective fact.
The true, literal meaning of ‘normal’ is nothing less than (and, regrettably, nothing more than) ‘average.’ Why does everyone want to be average? I can understand how being average is better than being below average. But if you happened to be below average, wouldn’t you simply want to…become better?
And if you’re above average, why on earth would you want to diminish yourself to the average? I don’t understand this high regard for ‘average.’ If it’s important to become better somehow, then by all means become better if you can. But don’t do it just because you want to be ‘normal.’
I once spoke with a woman about this and she replied by saying, ‘You know how it is, Dr. Hurd. We all want to be part of the pack.’ I don’t know if this is true of everyone, but it is true of many. People want—and even need—to belong. In some respects, this is perfectly harmless. But there’s a difference between associating yourself with those who share what’s important to you, rather than just belonging for the sake of belonging.
By ‘belonging for the sake of belonging,’ a person sidesteps the need to develop his or her true self. A perfect example of this is young people who join gangs, abuse drugs or do other foolish things. They’re seeking the approval of their particular peer group or ‘subculture,’ as the case may be. Irrational behavior like this is often a consequence of their inability to figure out who they really are and what’s really important to them.
I’m sure that education professionals see this every day, but in my work I sometimes encounter young people who deliberately don’t do well in school. You guessed it: They don’t want to be embarrassed by rising ‘above the pack.’ Aside from squandering their education, they’re making an even more momentous (and long-term) decision: To undermine their potential for success and happiness in favor of nothing more than to be”average.’ And there they will remain, long after the ‘pack’ and the ‘subculture’ has fizzled out. This is positively tragic.
The average, or statistical ‘norm,’ refers to the greatest number, and, as such, is not inherently bad. But, at the same time, it makes no sense to aspire to it. Sometimes the majority can be downright wrong. If you’re going to enjoy self-esteem, then use your own best judgment to develop your talents as far as they will take you. If, having done your best, you’re average or below average, then so be it. But if there’s any hope of rising above the crowd and developing talents you may possess, then you have to be willing to move out ahead of the pack.
People sometimes seek out mental health professionals to become normal—or, more likely, to ‘see if I’m normal.’ Why should it matter? It seems to me that the important thing in life is to be happy, adaptive, rational and effective. Sadly, if you look around today’s world, these qualities seem more suited to the minority than the majority.
Of course, there’s a sense in which ‘normal’ is actually desirable. If you get a blood test, you want the results to be normal. If you are looking to evaluate your vision, hearing or learning ability, ‘normal’ is also fair enough. But in this case, normal means much more than being ‘in the majority.’ It means your body’s operating mechanisms are doing what they’re supposed to do. We call that ‘normal’ in the mathematical sense in that it conforms to the ‘norm.’ But the primary goal is that your body is working properly, not just that it’s working like everybody else’s.
Some people struggle between ‘being normal’ and ‘being a free spirit.’ You don’t really have to choose between one or the other. The alternative to ‘being normal’ is simply to be yourself! If in some respects that happens to be average or below average, who cares? We all have some potential; hidden or otherwise. Develop it by being productive and innovative in your approach to problems. Be a ‘free spirit’ in the sense that you enjoy life, keeping your feet firmly on the ground and in reality as well.
The next time you find yourself wondering if you’re normal, remind yourself that ‘normal’ is nothing more than a statistical average. All by itself, it’s not necessarily good or bad. The only thing that matters is that you are happy, effective, and free. I would love to see the day when earned self-esteem and contentment become the statistical norm. I’m not holding my breath, but I don’t think it’s impossible, either.