What does it mean to be normal? In this modern age, normality seems to be an illusion when one looks at the mass globalisation and the mixing pot of cultures, languages and religion.
I work in healthcare and our sector is obsessed with normality. Your cholesterol level means nothing to me unless I can compare it to the average – the ‘normal.’ The size of your heart, the amount of oxygen in your lungs, the electricity sparking through your muscles are quantified into mere numbers on a page until I have something with which I can compare – the normal. For surely it is when you become abnormal that you come into hospital, right? A heart that isn’t working properly, a brain with chemicals gone haywire. These are simple biological facts about our body which I doubt many people would argue with. Things become a bit more interesting when we extrapolate this way of thinking and apply it to our minds – what makes us normal then?
The answer to this question can be found in any of the psychiatric hospitals across the country.The patients in these hospitals are those who have been deemed ‘abnormal’ by society. Yet it is not their blood tests or X-Rays that indicate abnormality but their thoughts, emotions and behaviour. It seems we do draw some sort of line between the normal and abnormal when it comes to the way we think and feel, and this is a line painted by society that continues to move backwards and forwards as society grows and transforms. Yet even this line between normal and abnormal leaves space for a vast degree of differences. For our thoughts and experiences are diverse, reflecting the intricacy of our lives. All of us are different. No single person living on this planet is the same. And I am not talking just about our DNA or our fingerprints. I am talking about our childhoods and our family life, our friendships and our break-ups, our neighbourhood, our education. These will all influence how we behave around people, but will still make us ‘normal.’
So what does Camus mean by ‘expending tremendous energy merely to be normal’? How can this occur when normality is on a spectrum? I believe there is a difference between the person inside our minds and the person who the outside world perceives. And this is what all of our energy goes into; making us appear ‘normal.’ There are many thoughts that occur within my mind that I would not say out loud at a dinner party. I have certain beliefs and values that are for me and me alone. I have rituals and superstitions that I know are silly, behaviours that can seem bizarre in a scientific world, little quirks that display my uniqueness. But I know when to show these and when to hide them. And I am sure you are the same.
Yet I believe there is also a sadness in Camus’ quote. For if we try to hide these little pieces of ourselves too often, then eventually we begin to build a bubble around ourselves. We begin to believe that we are alone. That the thoughts we think and the emotions we feel are for us alone. That no one else can know what it is like to feel failure, because few people talk about it in public. No one can know what it feels like to cry – when was the last time you saw someone cry in public? No one thinks they are fat, they are ugly, they are stupid. No one has brief glimpses in the mirror where they think – what’s the point of it all?
I used to volunteer for a UK Helpline that was specifically aimed at university students. Its goal was to provide a safe place where students could talk and discuss their worries in confidence – from stress to loneliness, heartache to mental health problems. I volunteered with this helpline for five years, and the most common words I heard again and again, which broke my heart every time, were ‘No one else knows what this feels like’. This belief in normality can be dangerous in the extreme, for it creates a boundary not just between the normal and abnormal but between ‘me’ and ‘them’. ‘I’ am weird and odd, while ‘they’ are not. There is no doubt that each one of us will feel abnormal at some point in our lives, if not everyday. The danger is in keeping it hidden for so long that you begin to believe that there is something wrong with you, that there is a wall between you and the rest of society, that you are trapped in a prison and can only observe the rest of ‘normal’ society between bars.
However, I believe this is all changing in the modern age. The anonymity of the Internet has offered a haven for the interior of our minds; a microphone for our thoughts. No longer are our inner secrets hidden in the pages of our diaries. We have the ability to share these dark secrets with the rest of humanity from the security of the keyboard. We are able to scream and shout, cry and laugh, all within the bounds of a word document. Yet these mere words are also able to strike into the heart of every reader who comes across the blog post, every person who has ever suffered heartache and loss. Forums and blogs, online journals and articles have started to close the gap between the interior of our minds and the plush exterior of the outside world. They have shown us that we all hold these ‘odd’ thoughts and beliefs, and we are all to some extent abnormal.
And now we are all beginning to realise that no one is normal. For there is no normal. There are societal norms i.e. the behaviours that are deemed acceptable within society, often bound together through laws that change through time. But there is no such thing as being normal. The mere fact that we are human destroys such a concept immediately, for we are not just bundles of cells that continuously divide and grow. Nor are we smatters of neurochemicals, electricity and blood vessels. We are our mother and father, our first kiss in high school, our drunken nights in university, the monotony of our working lives, the joy of our partners and our children. We are our experiences. We are all different. And we are not normal. Sure, we need to exude some energy just to appear smart in that meeting on Monday morning (and coffee certainly helps), or to behave with professionalism when our boss greets us in his office. But we also need to accept that this is just a facade – one that we all own – and there is a time to let it slip away and be truly who we are.