What is normal?
By David G. Markham, C.S.W.


I have a bumper sticker that says "Normal People Scare Me?"

What is normal?

That is a question, that as a Psychiatric Social Worker for 34 years, I have struggled with for almost 3 decades.

That is a question which many of my clients ask me who come to see me because they are mystified, and in great distress. Often these clients grew up in dysfunctional families, have been through a failed marriage, and now find themselves in their 40s with problems in their love lives, at work, with their neighbors, or in the social circle of friends and they wonder who is crazy, them or me? And because they grew up in crazy families they really don't know what normal is. And so they have come to ask me if they are nuts are what? What they want from me is a point of reference. They want a navigational north star. What they want most of all is validation, affirmation, and reassurance. They want to hear, if appropriate, that their intuition, their instincts, might be right after all, when the whole world seems crazy to them and they are being told that they are the one that is crazy. They want to check it out.

And what am I to say? Am I the arbitrator of what is normal? How do I set myself up as the navigational north star? What does psychology, or social work, or counseling have to offer? What does philosophy or religion or the humanities have to offer? What can I possibly say to this person that will help them find their way?

M. Scott Peck, is a Christian Psychiatrist, who wrote the book in the 80s that was immensely popular entitled, The Road Less Traveled. He is the only person I have ever heard talk about the idea of a therapeutic depression. He says that sometimes people struggle to extricate themselves from dysfunctional relationships and when they have succeeded and they are healthy and they look back and realize how screwed up everyone else is, and they get depressed. When the Buddha became enlightened he was off the wheel of samsara and free to go on to nirvana but he chose to stay and help his fellow humans and so his nickname is the Compassionate Buddha. Karl Jaspers, a great American Psychiatrist-Philosopher, defined tragedy as awareness in the excess of power by which I think he meant, to be aware of how things could be, should be, ought to be, and not having the power to make it happen is a tragedy because that awareness fills us with sadness, helplessness, and loneliness sometimes. That's why they say that ignorance is bliss, because if we didn't know any better it wouldn't bother us, but we know and can't do anything about it.

And so, what is the answer to the question, what is normal? There are a few ideas I would like to share with you that might help us figure out a way to begin to answer that question.

Lawrence Kohlberg, a Psychology Professor at Harvard, divided moral development into three stages: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. At the first stage of moral development people do the right thing to avoid punishment and to gain approval of others. At the second stage people do the right thing because they want to be a "good boy" or a "good girl" and they are following a moral code like the Ten Commandments or the Law of The Land. In the third stage people do the right thing because of their appreciation of the interdependence of life and the welfare of other living things, and some universal principles of life: Cosmic Consciousness. At this third stage people begin to realize that there can be such a thing as an immoral law like segregation. People recognize that legality and morality can be two different things.

If by normal we mean conventional then Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn't normal, nor was Jesus of Nazareth, nor Buddha, nor Mahatma Gandhi, nor Nelson Mandela. Nor was Frederick Douglas, Henry David Thoreau, Joan of Arc, or Susan B. Anthony.

I would venture to say that since Unitarian Universalists march to their own drummer, and as Don Reidell said two weeks ago in his sermon, tend to believe in liberal religion and freedom of conscience rather than Orthodoxy, that UUs aren't normal either.

I have worked for 34 years in the Mental Health Field and one thing that I and my colleagues recognize is that you have to be a
little crazy to keep from going insane. Being crazy has a long and revered tradition even if not often acknowledged. The court jester made fun of the pomposity and arrogance of the king with his satire and was seen as a necessary part of the court culture to help keep the King's feet on the ground. In First Corinthians, 4th chapter, 10th verse, St. Paul talks about being a fool on Christ's account. And everyone loves a clown who mocks and pratfalls and spoofs every aspect of our humanity.

How do we become Holy Fools? How do we step outside the bounds of "normal" in a way that contributes to our growth and development? Playing the fool, refusing to be "normal", listening to one's own drummer and marching to one's own beat, has a long and illustrious history which has captured the curiosity of the timid, and the delight of the child like sensibility such that Jesus said we can't enter the Kingdom unless we become like little children. I wonder sometimes if "normal" people go to heaven. As I get older, I doubt it more and more.

There was a psychiatrist from Georgetown University, who is now dead, named Murry Bowen who developed a whole theory called family systems theory. Dr. Bowen has revolutionized the way we think about symptomatic, dysfunctional, and not normal behavior.

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