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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

The Search for Normal

He just seemed like a normal guy.

As humans we kind of worship the idea of normal. To not be normal is to be abnormal. To be abnormal is to make others question our sanity, ability, or stableness. To be normal is to not be judged.

I worked very hard to be normal. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be unique; it was that I didn’t want to be judged. One day in therapy I said, “I know what normal looks like and what it doesn’t look like. I devoted my life to making sure I looked normal.”

The definition of normal is, “the usual, average, or typical state or condition.” Average. “He was just an average Joe,” we say. One of my favorite courses to teach was Tests and Measurements. We talked about the word average. I had a cartoon illustration that showed two lines in a store. One was labeled, ‘Toys for Above Average Children.’ The other was labeled, ‘Toys for Average Children.’ No one was standing in the second line, but the first line stretched out the door.

Isn’t it interesting that no parents want their children to be average, but at the same time, they all want them to be normal. If you look at a Bell Curve, you will notice that 68% of the population is just that—normal and average. The tails of the Bell Curve are very lonely places with only 3% of the population. It seems that since most of us are ‘normal,’ it becomes important to gather the world in that space. We want everyone to be normal and average. But Einstein wasn’t.

In our desire for normal, we look for normal in everyone we meet. “He seemed like a normal guy.” Yet he carried suitcases full of weapons and ammunition to the hotel room and killed dozens of innocent people. Something was very, very wrong and certainly not normal.

Something was brewing inside of him that was going to cause him to choose to do the unthinkable and methodically carry out the plan. By all accounts so far, he had lived his life appearing to be normal and this normalcy was the cover that made him undetectable.

I am heartbroken over all this tragic loss and the trauma that will live on in those who escaped. I hope that those who escaped understand the need for professional help in dealing with the effects of such a horrific experience. It is easy to diminish the experience while being grateful for escaping. Trauma is trauma. It always lives on and must be resolved. Comparing our trauma with another’s isn’t the best choice for healing.

I wonder what we are looking for when we decide if someone fits in the normal category? Maybe some of the following . . .

  • Balanced and even tempered, but passionate when acceptable

  • Amiable and pleasant to be around, but not too friendly

  • Personable but not overly personal in sharing about themselves

  • Not overly assertive, but not a doormat

  • Involved but not overly involved in anything

  • Intelligent conversationalist but not too intelligent

That is a list of qualities that you will not find in any ‘normal’ human on the planet, yet it is exactly what we are striving for when normal becomes our goal. The person who is this list is hiding behind a mask of normal. It may be normal, but it isn’t human.

As I wrote that list, I felt my old coping mechanisms check in with each one. I felt the way my ‘normal guard’ activated during hundreds of meetings when I stepped out of the ‘normal’ range that I had deemed as acceptable. I felt the shame triggers when I completely fell out of the box. I now understand I lived my life in a pressure cooker to appear normal at all times. It was survival. I subconsciously understood I wasn’t normal at all and it was absolutely imperative that no one else would see it.

The church was a big part of that pressure cooker. It was so important to not only appear humanly normal but also spiritually normal. I watched the reactions when some could not hide their humanity and stories. It frightened those of us who were doing our very best to hide our own pain. It was simply an added layer. In our attempt to appear normal we often cannot reach out to those who are not playing the game properly. In this game it is so important to only connect with the ways in which others appear like the picture of normal we have in our heads.

This is the human search for normal. Then one day, someone does the unthinkable and we say, “He seemed like a normal guy.” Yes, he did because that was all he or those who met or knew him allowed themselves to see. We really are not very comfortable with the entire human experience that expresses itself outside of normal. We often miss the signs of distress, but in hindsight can see the evidence was right before our unseeing eyes.

When we stop looking for normal in ourselves and in others, then and only then will it be possible to take off our masks, show our pain, seek help when necessary, and prevent the kind of tragedies we are witnessing around us every single day. Human doesn’t fit into a paradigm of normal. I took a two-year tumble into being human and I can tell you right now, there is absolutely nothing about me that is normal. It is such a relief to not be searching and striving for normal any longer. It is such a relief to be human instead.


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