In my youth, it was very important for me to be seen as “normal.”
Being accepted, and—to a lesser extent—“popular” was a very high existential priority.
I had a strong need to be perceived as one of the “cool kids.”
And the reason for that, as I’m sure a lot of you will identify with, is because deep inside I felt anything but “normal” or “popular” or “cool.”
One small step for man…
I was, for my time in the late 1960s and early 70s, kind of a nerdy kid.
I was into science. Neil Armstrong’s “one giant step for mankind” happened when I was in first grade, and I was into all things NASA during those very formative years.
I loved to read, and the influence of the age of space exploration sent me into a deep affinity for science fiction.
As I started becoming aware of my socialization, I soon realized that those things made me a bit of an outlier among my peers. I started to notice that most other kids didn’t share my fascination with rockets and moon rocks and books about robots.
I suppose, in hindsight, there were two ways I could have taken that realization. I could have shunned the social pressures to fit in, or I could succumb to them.
Guess which path I chose.
A brief digression…
Before I continue, a brief digression to make a point:
I was born left-handed. In 1963.
If you’re somewhere north of age 50, that probably means something to you.
In those days, it was still a fairly common practice to try to retrain lefties to become right-handed in early childhood.
And a big reason for that was that it was still very much a right-handed world.
The rationale, which at its time seemed perfectly rational, was that kids would have an easier time in the world if they were right-handed.
Whether there was still some lingering inherent cultural bias toward left-handedness may be debatable (in early cultures it was thought to be a sign of evil), but it’s beside the point.
The point is that right-handedness was thought to be normal. Which, by definition, made my left-handedness abnormal.
And so, in kindergarten, I got flipped.
The power of social rewards
My actual memories of being taught to change my dominant hand are dim at best. I might have forgotten it altogether had my mother not said something about it in a casual conversation much later in my life and rekindled my awareness of that experience.
But I can’t help but wonder if part of the reason my kindergarten teacher was successful at turning me from a lefty to a righty was an either overt or subliminal appeal to my intrinsic need for belonging.
Whether somewhere deep inside of 5-year-old Joe there was a desire to please an authority figure or just to be seen as “normal” (or, maybe more accurately, not abnormal), there was some kind of social reward system that prompted me to change who I was for who other people wanted me to be.
The times they are a-changing
As I both observe and participate in the complexities and tensions of existing as a human being in 21st Century America, I’m starting to come to a conclusion about some of our present state of social anxiety.
I believe we are witnessing the beginnings of a massive paradigm shift in human consciousness.
And I think at least part of that has to do with the deconstruction of how and what we view as being “normal.”
In the time and place I was growing up, “normal” meant being white, male (cis gendered), athletic/“able-bodied,” educated, middle class, Christian, and heterosexual…just to name a few social markers.
It also meant belonging to an intact nuclear family that owned property. It meant following a linear, upwardly-mobile, capitalistic academic-professional-societal timeline (high school to college to vocation to family to career advancement to [ultimately] retirement).
Those were not things I even thought about.
They were simply givens.
The way things were supposed to be.
Now, I fully realized that other people did not experience life the same way I did.
But my social upbringing told me that their experiences were abnormal.
That my life was what the world considered to be normal.
Who wrote the rules?
But as I grew and matured and came to be in relationship with some of those folks who lived a different reality than me, and as I began to understand and sympathize with some of their struggles, a thought started to occur to me.
Who gets to define “normal?”
It’s a question that comes slowly to the minds of folks like me who have been socialized into a paradigm that normalizes our white, male, educated, heterosexual, etc., life experiences.
But it’s one that folks from the communities that have been marginalized by our egocentric definitions of “normal” have been asking for too damn long.
And it’s one that—thankfully—is finally starting to see the light of day.
No such thing as normal
The truth, if we can be honest enough to see it and say it, is that there’s really no such thing as “normal.”
There are only dominant cultural narratives.
And the great sin of western white Christianity since around the 1700s (although its roots probably go at least as far back as the Constantinian shift of the 4th Century) has been to conflate the two.
And it’s that conflation that has led to atrocities ranging from colonization and its associated genocide and slave trade to the ongoing scourge of populism and white nationalism.
It’s led to the dehumanization and oppression of countless people who have been “othered” by the dominant narrative.
It’s disadvantaged millions over time whose physical and mental realities are different than what we would call the “able-bodied” standard.
Understanding social constructs
The reality is that things like race, gender, sexuality, ability, etc. are all artificial social constructs.
They are labels we create in order to classify things by observable traits or behaviors.
Now I know some of you are saying that because those things are observable that they have to be real.
But that’s just another way of normalizing your own identity.
It’s comparing traits to an artificial standard borne out of a single cultural narrative.
The fact that it’s a dominant narrative doesn’t make it the normalizing one.
The way, the truth, and the life.
Of course, all of this is very disconcerting for people who have defined themselves as “normal” under existing dominant cultural narratives…especially those who have been doing so for several generations.
It’s the reason white conservative Christians push back so hard against concepts like white privilege, Critical Race Theory, democratic socialism…basically anything they perceive as unseating not just their ability to identify as “normal,” but to define what that means for everyone else.
That fear of losing dominance and control, of course, is easy to exploit by those who perceive themselves to have the most to lose.
It’s the very thing Jesus was crucified for.
Deconstructing the cultural narrative of “normal” will always be dangerous, because the people who are most invested in it will always fight to protect it.
But the alternative, as I believe Jesus demonstrates, is the path to both individual and social enlightenment.
It is the way, the truth, and the life.
Feature Image Credit: Konstantin Aksenov via pond5.com