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The Ever Changing Face of “Normal”


One of my guilty pleasures is reading advice columns. I don’t watch court TV or talk-shows, or follow along with celebrity gossip, but I do enjoy the Cliff’s Notes versions of peoples’ lives revealed in the likes of Dear Abby, and Tell Me About It, by Carolyn Hax.  Of the two, Hax’s column seems the most relatable, and in a recent response to a reader overwhelmed by caring for a bereaved sibling and her own family, Hax used the phrase, “new normal.”

The sibling, however disconsolate and aching, would ultimately adjust to the “new normal” of life without the spouse; of raising children, for the time being at least, alone as a single bereaved parent. At first glance, this seems a harsh sentence. But in the context of the reply, and in the context of life in general, it holds water.

Basic human survival needs dictate that we do, in fact, constantly adjust to the new normal of our ever changing lives: single to married, married to single, childless to childfull, to war and to peace and back again, to freedom and to captivity, to comfort and to suffering, to new jobs and to job loss, to sickness and to health.

Reams have been written about things like Stockholm Syndrome, and war prisoners from Viktor Frankl to John McCain have famously and heroically adapted to lives of brutal captivity.

…everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl observed in his famous treatise, Man’s Search for Meaning.  “the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

I remember adamantly swearing that a difficult relative would never ever wind up living in my house.  Now, three years down the road, she is part and parcel of my home, the extra place at the table, her folded laundry next to mine, a routine – however occasionally still difficult – part of my normal, everyday life.  I have chosen to accept her.

I’d never had a dog before our doxie Dexter came into our home ten years ago, and I’d never really felt like I was missing anything for the 40 years I lived without one. When he died three weeks ago, I couldn’t remember what life was like without him. Today, the house still feels hollow without his small, warm, vigorous presence, but I’m also slowly readjusting to life without a dog.    It is my new, if comparatively still empty, normal.

 

I’ve been married longer than I was ever single,  but was childless longer than I’ve had children. Although now our children are pretty well grown and “normal” is yet again taking another direction. Of course the danger in adapting so readily to what becomes “normal” in our lives is that it predisposes us to accept unhealthy norms – bad health habits, poor social, or career choices  – and can skew our overall perspective of what is “normal” in other people’s lives.

In the recent Eeyorian opining of David Frum, in a Daily Beast article titled,  “America the Anxious”, Frum concludes, “We fear above all what we do not know. In the past, there was one thing that Americans thought they knew for certain: tomorrow would be better than today. Now? Americans are no longer so sure.”

Personally, I’m not too sure what particular “past” Frum is talking about.  For certain cultural groups – middle class white Americans, typically – there has usually been at least a modicum of assurance that the future would be at least somewhat better than the past, although those growing up in the 30s, in the 40s during WWII, and again in the late 50s and early 60s, had no such illusions.  I remember anxiously watching the “Doomsday” clock in the paper each day, as a young tween, worried that it would tick closer to the final hour of annihilation.  But for ethnic and racial minorities throughout history, there was often very little to recommend the future over the past.  Life, for many people, has always been one hardship after another.

Many today fear that a new America is being shaped in this economic crisis-an America in which only a talented and fortunate few will find opportunities on a global scale,” writes Frum, “while the working many will experience a long slow decline in their living standards and life chances. Many fear that the days when it meant something special to be an American are drawing to a close.”

Again, not sure who these mysterious “many” are, but the fact is that only a talented and fortunate few have ever found opportunities on a global scale, from the Carnegies and Rockefellers to the Zuckerbergs and Gates of America.  I believe, though, that we have more opportunities than ever – education is more accessible to more people and the Internet, despite its still many shortcomings, is certainly flattening the world and bringing knowledge within reach of more people, of all classes, than ever before.

Frum cites 1959 as “the golden age of the American middle class,” perhaps conveniently forgetting that much of that period was built on a façade of equal opportunity.  Kicking off with the Korean War and wrapping up with the start of the Vietnam War (US involvement actually started around 1959), rampant racism, McCarthyism, sexism, and an “invisible” poverty rate affecting 25% of American citizens were all part and parcel of that “golden age.”

The “fear that haunts us now,” Frum asserts, “the worry above all worries: Has the golden legend of America-the constantly renewed promise of a better economic future for its citizens-finally reached an end? And if so, what alternative future awaits us?

I would suggest that the “golden legend of America” is just that – a legend, built in large measure on the reality of attainable success here for those willing to adapt to the ever changing face of “normal” that is a necessary part of human life, and a bit on the false memories we create of the “good old days.”

Perhaps the surest path to a true “golden age” will be one built on the knowledge that there is no one true “normal”, no one right way to do or be in the world;  the compassion and understanding to accept and learn from what’s normal in the lives of others, and the adaptability to embrace the ever changing face of normal in our own lives.

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