In the context of discussing “significant other” relationships, a friend recently suggested I read The Five Love Languages. I googled it and found a link to a review of the book, and the link included the following introduction written by the book’s author:
In the early days of my career, I was an avid student of anthropology. One of the conclusive findings of that study is that marriage between a man and a woman is the central, social building block in every human society. It is also true that monogamous, lifelong marriage is the universal cultural norm. Of course, some people will deviate from this practice, as in polygamy (which is found in a few non-literate cultures) and serial monogamy (which has become common in Western culture), but these exceptions do not erase the desire for a lifelong marriage from the human psyche. We cannot improve on God’s plan of one man and one woman married for a lifetime. — Dr. Gary Chapman, author, The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate
I find so many concepts wrong with that statement, I don’t know where to begin! Setting aside the emotionally and politically charged issue about the definition of “marriage”, the quote inspired me to examine another aspect of the author’s premise. What is one of the implicit value judgments he is making? Take a closer look at the contention that “Monogamous, lifelong marriage is the universal cultural norm.” The subjective value judgment is that the “norm” is a desirable, superior condition to the abnormal.
I reject that value judgment on a number of levels. First, to imply that a behavior is best because the majority of humans do it is ridiculous, because it essentially promotes the notion that “Everybody else is doing it, so it must be OK.” It is simply too easy to debunk that way of thinking. One great example is that statistics show the majority of adult males smoked cigarettes in 1955. [Source: Office on Smoking and Health, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] Smoking was a cultural norm of the time. Fortunately, thanks largely to scientific research, the dangers of smoking have become well-known among rational, educated people to the extent that the prevalent behavior evolved, and a far lower percentage of the population smokes now than in 1955. Smoking is no longer the norm, because people are capable of evolving and changing.
Second, to say that a cultural norm is “universal” is misleading, because it minimizes the validity and significance of the minority groups and individuals. (I am using the term “minority group” generically to refer to any group representing less than 50% of the population with respect to a given trait or behavior). Returning to the example of cigarette smoking, according to the statistics I found, in 1955 the percentage of adult male smokers was 52.6%. That means in a group of 10 adult males, one would have likely found 5 smokers and 5 non-smokers, because you would be hard-pressed to find a fraction of a person in your sample. (You would have needed a much larger sample size to prove that statistic, but you know that.) In other words, the 52.6% statistic can fairly be characterized as the most common behavior (cultural norm) but hardly “universal”. Those non-smokers would have been rather indignant and yelled out, “Hey, I’m standing right here! I hate smoking! It’s disgusting! To hell with you and your cultural norm!” (OK, they may not have cursed, but in that situation I might have spilled some choice words.) Even in 1955, plenty of folks did not follow the crowd, even as many others would have admitted they smoked because it was “the thing to do”.
Which leads me to a key question: What is it that leads many people to want to feel “normal”? What makes us sometimes want to be part of the majority? One major cause is FEAR — fear of being different, which may lead to feelings of rejection and, in the extreme, paranoia and perceived ostracism, which in turn can result in or exacerbate existing feelings of low self-worth. Probably all of us have experienced these types of fears at one time or another.
Think about your experience in middle school, or any school gym class if you were not a top performer in sports. (Will I be picked last? Please don’t pick me last, please don’t pick me last!) Consider how you feel about public speaking. What if you trip on your tongue? What if you stutter? What if the listeners laugh at you for the wrong reasons or get bored and yawn? Suppose you love dancing, and you attend a party with music that you love playing over the speakers; yet, no one else is dancing, so in order to avoid drawing attention you sit on the sidelines. That may seem like a harmless example, but it shows how we can prevent ourselves from doing the things we enjoy.
Fear leads many people to avoid completely having to speak in public, which can result in not taking part in town hall meetings (thus leading to voters who are uninvolved in government and therefore uneducated about current matters of policy), board meetings (thus hindering effective networking and potential opportunities for career and community involvement), and many other examples. In short, fear limits what we attempt to accomplish, and so we accomplish less for the benefit of ourselves and the people around us.
On the flip side, why intentionally try to be abnormal? Why stick your neck out if you may be decapitated? Why stand out in the crowd and draw any attention to yourself?
Before dealing with that question, I contend that there is no such thing as normal, for humans. Everybody is unique. There are millions of personality traits, from tastes in food and music to the range of introversion to extroversion to sense of humor — the list goes on and on. Two people may like the same colors, beverages, bands, pets, and travel destinations, yet no two people like all the exact same things. Even if they did, their emotional make-up or some other significant characteristic would vary. Therefore, while it is true the most common occurrence of any given trait can be called “normal” for that measurement, there is no normal aggregation of all aspects of human personality. The best we can do is to sort people into a few groups, such as astrological signs. We invent such groups for ease of reference and because it helps us make sense of the wide range of people in our environment, the endless parade of humanity. However, the need to group and label people is another topic deserving of an entirely separate essay. The point is that for every person whom we stereotype based on a perceived norm, there is another person who does not fit the mold.
Despite that, why be abnormal and risk being thought of as weird or strange? Why take the chance of opening yourself to ridicule? The answer lies in the realm of wisdom and personal growth. People who have lived many years, or at least lived a lesser number of years fully and actively, are often thought of as wise, because they have the benefit of experience. Do we not give more respect to those who have more experience in a given activity than those who have never done it? Yes, obviously. Therefore, it stands to reason that we can not only gain wisdom and insight for ourselves but also earn the respect of others by experiencing more of what life has to offer. The more places we go and the more activities we try, the more we can discover what we like and don’t like and what makes us a well-rounded person. Sometimes that will mean doing things that our peers, our friends and family, are not doing. If we wait around for others to lead the way and only try activities that the majority of our friends are doing, we will often miss out on great opportunities for fun and personal growth.
Continuing the thought process, most of us have heard the saying, “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” The reason is that there is a feeling called regret. Haven’t we all heard older and wiser folks talk about their regrets as they approach the end of mortal life on earth? There are relatively happy people who say they lived a full life and have few regrets, and there are rather pathetic people who bemoan not having accomplished the goals they wanted to achieve. Never been to Europe, never climbed a mountain, never wrote a novel, never found true love…
One can rationalize all sorts of reasons for not attempting those goals. Couldn’t risk the whole nest egg on that expensive vacation in a bad economy. Afraid of heights and of falling off the mountain. Can’t afford to cut back hours on the day job to have enough time to write. Don’t want to go through more pain from failed romances… However, it’s important to ask yourself: how will I feel later in life about my goals and accomplishments? What did I achieve that makes me feel proud? Did I make the most of my life?
Some people have told me, “I don’t like taking risks.” I understand what they mean, but I don’t think they necessarily have fully considered the implications. I believe everything we do or don’t do carries risks. Doing nothing still has risks, perhaps hidden and less apparent, but they are real. You may want to ask yourself, what will I regret, what will I miss out on, by not taking more risks?
For example, I am more afraid of the feeling of regret I may have, late in life, about not trying sky-diving than I am of dying trying sky diving! Why? Because if my parachute doesn’t open and I hit the ground, my physical body will simply die, but it will be over so quickly that I won’t feel a thing. On the other hand, if I become too old and broken down to do physical activities such as jumping out of a plane, the regret of never having tried it would be a bad feeling with which I would have to live the rest of my days.
I think it is safe to say that most people don’t think the way I do in regard to sky diving. The majority of humans never jump out of a plane; in short, it is not normal to do so. I realize sky diving is an extreme example. I am not contending that most people should do it. However, I am suggesting that more people should consider it, or at least consider trying something that seems at first glance “too risky”.
I have grown a great deal, especially over the last few years, in terms of trying new things, going new places, and expanding my horizons. (Some of these adventures are described elsewhere in this blog — e.g., http://wp.me/p1tl47-EI) As a result, I feel happier, more fulfilled, and more alive. I would like everyone to feel as inspired and passionate about life as I am. For me, that means doing some things that a lot of people think are “crazy” or risky or not worth the physical and mental difficulties. The challenges and obstacles and even at times the very real, physical pain is worth it because of the tremendous adrenaline rushes and sense of accomplishment I have enjoyed.
But that is me. Of course, everyone is different and certainly need not be like me. Be yourself! We can be ourselves, be different, yet still feel part of a group: the group of individualists who are not afraid to be different! Misfits. Outcasts. Think about The Breakfast Club or the Island of Misfit Toys in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Those stories appeal to people who have felt like losers and outcasts, and most of us can relate to that on some level. In other words, the paradox is that it is normal to feel abnormal! And if there is no normal anyway, why give in to fear and give up trying to be who you really are?
Set your own particular goals based on your own likes, by all means. The important thing is to not limit yourself to what most everyone else is doing. Broaden your definitions of what you think you like, and allow yourself to expand your self-perception of who you are! You will probably find yourself changing and evolving. That is OK, and in my view it’s the whole point of living. Furthermore, others will see it too and respect you for it.
Thus, you need not feel afraid! No matter what you do and how you act, you can always find other individualists who can empathize and can understand what that journey is like. You will always be part of humanity. (And, if it makes you feel better, one might say that simply makes you a “normal” human being, so it works out either way!)
Once you begin to fight your fears and resist the urge to be normal, you can begin to discover your higher self, your best self, and embrace the wonderful, abnormal you!