I spent much of my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood with the aspiration to be normal. The aspiration for normal is often wearing, at times heart-breaking and endlessly unsatisfying.
Though I kept my aspiration for normal well hidden. ‘Normal’ was a category I reacted against. I laughed at the ubiquitous zombies desiring sameness. Later I was schooled in how to use my reactionary anger and reproach as social critique, my outsider status became a political position. I built up a history of my silencing and used my oppression and suffering as a resource.
I was told – and wholeheartedly believed – this would be empowering and liberating. And yet I kept experiencing moments when life would make me come undone. It didn’t matter about the academic achievements or the fact I didn’t die. It wasn’t enough, I failed to pass as normal. And my inability to pass still happens. I might have to run home in tears, or I get a bit too drunk, or say the wrong things or more often, say nothing at all.
The thing about how normal works is that you don’t see it’s there unless its taken away from you or you fail to reach it. I felt bad about wanting to be normal because not ever being normal meant I had the opportunity to become otherwise. I had all the possibilities those in the herd never see with their blinkers on.
And yet I saw that there is a comfort in passing as normal because it means staying under the radar. And when you’ve lived a life that has been made into a spectacle, passing as normal feels like relief, a reprieve.
To be normal is to ease the insecurity of missing out. To calm the constant worry of whether your job is allowing you to flourish, whether you are dating enough or having enough sex; whether your relationship has a future, to avoid questioning about marriage and babies, when you are settling down, and your five year plan. Though of course in obtaining one normal you fail to reach all the others: whatever we have we’re never quite good enough.
When I think about the aspiration for normal as providing comfort it is not so much to describe what that normal is. It doesn’t matter because the normal changes even if it doesn’t feel like it. Rather it is our desire for normal, our attachment to and our orientation towards it that measures our proximity to norms. (my normal was a family, two parents and a cosy image of a warm fireplace and feeling loved).
Normal isn’t always an object or clear vision, it’s a feeling. Passing as normal is a sense that one’s personal and social characteristics are non-dramatic. They blend in, you can blend. Blending means you can forget about the chips on the shoulder you might usually keep – the ones that keep others at a prickly distance. Blending feels light and carefree. You can relate, people relate to you.
Thinking differently is often presented as a gift, but it’s a labour, of which some endure less well than others. It’s a labour because it becomes much more difficult to be known, to be understood. Recognition is the endgame of passing as normal – we all want to be recognised as the person we are and not the performance we give. In love we demand the other to be attuned to what’s out of tune, because relationality requires that. We exchange our sovereignty in the belief that the other will always prop us up when we need it. If we stay propped up we don’t have to bear the full weight of what we gave up by entering into a relation with another person. Love can only flourish from non-sovereignty and so it necessitates dispensing with our (illusion of) autonomy. But we can persist in that illusion so long as we don’t lose the other or feel the risk of loss. This version of what we call autonomy is simply the level of interdependence that we can bear.
Normal acts to taunt us about all the things we’re missing out on. And yet there’s an optimism to normal, however cruel it can be. To reject normal, often leads to a rejection of optimism also. The abnormal fosters pessimism; the fatigue and weariness of being the outsider makes us jaded, we’ve lost our innocence. The world of the normal in contrast is one of ever-renewing desires and cupcake cheery happiness. Not fulfilling the normative standard can cause us to wonder whether we really did want those things and whether if we had them they would make us happy. If we spend time non-normatively it might be considered ‘lost’ or ‘wasted’ time. If that time was spent more productively you may have achieved, life could have been different, we could have been different people.
I no longer desire for normal because I understand that one version of normal was taken away from me and so no matter what I do I won’t ever pass as normal. My proximity to norms changes depending on where I am situated, so sometimes I can feel light and others heavy. And if I choose wisely I can create more space for lightness and less for dark.
In the project of pessimism our stories are framed by losses which can help bind us together in struggle but it cannot build a future. I am quite invested in an optimistic theory of societal change and I will sustain the charges of utopianism if I must. There’s a way to want that isn’t measured against what we are missing out on. This is a form of wanting that is creative and inventive. It is optimistic and in its innocence it might even be childish and playful. But as in the act of loving, optimism can help us work towards building a world that is capacious enough to hold all of our multiple ways of being human that were never normal.