There I was, nervously standing in the junior high cafeteria lunch line, cash in hand, waiting for my turn to pay. Adam Sandler’s “Lunch Lady Land” played in my head.
I had three minutes between picking up my food-tray, paying for it and finding an open seat. But an empty seat doesn’t make it open, as I soon found out. “Think fast, Tom!” My eyes darted around as I attempted to lock eyes with a friendly face. I had one chance get it right and a miscalculation would mean public rejection, a ruined reputation, embarrassment and hurt feelings.
There! I saw my buddy Chad and slowly meandered to his table but as I laid down my tray, I was assaulted with a sudden onslaught of questions and insults. “Why are you sitting here?” “Who wants you here?” “Name ONE person at this table who is your friend.”
Frantically, I peered around searching for a kind face, someone who would stand up for me. Chad was either too insecure or too weak to speak up. After what seemed like an eternity of silence the bully confirmed, “No one wants you here. You are NOT normal.”
That sentence echoed in the back of my mind the next few years while I continued to struggle to fit in and gain confidence. There were many afternoons when, after putting on a brave face at school, would arrive home and run to my bedroom to cry. There, sitting alone on my bed with tears running down my cheeks, I’d wish for the bullies to see me as a normal kid.
Over the years, despite my determination to stay confident and friendly, constant barrage of put-downs made me feel inferior. I felt incapable of being accepted by my peers.
What is “Normal?”
Everyone has their own idea of what constitutes normal for the simple fact that our unique life experiences give us different challenges and strengths which we use to relate to and judge others.
“Normal” is just a euphemism for being accepted but acceptance and inclusion are not about having things in common, they’re about the personal decision to see the good in people. That decision is less about social circumstance and more a reflection of one’s moral character. To me, the word “normal” is relative and is often used to exclude those who don’t fit into the preconceptions of a group. In that way “normal” can be one of the most derogatory words.
The childhood bullies who rejected my inclusion to group activities did so based on their perception that I was somehow not normal.
But was I?
What makes a person “Normal?”
Some would say that attaining normalcy is simply exhibiting common traits or abilities and conversely, hatred or prejudice can just be overcome by discovering our similarities. Others would have you believe that normal is relative and based on accepted popular beliefs. So what makes a person normal, quantitative criteria or a majority opinion?
We all live with challenges: some physical, some mental and some emotional. The key to contentment and happiness is balancing health, responsibilities and passion in order to make your challenges work FOR you instead of against you……and that means being as open and honest with your difficulties and insecurities as you are about your confidence and strengths.
Only when we are honest with ourselves about our shortcomings can we find the confidence to overcome them. I also find that being honest with my own challenges instills humility, allowing me to better accept and empathize with other people. Accepting people as they are lets me distill any pre-conceived allusions I may have and allows me to view the world in a positive light. When I see life situations as a glass half-full, it gives me the confidence to overcome anything!
In reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath,” I now understand there are advantages to disadvantages and that some difficulty can be desirable. That means people may develop new strengths, perceptions and more creative and efficient approaches to life through the process of overcoming roadblocks. For instance, there are a large number of successful entrepreneurs who are dyslexic: Richard Branson, Charles Schwab, David Neeleman (founder of Jet Blue) and Paul Orfalea (founder of Kinkos). Some may say these guys are not normal and became innovators despite their challenges but I believe they succeed because of them.
I have overcome many challenging experiences such as pneumonia, a collapsed lung and cardiac arrest as well as the day to day challenges which come with living with pulmonary disease. One result is that I get out of breath rather quickly, even while wearing oxygen…. so despite making my best effort to explore the world, I spend most of my time engaging people from home. Some may see being less active as a deficit but I view this challenge as an opportunity to develop new talents and build character.
For instance, spending much of my time indoors or by myself, I have discovered a passion for writing, blogging, making music, cooking, gardening and watching and discussing films. You know the “movie game” where one person names a film, the next names an actor from that film, the next names a different film by that person….and so on?? Yea, I’m AWESOME at that game!
Through developing these processes I’ve gained self-awareness, creativity, patience for others and myself and a deep sense of empathy and understanding for the underdog.
Our relative strengths and challenges form our perspective of what makes a “normal” life. Despite our efforts to be the best versions of ourselves, we can never live up to every other person’s ideal.
Realizing the absurdity in trying to be everything to everyone, one might come to the conclusion that we are all the same; we all have flaws and talents. We are different in our sameness and the same in our differences. Everyone is normal or no one is normal. In trying to understand where true happiness lies, I found the question goes deeper:
Is there a “Normal” at all?
I believe the answer is NO.
The struggles of our youth molds the way we view ourselves and perceive the world. Even now, almost 2 decades since the cafeteria incident, I sometimes feel like I don’t belong at the “cool” kids’ table. But the feelings of insecurity are normal. Being flawed is normal. What is NOT normal is thinking there IS a “normal.”
As Doc Holiday asserted in the film, “Tombstone” (my all-time favorite movie!)
“There is no normal life, Wyatt, it’s just life. Get on with it.”
What is normal to you?? Thoughts…..