Perhaps you have heard that I have some children. Entirely more than a respectable woman ought to have, in fact. I have even heard tell that there are those who point to my old woman living in a shoe lifestyle as evidence that I may be a bit touched in the head. Sad. But true. Fortunately for me, it turns out that being a bit touched in the head is pretty much a prerequisite for good parenting, so it’s all worked out just fine.
At any rate, two of my children are currently man-boys who are 20 and 16 and completely awesome. Not that I’m biased or anything. You’d think they were completely awesome if you met them. Although you’d probably be glad you weren’t responsible for raising them.
So recently my 20 year old expressed his concern that I was often excessively harsh with his 16 year old brother. And that this might cause the 16 year old to think it was OK to be excessively harsh with the 5 year old. And the 5 year old has made it clear to everyone that she is the reason for the existence of the entire universe, so this constituted a threat to the well being of all that is.
Now, the thing you need to understand about the 16 year old is that he is, at all times, right. He knows it. I know it. Everyone who knows him, knows that he’s always right. Except when he gets stuck in his own head or is being irrational. In which case, you pretty much have to drag him kicking and screaming by his hair out into the light of day to wake him up. When he was a kid, I used to give his teachers very simple, specific instructions for how to successfully correct him. Those who did not listen paid the price.
So, I called Mr. Always Right over and said, “your brother here is concerned that I am excessively harsh with you sometimes.”
He, of course, looked completely confused, laughed, and checked to see if we were just pulling his leg. (Always a distinct possibility in our home.) ‘”Dude, I’m going to need some examples to go on here,” was his response. He was clearly completely befuddled. As was his brother at this point.
Now, as I have indicated, the 20 year old is male. So obviously he can be really dense. But mostly he’s incredibly sensitive to everything and everyone around him. Which means that the older he gets, the more subtle the touch required to move him. Anything more than a persistent firm nudge feels like an armed assault to this one.
“I never talk to you the way I talk to your brother sometimes, right?” I asked the 20 year old, who looked appalled at the very idea. “You would feel terrible if I talked to you like that, but obviously your brother isn’t experiencing me as particularly harsh.”
I could practically see it dawning on the 20 year old how different his brother actually was from him. Which, as well as they know each other, one would think he would already know. But obviously it had never occurred to the 20 year old that something as basic as our emotional responses could be completely different from one person to another. After all, our emotional responses happen pretty automatically. And we all experience the exact same emotions. So it’s very easy to assume that your normal emotional responses to the world are normal for human beings generally rather than for you particularly.
I suspect that many, if not most, if not all of us make the error of assuming that we are normal and therefor all seemingly normal people must be pretty much like us. In fact, I was in my mid-30s when it really sank in that maybe – just maybe – I wasn’t actually normal. Me. The woman who has so many children that they’ve basically created their own subculture together. The woman who is in Mensa and married to a black guy and swears while discussing theology and doesn’t own sweats or a proper pair of athletic shoes. I actually thought I was like baseline normal. (Obviously I have some masculine tendencies.) I’ll wait until you’re done laughing to go on. . . .
So anyways, what I was saying is that I suspect that it’s a common problem that we define normal and acceptable according to what is normal for us. I would go so far as to say that it’s a normal problem to have, but I may not actually be much of an authority on what constitutes normal. But to the extent that we automatically project our normal onto the people around us, it is a real problem. The reality is that there are infinite ways to be a perfectly normal human being. When we use ourselves as the measure, we end up misjudging and possibly hurting people.
I don’t speak to my older son the way I speak to his younger brother because he would be unduly hurt if I did. He assumed that, given how he responds emotionally, I was speaking hurtfully to his brother. He sees his internal experience as the measure by which my actions can be judged. And although he’s actually a very insightful, aware person, this tie between his internal experiences and the external realities that trigger them was so un-examined, that it never even occurred to him that his assessment of what was going on didn’t represent reality.
In this instance, he what he thought he was seeing was me hurting his brother. This was confusing to him because I’m not really the sort of parent who hurts her kids. It’s actually something I try to avoid, believe it or not. But he figured that I probably had a blind spot when it came to Mr. Always Right because people do have a tendency to scapegoat him. Like when he was six and a friend of mine suggested that he needed an exorcism because her daughter wouldn’t stop beating him up. (Always being right isn’t actually the most charming trait for a child to have, btw.)
If my 20 year old hadn’t spoken up and challenged me, it is entirely possible that over time his perception of me blindly hurting his brother could easily have become a barrier between us. It would have colored his view of my, caused him to distrust me and caused him to feel that he needed to protect his brother from the harm I was causing. None of which would have been good or helpful, but all of which would be perfectly understandable given the misjudgment he had made while using his internal experience to define external reality.
Now, some people attempt to offset our tendency to use ourselves as the measuring stick by which normal gets measured by declaring that there’s no such thing as normal anyways. But normal is a concept that persists because it reflects an actual reality. Some things are normal and somethings are abnormal. Wanting to eat every day is normal. Wanting to avoid eating every day because eating causes fat is abnormal and a sign of a problem that needs to be addressed. So recognizing normal and abnormal can be a nifty, useful trick from time to time. It might even save us from danger on rare ocassions.
So there’s a reason we have such a strong, persistent urge to sort things into good/bad, right/wrong, normal/jacked up beyond comprehension boxes. The problem is that we don’t actually understand life or people well enough to execute on this urge with much skill. And the results can be absolutely disastrous. Families split, children are rejected, people are attacked, laws passed and all manner of evil is perpetrated as the result of our errors in sorting. Basically we have an innate compulsion to judge what is normal/acceptable which can be extremely useful, but is often destructive when it’s done poorly. What to do?
Well, it just so happens that there are a few basic rules for navigating this little conundrum. Because, I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but you’re not actually normal. Well, I’m sure you’re normal for you, but I promise that your normal is not my normal and it’s not some random person on the street’s normal. And if you try to force me to conduct myself according to your normal, we’re going to have some problems. (If you don’t believe me, I have a list of people, mainly relatives, who I’m sure would be happy to complain about me to anyone who asks. :p )
So, without further ado (yes, I know this is already really long. Endurance is an important, Godly skill to develop. Suck it up.) here are the handy-dandy rules of thumb for living in a world where normal comes in over 7 billion varieties:
1. Assume the best of people. We are all made in God’s own image. He declared us “very good”. That’s the core truth of who we are. So being good and loving is actually our default normal and can be safely assumed until proven otherwise. And yes, some people suck ass, but they have a way of quickly self-identifying under conditions in which people assume the best of them. So win-win. But most people mean well most of the time. If someone says or does something that indicates otherwise, assume that they actually mean well. It’s not only possible, but quite likely that your negative judgments are misguided.
2. It’s entirely possible for something to be completely incomprehensible to you, yet be perfectly normal and acceptable. “I don’t get it, but it seems to be working for them” is generally a good go-to phrase to use in the face of that which you have the urge to view negatively. Even if what you’re seeing actually is negative, unless you have control over the situation, “I don’t get it, but it seems to be working for them” remains an appropriate response. People are allowed to be wrong. Life is weird. Sometimes you catch people on the broken path to somewhere better. You are not going to understand everything you see in life.
3. Not everyone is going to be your cup of tea. That doesn’t mean there is something wrong with them. You are not going to be everyone else’s cup of tea. That doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with you.
4. Learn to look for signs that you may have misjudged a person or situation. These kinds of misjudgments do cause harm and should be corrected whenever possible. Often this means you will need to bring your thinking out into the open which does run the risk of insulting someone or looking foolish. But if you do it with the attitude of a person who is looking to be corrected if they are in error, it usually goes well. People generally don’t mind explaining themselves; what they hate is feeling like they have to defend themselves. Being transparently open to being corrected leaves room for people to explain themselves without being defensive.
5. Accept other people’s accounts of their own experiences. If someone says that they are hurt, don’t run through the list of reasons why they shouldn’t be hurt or wonder if they are trying to manipulate you. Just take it at face value. If I say that your assessment of me is incorrect, don’t assume that I have a blind spot that you can see better than I can. Even if that is true, you will get much further with me by respecting that my perspective is my reality. Most people are keenly aware of their blind spots anyways. And those who aren’t will be when they are ready. Besides, often your perspective is not nearly as clear as you presume it to be. Assume that other people are telling the truth about their own experiences, even when you find their accounts dubious. Life is strange. There’s more going on than what you understand. Let other people define their own experiences for you, not the other way around.
Congratulations to those of you who have endured to the end of this very long blog post. (It’s not really that long, btw. People on the internet are just wimps.) Take these rules of thumb and make them your own. They work. And I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that they will make your life better. Even if you’re dealing with a mean weirdo like me. 😉