“Absolutely Normal”

greek-ideal-7619“Absolutely Normal”

We were in Riverside, California, a few years back. Jerry’s mother, my mother-in-law, was dying. She had always been extremely kind to me. And she was having a very hard time of it. It is hard to get into this world, and perhaps harder to get out of it.

Aside from this central event, we were beset by many attendant distresses: the hospital combats to stop intrusive procedures that had not been requested, the multiple calls to social workers, hospice workers, relatives and others who were concerned.

During one of our nights in California, I had a vivid dream. A guru-like figure, sitting very still, illuminated from within, said to me in a voice one did not question:

You are absolutely normal.

Had it not been for the griefs that surrounded us, I would have taken this message for a joke or an oxymoron. One pictures normality as something square in the middle of life’s road. Whereas absolutes, one imagines, would be positioned at the extremes.

Today, in a quieter moment, there might be time to pose the question, What, if anything, could that dream figure have meant? Is there anything “absolutely” normal about me?

I take things rather literally and full-face. For one example, I loved my father and my mother. That seems pretty normal. Is there a problem?

In the years I was coming to adulthood, the received wisdom was rather crudely Freudian. One was alleged to hold incestuous feelings for the parent of the opposite sex and rivalry toward the parent of one’s own sex. But in my youthful estimation, both my parents were truly interesting and love-worthy. Since then, I’ve met people who cut a greater figure in the world but still don’t interest me as much as my parents did and do.

So, how did I cope with the received, “Freudian” wisdom? I tried mightily to carve out my own pathway through the world of people and ideas, but just as mightily tried to maintain my loving appreciation for my parents.

It wasn’t that easy. The world and Freud had a point. My parents were possessive and spellbinding people. In order to honor them, I had to figure out how not to be crushed by the power of their personalities, which they made little effort to curb. Instinctively, they broke many of the rules for balanced parenting, where you get out of the way for the sake of the child’s development.

I didn’t hold it against them. They deserved my love and devotion and I had to break free of them in order to preserve that worthiness. It would do them no honor to have reared an emotional cripple. For the sake of filial piety, I had to fight my way through.

By the later years, we did achieve a trusting adult friendship. I published my father’s posthumous book, with my editing and introduction. I am still working on his voluminous papers, which keep alive my fascinated conversation with him. My instinctive sympathy for other women is in part a tribute to my mother.

I sum, I managed it: to keep the love intact and flourishing despite the world’s cynical denigrations. Maybe that’s normal. If you factor in the obstacles, maybe it’s “absolutely normal.”

Another illustration comes to mind. In my youth, I passed through a long ordeal. When it was over, in order to understand what had happened, I wrote the story. The draft had three separate sections. Every time I submitted the manuscript to a publisher, the refusal would say that we can’t see how the three sections are connected. How is this one life story?

Frankly, I couldn’t see it either, which was why I was writing the book. I tried a succession of hypotheses, each one a proposed string on which the incidents of life could be hung like beads. Was the connecting string Freudian? Was it Hegelian? Why had I done and suffered all this? I couldn’t understand it. Neither could anyone else.

Finally it came to me, perhaps after a shift in my own self-understanding. The string on which my choices hung was a Jewish string. I was Jewish, not so much in daily practices, but very much in essential orientation. Once I realized that, Sections One, Two and Three fell into place without further incongruity. The story became continuous. As a piece of self-understanding and writing, it ran smooth.

I brought the book out, under the title, Conversions: A Philosophic Memoir. At present, I’m revisiting it, with a still clearer sense of what it tells and why that should be told  probably under new title, since it’s shaping up as a different and simpler book.

What’s the moral – especially with regard to normality? It’s normal to try to get at the reality of a situation, to get at the truth, if one wants to deal with it in the right way.

But to sustain a normal intent through hell and high water –

that’s absolutely normal.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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4 Responses to “Absolutely Normal”

  1. Carla says:

    Read this article Abbie … rich in insight and superbly written … btw … there is absolutely nothing normal about your mind … definitely a “cut above” … (an awesome person to converse with) … .

  2. Nancy says:

    I’m enjoying your articles. Interesting commentary on “normal”. As a question, am I “normal” compared to whom? Or not? Who judges?

    • Abigail says:

      Hey, good question! I’ve been thinking about the word “normal” and two different ways we use it.

      In the first meaning, we talk about someone who is conventional, acceptable in a particular society. There the judge would be “everybody who is anybody.” Or, majority wins!

      But there is a different usage — rarer today — where we refer to a human norm, irrespective of one’s milieu. On the physical level, this is less controversial. Thus doctors are trained to know the norms for the human body: how its organs work at their best. With nonphysical traits, Aristotle steps in with a list of virtues: wisdom, prudence, courage, temperance, tact, generosity, friendliness, truthfulness and so forth. On this view, a single individual could stand alone, exemplifying an appropriate virtue — even against the majority.

      Since we are complicated social animals, we probably pay dues to both meanings — sometimes alternately, sometimes simultaneously!

      Thanks for a thought-provoking question, Nancy.

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