Normal?

Abbie at 6

Normal?

There were many things I wanted to be when I grew up, but one of them was NORMAL.  Since the counter-culture hadn’t yet come to public notice, normal was the only option offered to young girls at that time.  There were many Hollywood movie stars who exemplified normality for us, but the ones I really wished to become were the bland ones with no distinguishing features whatever.  I wondered how they achieved that blandness and if I could ever emulate it.

When I took the train to Princeton, New Jersey to visit Renee, my mother’s French friend whom I loved, I would see the college girls at the station.  In their camel-hair coats, they were saying enamored farewells to Princeton boyfriends.  The boyfriends looked to me like young piggies, but I admired the girls’ ability to stare up adoringly at their piggies.  Wow!  Wish I could do that!

Unbeknownst to me, Renee was meanwhile acculturating me in a very different direction.  She expressed intuitive French scorn for these outwardly demonstrative American girls whose open-eyed faces “held nothing back” –- put all the wares out on the table.

When I graduated from the High School of Music and Art, there were captions under our yearbook photos.  The student editors wrote mine:

A good mind possesses a kingdom.

Can you imagine?  What were they trying to bestow on me?  The kiss of death, socially?  Serves me right for neglecting to supply my own caption!

Fast forward to our contemporary times.  By now, my life has been crowded with so many adventures and misadventures that I no longer try to squeeze myself into the cultural norms presently on offer.  I can see where they’re headed and, more than likely, I’ve been there and back.

My idea of normality now approaches something like the ability to inhabit one’s body, one’s experience, one’s sorrows and one’s intentions.  To be alive to one’s reality, past and present.  To have put together a defensible life.

Oddly enough, in recent months I’ve found myself on the receiving end of three verdicts – all having to do with normality.

The first verdict was delivered in a dream.  In it, the visible space was dominated by a seated wisdom figure, larger than life and wearing deep red robes.  She addressed me with authority, saying

You are Absolutely Normal.

It sounds like what philosophers call a “category mistake,” since we associate norms with statistical averages, which are determined relative to items of the same kind having more or fewer of the characteristics being measured.  If the norm is the statistical average, then it and the Absolute would be in quite different categories.

That is, unless the wisdom figure wasn’t thinking in terms of quantities, but in some other terms.

The second verdict was delivered by the horses I met under the auspices of Joan Summers, my wonderful equine coach.  Joan would talk to me, I would talk back, and the horses would respond in their body language.  What they actually communicated was that

I don’t have psychological problems.

Anyway, not the kind that send these horses bucking and rolling on the soft turf of the arena.  My big problem is my peripheral neuropathy: my walking problem.  Which is about how I see it too.

The last verdict came in this week.  The buildup for it occurred earlier when my “Me Too” ordeal was leaving me on the verge of tears in the daytime and sleepless at night.  When I went for a routine medical checkup, my primary care physician was visibly disturbed by what I told him.  He strongly urged me to see a therapist he recommended, a lady who specializes in cases of abuse and harassment.  If I didn’t talk this through, he said, it could show up as illness later.

By now I believe the real-world problem is finally cured, but getting there has cost a lot of my time, energy and even some bits of my health.  As well as money.  I see my acupuncturist for the wrecked digestion and the massage therapist for the muscular knots.  Since I’d rather not stay in The Repair Shop any longer than necessary, I went to see the lady therapist for the first time only this week, and reluctantly.  But I was willing to see if she knew something relevant to my experience, that I didn’t know.

I hadn’t expected to like her, but I did.  She was empathic, realistic and knowledgeable.  After listening to the whole story, she concluded that I did not stand in need of psychological help.  I was normal.  It was the third verdict.

“But,” I pointed out, “I walked around for weeks on the brink of tears!”

She responded:

“It would have been abnormal

if you hadn’t been on the brink of tears!”

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. 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, 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. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. 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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