One Small Thought: The Road to “Normal”

I was having breakfast at a local restaurant, sipping a cup of tea and chewing on half a shrimp dumpling, when my attention on my delicious dimsum was stolen by the man sitting beside me. He was probably in his 50s and was clumsily dressed in his casual clothes. He wore a dark gray shirt and a pair of black jeans, and a loose gray jacket completed his look for the day. But, it was not his attire that caught me, but the way he ate his “meal” – he was eating his platter of fruits with the use of a pair of tongs (yes, the same ones that we use to pick ice cubes from an ice bucket)!

Suddenly, I was staring at him with a raised eyebrow and a slightly open mouth. If that gesture of shock and surprise was not obvious enough, I don’t know what else would be. The only thing that was running through my brain at that time was, “What in the world was he doing?”

After a few seconds of “bewilderment”, I realized how much I’ve judged the man in such a short span of time, despite the fact that I didn’t know him. To some extent, I felt embarrassed for being judgmental. Just because someone was doing something in a way that’s different from how it is usually done – from how I usually do it – he/she becomes a weird spectacle. Now that I think about it, how many times in my life have I done this? How many times have you done it?

What then constitutes our reasons for judging? How do we come to the conclusion that a certain person is eccentric or that a certain action is odd? Quite interestingly – and sadly at the same time – our preconceptions about a person or about his/her actions come to us almost instantaneously, as if we are wired to a certain universal set of standards for normality.

But, what is normal? What puts a person or an action under the “normal” category? Is walking backwards on the streets normal? What about talking to oneself in public? Are we inclined to deem a person who acts and dresses like a cat normal? When we see someone chasing a mouse in a mall, will we easily shrug it off? Maybe not. What’s funny is that even in the absence of a concrete set of definitions for normal, we, as a collective, have come to believe in the same ideas that are considered as normal. Even if we come from different backgrounds, we seem to pretty much gauge a person or an act’s level of normality in a similar way. But, how or where did we acquire this common understanding of what it means to be normal when there exist no standards from which we can measure normality? What affects our concept of it? A fundamental key to that might be our answer to this question: Why do we consider something queer? A simple response to that would be: because we don’t often see it.

Normality, in a sense, is directly correlated with the frequency of an act in a particular society. In the end, the former becomes defined by the latter. An act, no matter how peculiar in the beginning, can become institutionalized into our world of normality through its recurrence. By constantly being exposed to its presence, the act becomes integrated into our routines, into our everyday lives, that we can no longer identify its bizarre aspects. We have come to embrace it as part of our society, where we become accepting and tolerant of its occurrence. Such an evolution of an action towards achieving a sense of normality, if we can call it as such, however, can function as a double-edged sword.

On one end, it can allow us to become more sympathetic towards people with cultures and backgrounds that are different from our own. Through traveling, through media, we become exposed to other ways of living, other perspectives, and other practices that challenge our conventional understanding of what’s normal. This leads to us becoming less close-minded and consequently, less judgmental. It’s like, the first time we saw something queer on TV, we are taken aback by its oddity by 100% (because it’s something we’ve never seen before). But, the next time we see that done by a person in real life, we become taken aback only by, let’s say, 70% (because we’ve already seen it before). This reduction in our apprehension of strange actions is caused by our increased capability to comprehend the reasons behind a practice, a mindset, or a way of life through a series of exposures to the act in question. To some extent, the way we allow actions to progress from odd to normal has helped us become more open and understanding to things that we’ve once merely expressed revulsion for.

On the other end, however, the natural evolution of an act towards normality, as we allow it to, can be dangerous. If frequency dictates normality, then can actions that go against our moral judgment become acceptable too when they’re done so often in our society? In today’s world, where suicides and mass murders are prevalent, does our constant exposure to these make them normal? Does their frequency make them tolerable? Will their continuous manifestations make us soon indifferent and numb? I hope not.

While frequency is usually the determinant of normality, limitations to where this “rule” can apply must be made, such that it won’t be exercised for actions that contradict our moral judgment. This way, we can only hope to be more sympathetic and not entirely apathetic. Now, that would be a normal thing to do.

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