All hoods make not monks

Don’t you sometimes wonder what normal is? I mean is it ‘fitting in’ -being ‘average’- or is it  simply not being subject to undue attention in a supermarket checkout line? And even if you don’t ‘fit in’, suppose everybody in your family also looks like you? Does that make the whole family abnormal, or just, well, different -cohesive, as it were? For that matter, how could anybody be normal when we’re all different from each other? Something’s wrong here…

Perhaps we look for familiar patterns -be they in appearance, behaviour, or even physiology- because they are clues as to how to react. After all, if none of us had anything in common, we might never know who to avoid, who needed help -or why. Even modern medicine assumes we all have things in common, and like car engines, say, similar expectations of the way our bodies should function. Clues to follow for treatment.

Of course the whole idea of ‘average’ being used as a normality template, necessarily suggests that outliers to the societal norms are abnormal, and therefore by some accounts, require treatment or even punishment for the aberrance. New ideas that could be gleaned from their anomalies might be ignored. Opportunities lost. Still, paradigms do not shift easily -or willingly.

But, despite my many years as a specialist in the medical field, I have to admit that my colleagues and I relished our abilities to deal with individual variabilities -it often called for innovative solutions, and kept each of us engaged and interested. There were very few bored doctors. All the same I was intrigued by an essay written by Jonathan Sholl, an assistant professor in philosophy of science and medical philosophy at Aarhus University in Denmark. He felt that the concept of normalcy was a historical construct that had outlived its usefulness.

In a way, it reminded me of Foucault’s famous book ‘Madness and Civilization’ which suggested that at one time, many of those with mental illness were once regarded as possessing a wisdom that saw through Society’s hubris, but as times changed, the mentally ‘ill’ began to be considered as abnormal and relegated to the margins of society with other ‘undesirables’; they were often segregated in institutions – ostensibly because their variations from the accepted norms were no longer tolerable.

Sholl takes a rather different tack, however. He suggests that, at least in more recent times, ‘if the pathological is merely a deviation from the normal, then not only the aim but the very possibility of the therapeutic act becomes clear: return the sick individual, organ, cell or system back to a normal state.’ This, of course, presupposes that there really is a ‘normal state’: something that everybody has a right -and perhaps a duty- to possess. And yet, ‘If, as the philosopher Sara Moghaddam-Taaheri wrote in 2011, we see abnormality not as ‘broken normal’ but as a qualitatively different state, it would be difficult to understand how such interventions could restore the sick to health.’

Surely, whatever allows us to function adequately is a spectrum, and at worst should probably be considered merely a ‘different’ normal, if we insist on using the word. And whether or not it ranks as ‘average’, ‘frequent’ or ‘usual’ should not automatically prejudice us for or against those things that are not listed. The key requirement is that it be functional, after all: that it possess the ability to contend with the conditions in which it finds itself.

As Sholl suggests, ‘normality is all about context’. What is perfectly functional in one circumstance may not be so in another. ‘Even a given environment is neither normal nor abnormal. Instead, it is the relationship between the individual and an environment that determines the line between normal and abnormal variations. Normality is neither absolute nor universal’. Would someone who normally lived at sea level be considered abnormal because they had difficulty breathing at a high altitude to which residents who were born there had adapted? ‘After all, living systems are robust or homeostatic or fragile only with respect to specific internal and external conditions.’


Bubbles are evanescent I’ve learned from watching the mandated social-distance dissolving at grocery stores around the city. The fresh vegetable section seems to be a special gathering place where discussions about the crispness of a pile of green beans, say, are merely an excuse to catch up on gossip.

“I’m worried about Jason,” I overheard a well-dressed young blond woman say to an older lady standing beside her, while I was headed for the apple barrel nearby. Hoping it was non-viral conversation for a change, I slowed my pace, and lingered at the requisite 2 metre distance from them at the neighbouring Brussel sprout bin.

“He’s starting to talk to himself,” she continued, with a worried expression on her face.

Her friend, an larger woman with greying hair, smiled reassuringly. “We all do that sometimes, Ellie,” she said, and glanced at the pile of beans as if she were about to say something to them as well. “Jason was like that even as a child. He said that talking to himself helped him organize his thoughts when he was anxious…”

Ellie shook her head slowly and glanced at the beans. “But it’s not normal, Fran… He never used to do that around me.” She hesitated a moment and then stared at her. “Do you think…” -another hesitation as she considered how to frame her question- “… Do you think there’s something wrong?” She blinked and wiped away a tear. “I mean wrong between Jason and me?”

The older woman sighed and reached over and risked touching Ellie’s arm to reassure her. “You’re both working from home nowadays, aren’t you?”

Ellie nodded, but obviously didn’t understand what Fran was getting at. “Neither of us like it very much, though…”

“We’re social creatures, Ellie. None of us are used to this kind of isolation.” A little smile crept back onto her lips and her eyes strayed around the store and onto people occasionally forgetting about the need for physical distancing as they searched for items on the shelves. “At least at work, he’d have some different people around to interact with.”

Ellie sent her eyes over to rest on what I assumed were her mother-in-law’s cheeks -but only for a moment. “You don’t think he’s… tired of me…?”

Fran shook her head authoritatively. “I think he’s tired of the pandemic… and tired of being separated from all of his friends…” She squeezed Ellie’s arm. “That’s pretty normal, don’t you think?”

I had to nod my head; I hope they didn’t notice I’d been listening…

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