I think I’ve worked it out.
To be normal - in its middle class definition - you must go to the right school. You must get good marks and go to a good university. After graduation, you must get a good 9 to 5 job where you earn £27,165 a year. You must rent a normal flat in a normal part of town and marry someone normal at 30 (normal). Around this time, you must stop wearing short skirts and crop tops and start shopping at Cos. You must buy a nice, normal house. You must go on 1-2 normal holidays a year. You must have 2.4 normal children and, at 65, you must retire from your normal job. At 81.6 years old, you must die and take your place in a normal grave next to all the other normal people. To be normal, you must not shout too loudly. You must always do the right, expected thing. You must never flout convention, wear garish colours or do anything to make people judge you.
When we are children, normal does not take up much square footage in our mind. We assume, because we have very little experience of other people’s lives, that whatever our family does is normal.
(Sometimes this notion can stay with us well into adulthood. My younger sister’s birthday and mine are six months apart, so I would get a gift on her birthday every year growing up. Recently, I was chatting with friends on a train. I mentioned, in passing, a present I’d received for my ‘half birthday’. Silence fell. I noticed a couple of friends glance at each other with small smiles. “Half birthday?” asked my friend Bill, and, in that moment, I realised that maybe the way my family did things wasn’t so normal after all. “That explains a lot,” he said wryly.)
During adolescence, something changes. Normal takes up space. Normal becomes the ultimate social currency, to be exchanged for parties, excitement, boys, power and love. Normal is safety and security; normal is the secret treehouse of life. Everything we do as teenagers is, in its essence, a bid to be normal. We suppress everything else. So much of the rage of adolescence, inflicted on ourselves or onto others, comes from not fitting the mould. It’s no wonder, as we see the most normal people of all rise to the top.
As we grow up, the pull of ‘normal’ shrinks a little. We expand ourselves more, accept ourselves more, spread out more. We come to understand that normal isn’t always the end-goal, and - sometimes - it’s better to be different.
But normal still matters. In our twenties, we worry that our life is going in the normal, expected way. We worry whether we’ve done enough. We worry that everyone else is doing better. We worry if everyone else is having more fun. We worry about going to the right party, looking right, having the right friends. We wonder whether we’ve chosen the best, most acceptable career. We become anxious over reaching the right milestones at the right age. Will I graduate by 22? Will I find my soulmate by 25? Will I be promoted by 27? Will I be married by 32? Will I have children by 35? Will I own a house by 40? Will I achieve everything a person is “supposed” to achieve, at exactly the right time?
The root of much parenting angst is worry over whether a child is following the normal patterns of development. So often, parents judge the success of their own children on how closely they resemble the socially accepted milestones. Will they get the A*? Get a good job? Buy a nice car? Marry a nice girl? Give me nice grandchildren?
Normal looks great from the outside. Normal helps us relate to others. Normal is easy to explain. Normal gets you a salary. It gets you from A to B. No one stares at you in the street. No one bullies you or reprimands you. You threaten no one. You fit in, which is not nothing. The boat stays unrocked, the feathers stay unruffled. You blend.
Normal is almost always the easier, safer choice. But the danger of normal is waking up one day and thinking - did I waste myself? Maybe, if I hadn’t strained so hard to be normal, could I have been something?
When people die, the most missed aspects of their character are the idiosyncrasies, funny quirks, weird habits, most outrageous stories. In other words, we cling to everything about that person that wasn’t normal, the features that made them distinct from everyone else.
And, when we love a friend or partner desperately, it’s usually for the little unusual details that make them different to other people. The moment we fall for someone often comes along with noticing some odd secret quirk of our beloved: the funny way their arms move when they run; their silly, snorty laugh; that defiant, bad-mood sulk. The very thing that could make them unattractive to a casual acquaintance solidifies and completes the romantic bond.
Once, one of my close friends (Bill again - I have other mates I promise) piped up, apropos of nothing,“I think I’m a very conventional person” in the middle of conversation about normality on holiday. There was a short pause and then, at once, we all burst into laughter. “Of course you’re not!” we said, in chorus. “And that’s why we love you!”
The expression ‘be yourself’ is frustrating in its ubiquity. It seems like such a lazy, overused piece of advice that is far too generic to make sense in the vast majority of situations - especially in ones where such advice is most often needed. Should I be ‘myself’ in a job interview? In a first date? At lunch with my boyfriend’s parents? In church? In a big meeting? There is an entire catalogue of ‘me’ that I present at different times, in different areas of my life. So, whenever someone tells me to be myself, I think: ‘but how does that help me? What does that actually mean?’
But the truth is, none of our true ‘selves’ are quite normal, no matter how much we might pretend. If you think a person is normal, you probably don’t know them well enough. All of us have a box of secret quirks. So ‘be yourself’ is really just shorthand for saying “let that weird bit of yourself out as much as you can...Don’t waste all your energy straining against it.”
To be normal - in its middle class definition - you must go to the right school. You must get good marks and go to a good university. After graduation, you must get a good 9 to 5 job where you earn £27,165 a year. You must rent a normal flat in a normal part of town and marry someone normal at 30 (normal).
But a life that does not look like this is no less valid, no matter how much it might seem that way from the inside looking out. It takes a great deal of bravery to stand out from the pack, to live a life that doesn’t abide by the acceptable milestones of existence. But do it. As much as you can, do it. No one looks back and wishes they’d spent more energy fitting in, being conventional, doing the acceptable, expected thing for their age and demographic. No one loves another person because of the ways they are like other people. And no one remembers another person because of the characteristics that made them fit in.
“Normal” is one of those words that is only meaningful in quotation marks. In other words, it is nothing. It does not exist. Don’t let it hold you.
Written by Matilda Curtis (88% normal)
Illustrated by Josh King (79% normal)