Addictions Anonymous, 26: Searching For Normal
This article belongs to Addictions Anonymous column.
Beyond finding problems and flaws in the thinking of others, a philosopher might go the next step and offer some better path to what we hold as a valuable goal. As you know by now, I do not trust religion to produce that nebulous human condition it calls spirituality. If there is any cause and effect relationship between human goodness and religious faith, I have not seen evidence of it. We can do better, and if we abandon or build our own house apart from the religious way, we ought not abandon the goal of building better and more compassionate people.
As an undergraduate, I became interested in abnormal psychology and, like many psychology students, thought that studying the abnormal would be more interesting than learning about so-called normal behavior. Over the years, working as a psychologist, my perspective reversed itself; it began to seem that normal is rare and hard to understand, that abnormal is common and easily classified, if not understood. Far from being common and boring, normal is endlessly elusive, complex, and difficult to define. And now I have come to believe that were it to be achieved, a certain kind of normal would be as close to secular spirituality or mindfulness as one might ever get. In a better world, normal could be synonymous with noble character. The enticing possibility is that noble character, viewed as a form of normal behavior, could be developed in people based on facts and experience. It could be a set of learned behaviors rather than a faith-based ephemeral and vaguely defined spiritualism. But, what does the word normal mean?
In fact, it can mean whatever we say it means. Let's look at some common definitions.
One meaning of normal is statistical and refers to the common average of whatever is measured; the average or normal I.Q., for example, is taken from whatever range of scores we find in a group of test-takers. This definition uses the frequency of different test scores as the measure of normal; it is completely neutral and has no ethic attached to it. In the use of frequency, for example, we simply measure the height of many trees or the food calories people eat every day and then call the common average the norm or the normal even as forests disappear from the face of the earth and the population grows obese. This is good descriptive science, but being a statistic, it equates normal with a common average.
Healthy and disease-free as normal
Another meaning attached to normal is social expectations. Proper or normal behavior fits the occasion and the social situation. In one culture, women are required to cover themselves from heat to toe hiding even the face, and this is called normal in that culture. In another culture, women dress as they please and can occupy any position in society they can win for themselves, and this is deemed normal in that context. In a more general sense, this is context or contextual normal and highlights the relativity of what is deemed normal.
Yet a fourth meaning of normal is the comparison of some personal dimension to an ideal standard established in advance. Commercial pilots and surgeons must conform to demanding standards of performance, and when they do, that is the norm or normal for their professions even if the skills in question are rare in the general population.
We are free to imagine and design any set of standards or norms we please for human behavior, even if the characteristics we want to examine are rare or unusual. So, if we could decide what noble character really is, if we knew its dimensions, we could set up a gold standard in advance and then try to measure ourselves against that. It is only when we hold ourselves to a higher and perhaps uncommon standard, a standard that reaches for perfection, only then can we see our defects clearly and set about trying to do better. And this is exactly in line with the ambitions of the original Twelve Steps of A.A.
If we could specify the dimensions of an ideal normal human character, we could measure them and teach them, but we must define before we can measure. In attempting this I recognize that others may have good reasons to set different standards and priorities. The task, however, may not be as arbitrary as it might seem at first. In a very general sense, ideal normal behavior can be defined as any behavior that promotes the survival of our species and at the same time maximizes personal happiness for self and loved ones. Generalizations do little to advance the effort to understand normal, however, and it is time to become far more specific.
What would we do if we could all agree on what we mean by noble character? Could we learn that for ourselves, and could we help others to learn it? If we could teach it to children the same way we teach reading or other basic skills, would we? And would these children be very different from us? Do we really want a world full of people with noble character? Since none of us have yet visited such a world, let us suspend judgment and try to imagine it.
Psychometrics: the science of mental measurement
Mental measurement, the science of psychometrics, has proven its worth in many fields of human endeavor. Why not apply it to the most important of human qualities, our character? We know from experience that if we can be specific about behavior we can measure it, teach it and determine the validity of our measuring standards. Psychologists have been working on this for decades.
At this point, examples of real life people with noble character might be helpful, but if I were to introduce some of my favorite human examples it would, I think, only create distracting arguments, so I ask readers to bring to mind their own examples, examples of individuals, great or unknown, who they think of when they hear the terms spirituality and noble character. Would it be so difficult for anyone to describe that person's behavior so that others might recognize him or her? It will, for now, be more productive to bring specific character traits to the table than specific personalities. I'll make that effort in the next chapter.
Separating noble character from spirituality
The word spiritual carries overtones of the supernatural, of mystic and spiritualistic beliefs, so that word may not be very useful in our discussion, although one meaning of spiritual refers to compassionate or mindful living. Even words like compassion and mindfulness are poorly defined and are used differently by different writers. I like to use secular spirituality to refer to the model of normalcy I favor, but to avoid confusion I will be using the words noble character in its place. There are just too many different meanings attached to the word spiritual. Whatever names we apply, my point is that normal, carefully defined, is not to be looked down upon as common, usual, and ordinary; it is, rather, to be sought as the foundation of a productive, satisfying, and useful life. More than even that, it can suggest the goal of human perfectibility.
Certainly, it seems to me, a completely normal personality is as rare as a genuinely spiritual personality. Almost all the people I've met and come to know in life were psychologically abnormal or unhappy in some way, large or small. Often they did not know it or, if they did, felt unwilling or unable to change the way they were. We excuse, accept, and often overlook our quirks, our pangs of jealousy, fits of rage, egotism, violent urges, excesses of appetites, and other faults thinking them to be within the bounds of the normal simply because they are common to so many people. We think of them as part of the human condition since they are seldom serious enough to be completely disabling. So it is that we allow ourselves to hold on to our character defects so long as we stay out of jails or mental hospitals. We decide that everybody, being human, experiences unhappy moments brought about by unrealistic or irrational emotional states, that these states are perfectly normal. They are common, but not, I think, either necessary or normal. Life might be better without them. Little is to be gained by attacking the symptoms of misery if we do not understand the flaws of character that make them possible.
A few people I met along the way were individuals who, most of would agree, were spiritual people in the sense of noble character, and these people knew it but seldom spoke of it.
As starting points, I will suggest seventeen dimensions of human personality that might serve as standards for what we could call idealized normal behavior. To me, they amount to a practical and earthly spirituality, and so the words secular spirituality and noble character come to be synonymous. I will be describing what I think I have seen in those I believe have noble character. My suggested characteristics of ideal normal are just suggestions, not absolutes, not mandates, and certainly not final products. To some degree, I hope, my dimensions are free from cultural context, but culture will certainly determine the ease or difficulty of behaving in ways all of us would consider valuable. Finally, these dimensions are tools for a better life, not inflexible moral principles.