Google defines normal as “conforming to a standard: usual, typical, or expected.”
As a young child, the experiences you have with your family, friends, and teachers start to shape your own unique worldview. The cartoons you watch on Saturday morning while your parents (theoretically) sleep in, the movies you see, and the music you listen to further inform this. The society you grow up in, and the schools you attend, further refine your worldview.
Over time you become accustomed to doing things a certain way — whether they be eating, playing, schooling, or traveling. The types of vacations you take may be the same, or similar, to the ones your friends take.
What has become normal for you may be patently unimaginable for someone else. If you grew up in a first-world nation with a reliably functioning sewer system and toilets, you take basic public sanitation as a given. You probably don’t ever give it a second thought. Flip the coin to someone who grew up in a third-world country, and that level of sanitation may seem like a dream.
What’s normal is contextual.
Let me illustrate my point.
I happen to be one of the lucky 0.0005% of the human population with a rare disease called narcolepsy. It’s a sleeping disorder that you’ve probably heard of, but really don’t know much about. I was diagnosed in 2005, but had never met another person with narcolepsy until 2013, when I went looking for a support group in New York City. I couldn’t find one, so I started my own. My assumption was that all people with narcolepsy were just like me.
I couldn’t have been further from the truth.
As my group grew from two, to twenty, to over two hundred, I discovered that every person I met experienced different symptoms. There is a whole spectrum of narcolepsy. We take different medications to treat our symptoms. We have different sleep patterns. Some of us sleep terribly at night, and some of us sleep soundly. Some of us have cataplexy (a sudden loss of muscle tone), and some don’t.
I was absolutely blown away by the diversity of experiences across our group. As I got more involved with Narcolepsy Network (a nonprofit whose board I serve on), I met an exponentially greater number of people with narcolepsy. And they all have a different story to tell.
There is no “normal” narcolepsy, not by a long shot — everyone’s experience is unique.
Let’s take the temperature
Everyone knows that a normal human body temperature is 98.6 Fahrenheit, right? (That’s 37 degrees Celsius for the rest of the world). You could say these numbers are normal with a high degree of confidence.
But wait! Science tells us that the body temperature of adults can vary as much as TWO degrees, from 97 F to 99 F. Your body temp is affected by as many as 6 different factors:
- How active you are
- The time of day
- Your age
- Your gender
- What you’ve eaten, or had to drink
- For women, where you are in your menstrual cycle
Babies and young children can have even more variance — from 97.9 to 100.4 Fahrenheit. I’m a parent, and I literally had no idea this was possible. But that’s what being a parent is like—am I right?
Birds eat fish.
This seems like an incontrovertible law of nature. And everyone knows that laws aren’t meant to be broken (unless of course, you’re a pirate). Birds eat fish. End of story.
Well, if you haven’t seen the BBC’s documentary Planet Earth II, I suggest you find a way to watch Episode 6: Cities. Because they found a fish that’s going to blow your mind.
The giant Wels catfish — much like its apparently distant cousin, the honey badger — doesn’t care for your norms. It has no regard for decorum, and the traditional hierarchy of the food chain. The Wels catfish has learned to hunt pigeons, and it hunts them with a vengeance — it waits until they’re bathing in the river, pounces on them (like a puma), and then drags them underwater. It’s a fish–eating bird, and people can’t handle it.
What’s normal is contextual.
In the context of our daily lives, I would argue that what you consider to be normal varies quite a bit from the people around you— quite possibly even your own family.
As an example, I grew up as an Army brat, living in over a dozen places, mostly on Army bases or in the ‘burbs. I attended eleven different schools. My daughter is growing up in New York City — about as opposite as an experience you can have in the U.S. — and will attend far fewer schools than I ever did. My wife started driving tractors at age 6, and grew up farming on one of those religious compounds in Idaho. She only went to one school (after all, it was a one–potato town). Our childhood experiences were vastly different.
What are the takeaways here?
Don’t make assumptions about others.
Remember that what feels normal to you, may seem batshit crazy to someone else.
Approach every conflict with an open mind, and try to understand where the other person is coming from. What are their norms and expectations?
Have empathy for everyone you interact with, and you’ll be good to go.