And Why Would You Want To Go Back To Whatever You Thought Normal Was?
The year 2022 is right around the proverbial corner and I hear people saying: wow I hope 2022 will get us back to normal!
In many ways that hope is frightening.
I don’t want to go back to whatever some people considered normal.
In the lives of too many people right now — wanting to “go back to normal” means wanting to go back to a time that they idolize but many did not live in. Like the 1950s or the 1850s.
Getting back to “normal” is not possible — and thinking that you can go back to normal — well — that’s not normal.
Since I have been a professor of Developmental Psychology much of my life — let me start with something that I do when I teach.
Whenever I teach any kind of psychology course, I tell the students what we’re going to cover. I give them a curriculum — which I handed out on Day 1 when I taught in person, or for an online course — they read it online — and it was available to read well before they signed up for my class!
Yet almost every time I teach — one of the first questions I get is:
when are we going to talk about abnormal behavior?
As if that is the most important part of the course — and according to those students — it is missing.
My usual answer is:
You have to know what is considered normal development and normal behavior before you can start looking at and talking about what you think you want to talk about — which are deviations. Those are a very very small percent of any population and it’s not what we’re talking about in this course.
And then — after the grumbling — I ask: what exactly is normal?
And being me, I answer my own question — here … and in classes.
Normal is a statistical term
- It is arithmetic — it has nothing specifically to do with people.
- It is an average — and because of that — it changes.
- It has a range — it is not a given number.
In terms of people and behaviors — normal is a moving description. It all depends on where the average is at a given time — and averages move. For example, the average heights of adult males and females in the USA have increased over time. And so what had been considered the normal heights decades ago are no longer the current normal heights.
For some behaviors, the prevailing culture defines what is or is not normal. In the field of Psychology, behaviors that were once labeled “abnormal” are now considered normal. The “bible” of diagnoses is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) and the diagnoses have changed over the years — as we and our cultural “norms” have changed.
I also spend a fair amount of time talking about behaviors in several different cultures to show that different cultures have
- different norms
- different behaviors
- different language patterns
And because my students and I are mostly in the U.S., I add that we are going to be talking about normal development in the United States. It’s not always the same as for people in other countries.
Even “English” is different in all English speaking countries. It’s even different within different states and regions of the United States. Just like Spanish is different in different Spanish-speaking countries and French is different in different French-speaking countries, etc.
And part of this is to show my students that humans have a wide variety of behaviors — and it’s all considered normal; normal for the culture in which you find it.
And that is important when you talk about normal — it is a very constricted thing. There is normal for a specific population, there are broader normals like a normal age for children to walk and talk and even broader normals for cities, states, regions, etc. There may be an average age for these things to happen but there are deviations from that average.
I wrote about this in an article about IQ testing but I’m putting in the normal curve again [and article link] to show you the range of what is considered normal or average IQ [85 to 115] although we all hear it’s 100!
We universally ignore the standard deviations — after all that’s arithmetic — and we don’t like to think of arithmetic when it doesn't fit our narrative.
That’s my short take on normal in the realm of psychology. And the students “get it” — well most of them.
Past normal ideation is not transferable to the present
Normal is usable in many areas of life. Its arithmetic form covers a lot of territory other than psychology. It covers all sciences and for some reason, it tends to now include ideas from previous decades.
As I said above we don’t like arithmetic when it doesn’t fit or narrative and so we use the word normal to describe past fantasies of what life was — and decide that that was normal and that is what we should be getting back to.
And I say fantasies because people have an imagined idea of what the past was like. A lot of the people proposing that we need to live in more “normal times” like the 1950s did not live through the 1950s. And especially when they say they like what was going on around the time of the Civil War — they were certainly not alive then to know what life was really like.
What they are actually saying is code for “I would like to go back to when white men were in charge and we could do what we want.“
I don’t really wish to get into the politics of all of this or even the history because that’s not the point of this article — but it does stick in my head when I hear people say they want to go back to normal and they hope next year is getting us back to normal.
Then — also in the back of my head — is the idea that you can never do the same thing twice.
I do have a collection of much stuff in the back of my head.
The first time you do something is the first time you do it — the second time — when you think you are doing the same thing is a different point in time — so you are different you and what you are doing is a different thing.
In your head you might think you are repeating but you aren’t.
It’s like you can not step in the same stream twice because the water keeps moving — and it’s different water each time you step in it. And you are a different you.
These are old philosophical/psychological concepts but they fit with this idea of “going back to normal.”
Whatever you thought that normal was — you can not go back and repeat it — you cannot make it the same now because nothing else is the same — the world has gone on, people have gone on, you/we have changed.
Yes, you can try, and that’s what many political people are trying to do these days — but they can’t take us back. They can try — but ultimately they cannot undo the past. They can undo some of the laws they do not like, but the same actions that changed those laws in the past can start changing those laws again now. I think it’s sad that we have to re-fight the old fights — but the fact is if that that’s what we have to do, we will do it — as many times as it takes.
The past is past. We cannot bring past normal into present day living. We change, we create new norms, we create new averages, we create new thoughts. We develop that’s the good thing about humans. Some take longer than others — that’s what I teach — that’s what I say here — we all develop.
Here comes 2022!!!
Me? I’m heading into 2022 with the desire to be as happy everyday as is my dog.
I wish you the same — you can be as happy as my dog, or your dog, or any dog, or cat, or pet — whatever — I’m flexible.