I am wary of the adjective “normal,” as I’m sure many people are, when used to describe anything other than geometric relationships or chemical solutions. It is a dishonest sort of adjective I think, seeking, at worst, to describe something which does not exist, or, at best, to pretty-up something which does exist, but which ought to be called by another name entirely.
The word “normal” when used in specific, direct relation to humanity does not have any real meaning unless it is as a marker of a mean value or an average. To think there is a quantity called “normal” which somehow exists outside of the quantity called “average” (in human terms) is obviously silly. And yet the connotations of the words “normal” and “average” are so different.
Everyone hopes they are “normal” to some degree, yet simultaneously everyone hopes to avoid being “average.” Isn’t that odd?
“Normal” is, in nearly all of its shades of usage, a positive quantity. Normality is understandable, reasonable, safe and reassuring.
When we seek to embrace a billionaire, or a “genius,” or a celebrity, we say “But I’ll tell you what, he’s really just a normal guy.” That is almost the highest compliment we can pay. The President of the United States? “Well, I like him, he seems like a normal guy.”
When we wish to distance ourselves from a once familiar murderer or rapist or otherwise ugly personage we say of him, “But he seemed so normal.” That is our alibi, “I lived next door to him, baby sat his children, and exchanged Christmas cookies with him because I thought he was normal.” Everyone can nod at that, and if murderer = bad, then it follows “normal” = good.
On the flip-side there is “average.” Averageness is rarely positive, defined, it seems, by only half of what it is not. Average is not exceptional, not remarkable, not gorgeous, not brilliant, not amazing. This is an adjective which seems to carry with it the limitations of its noun.
- How was the food at Chez Mullah? “Eh. Just average.”
- What did she look like? “uh… average.”
- How was your weekend?! “Average, didn’t do much.”
- “You are a C student and average students just don’t get into good schools!”
So though “normal” and “average” are, in essence, synonyms, in usage they are fairly distinct. Normal would seem to describe what is desirable, warm, and human about the collective “we.” While Average feels colder, more distant, and less comfortable. It would seem “normal” has done a better job transcending its mathematical roots where as “average” still has a strong whiff of the statistical.
When a human life hangs in the balance the choice is clear:
- Doctor how is my wife?! “Her vital signs are normal, she’s going to be OK.”
People’s vital signs are never “average.”
This disparity would seem to cast some doubt, somewhere, and if we accept that “average” feels more mathematical a quantity in common usage and “normal” feels more human a quantity… well, I would aim my suspicions toward “normal.” Math would seem to have the better track record when it comes to matters of precision and clarity.
So what’s with this word “normal” then? I propose the following:
The word “normal,” when used in relation to humanity, is the product of fear. I say this because “normal” seems most often used as a bulwark against it. It is “average” fortified. It is “average” gussied-up. It is “average” humanized. It is “average” pimped-out with comfy cushions. It is the cashmere of “average,” knit into a soft blankey we can hide under when faced with all those things which make us want to go pee-pee in our pants.
Do you disagree?
Last thing I’ll say is this: If you are one of the many people on Earth whose fondest wish is to “just be normal,” to simply attain that coveted, seemingly mythical state of normalcy, one of the… let’s say… awkward, the unpopular, the dissatisfied, the lonely, the self-hating, the confused, the depressed, the unhappy, let me assure you of something- your fear of not being “normal” affirms your averageness, and in as much, your normalcy. So hooray!