How "Normal" Keeps Us From Being Fully Human
About a 5-minute read
Its normal for us to compete for scarce resources and to view with suspicion those who are different from us. But it’s natural for us to see through our differences and to collaborate, cooperate, and support each other.
In my mind there are what I would call “natural” conditions for people (or any species) to live in, and then there are “normal” conditions.
By "natural," I mean the conditions a species evolved with, in which it can thrive and reach its full potential.
By "normal," I mean conditions we may find a species in that we assume are normal, but which may be significantly different than what is natural for it. Some extreme examples could be a monoculture, an isolated nuclear family or a single parent family, a factory farm, a zoo enclosure1. But many less obviously artificial environments are nonetheless still a long way from natural.
When a person or animal or plant lives in natural conditions, it’s behavior will be healthy, appropriate to the situation it’s in, and harmonious with other life-forms that share its surroundings.
When a plant or a person or an animal lives and grows in conditions that are not natural for it, that’s when the health problems and the behavioral problems start.
What is “natural” for humans?
Examples I would give of natural conditions for people to live in would be:
- To have grown up in a family and community where there were enough helping adult hands for parents to feel supported, and for children to feel valued and wanted.
- To have a strong sense of identity, belonging, and a sense that you and your contributions are needed and valued.
- To do work that feels worthwhile, meaningful, satisfying.
- To be surrounded by family and extended family/community you know you can rely on.
- To know where your food comes from and to have a relationship with it and with the environment you share.
- To have means of self-expression, to feel fully all that it is to be alive, and to be supported and accepted when you express what you feel.
- To be in contact with nature daily, not just on the weekends or on vacation.
That’s an abbreviated list of what I would call “natural” circumstances for humans to live in.
Do you know very many people for whom all those needs are met?
In fact, I don’t think I know of even one person for whom all those needs are met.
What most of us call “normal,” is unnatural for us. What we call “normal” is not a setting in which we can be fully human.
A “new” normal, or "more" normal?
In the early weeks of the corona virus lock-down I heard people say, “This feels surreal. It feels like nothing I’ve even read about in a book or seen in a movie.”
If until now you’ve accepted the “normal” that we see around us as being, well, normal, then the corona lock-down might indeed have felt strange and unexpected.
But since you’re reading this, I imagine that you may not be a “normal” person. You may already, long before Covid, have been feeling that something was way out of whack around here.
If that’s the case, maybe you’ll relate to how I felt in the early days of the lock-down. I felt the same sense of inevitability that Charles Eisenstein described:
For most of my life, I have had the feeling that humanity was nearing a crossroads. ... For years, normality has been stretched nearly to its breaking point, a rope pulled tighter and tighter..."
Charles Eisenstein, "The Coronation"
Suddenly with Covid, the rope has snapped – or at least a number of its strands have. Now what?
We've entered a “new normal” in which we pulled (even further) away from each other, became (even more) obsessed with germs, (even more) concerned about the threats that other people might pose to us and our families, and (even more) anxious about our survival in terms of our economic security.
A globally cohesive response
In his article, Charles Eisenstein pointed out that the official response to Covid has been one of control.
[This is the kind of] crisis for which control works: quarantines, lockdowns, isolation, hand-washing; control of movement, control of information, control of our bodies."
Charles Eisenstein, "The Coronation"
With few exceptions, all of us across the globe have agreed to control measures regarding Covid that we knew would severely impact us in other ways.
How come we can make such sweeping changes so rapidly when a virus threatens us, but we can’t figure out how to stop food waste in the developed world and feed the five million children worldwide who starve to death every year?
How come we can rally in response to a virus, but we can’t figure out what to do about despair and depression — which kills over a million people a year globally, or ecological collapse — which potentially stands to kill us all?
In his essay, Eisenstein gives a very plausible answer: we’re able to respond collectively to a virus because we can focus on the virus as the enemy, and rally against it.
In contrast, when the problem is hunger or despair or ecological collapse, we can’t agree on who or what the enemy is.
We all care about these other issues. We would all do more to alleviate them if only we knew what to do and if only we felt we could. But we're all approaching them from different view points and there is no common narrative that brings us together and unifies our efforts.
How "good versus evil" restricts our options
This “new normal” of separation, isolation, and control actually isn’t new at all. In 2014, George Monbiot wrote in his article, “Age of Loneliness:”
... competition and individualism [have become] the religion of our time."
Competition and individualism have become the developed world’s modus operandi.
In order to be a competitive individual (an individual can be a person or a nation, and everything in between) you have to have an enemy or competitor or challenge against which to pit yourself. You have to have a "bad guy," an "other" in the "us versus them" narrative, an evil entity that must be controlled.
Hence our well-coordinated response to Corona in which it's "us" (the world) against "corona" (the enemy).
But there’s a growing school of thought that says competition and individualism are not how we evolved – that these behaviors are not natural for us but are a response to the circumstances we find ourselves in2.
The "good versus evil" or "us versus them" narrative keeps us perpetually looking for someone or something to blame and to fight against.
The need to belong
Modern culture has explored individualism fully, and the exploration has brought us great gifts.
All that we have learned and gained and become in our quest to be powerful individuals can serve our collective greater good, if we can let go of focusing it on looking for something evil to fight against3.
Francis Weller has written:
Healing is a matter ... of having our connections to the community and the cosmos restored."
During the corona lock-down there have been heartwarming stories and illustrations of people connecting, ironically, more strongly than ever now that we’re officially not allowed to connect.
One YouTube video that stays in my mind was of singers leaning out of their windows in a deserted street, singing together about hope and justice, about skies and waters becoming cleaner, about us all collectively taking advantage of this opportunity for a reset.
I’m sure you saw it too, or one like it, because there have been many. They’ve been put together by families, groups and small communities, and by communities that span the globe.
We’re a global community now, and there’s no going back. If we are to heal ourselves and our world, we know we must find ways to see beyond our differences and act on the understanding that we belong together.
It was in [a setting of belonging] that we emerged as a species.
Our profound feelings of lacking something are not a reflection of personal failure, but the reflection of a society that has failed to offer us what we were designed to expect."
The potential for a return to “natural”
Covid brought about an acceleration of social distancing, the closure of small businesses, loss of what community life we still had.
It shone a glaring light on habits of being that we had fallen into and come to call “normal.”
Covid-19 is like a rehab intervention that breaks the addictive hold of normality. To interrupt a habit is to make it visible; it is to turn it from a compulsion to a choice.
When the crisis subsides, we might […] ask whether we want to return to normal, or whether there might be something we’ve seen during this break in the routines that we want to bring into the future.."
We’ve never been so globally affected by something that crosses every barrier we’ve ever created.
What else could have brought families home and drawn them together as this video illustrates?
I heard of family movie nights, weekly zoom meetings in families that previously might not catch up for months, and hand-holding nature walks in families that previously could barely drag themselves away from their individual screens4
What else could turn policemen into entertainers?5 You're right: to see their role as being "to serve, protect, and amuse," is not “normal” police behavior.
But it may well be natural behavior, and it certainly can help point the way to a truly new “normal” that would serve us so much better than the one we've been accepting.
Please leave a comment...
How has Covid impacted you and your family? And have you seen it as an opportunity for a "re-set?"
Do you feel that it's important to make a distinction between the terms "normal," and "natural?"
Please tell me what you think in the comments (below the Endnotes).
- I don't mean to pick on zoos here. They have come a very long way from their beginnings towards giving animals as natural a home as possible, and some of them are doing vital preservation work.
- I know – we've heard for so long that we evolved via “survival of the fittest,” that “survival of the nicest” may be a challenging idea to digest. Here is a great book on the subject. For a short read, here is a good article, and here is another one.
- The concept of "good vs evil" is part of reductionist thinking, which says, "I am a separate being, alone in the universe, and there are other (potentially evil) things out there that are not part of me." Conversely, holistic thinking says, "Everything is intimately related to everything else; to exist is to be in relationship. I am inter-existent." In this view point, anything that we see as an enemy is part of a constellation of relationships that includes ourselves. Fighting evil perpetuates it; finding what we have in common with the “other," as part of a process of healing the separation between "me" and "other," is the only thing that will bring the fighting to an end.
- I'm well aware that the opposite scenario exist too, as it always does. I acknowledge that there are families and fragments of families for whom unbearable stress had already driven relationships apart, and that in these situations further isolation has been utterly disastrous.
- Sorry about the 35 second ad at the beginning of this video
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Thank you Kate for putting into words what I feel in my heart. The resources you shared are gems! I thoroughly enjoyed the time and space the lockdown period allowed me to reconnect with my home and family. I relished in the extra days spent in my kitchen and garden. I made some decisions about my work and study, and I’m excited to pursue these new home-based avenues. I think we’ll still be seeing this situation unfold further in coming months, as we face further economic uncertainty. I wish the re-set was not only at the grass roots level, and I feel that I can do little but hope that those in power Be The Change sometime soon.
Thanks Bel! I’m glad you liked the resources 🙂
I agree, there is still a lot of unfolding to come. We’re in a liminal time. We get to choose (by default or on purpose) at this time between two Stories. Do we inhabit the world described by reductionisim, in which only force based causality, “the bigger the better,” can make a difference? Or do we inhabit a more interconnected world in which causality isn’t limited to what we were taught in school and in which unexpected outcomes can emerge in unplanned ways? I choose the latter story, because in it I don’t have to wait for those in power to be the change. You just never know: the grass roots level may turn out to be all we need.
Thank you Kate, your thoughts really resonate with me. Early in the shutdown, I realised how comfortable I was with the enforced slowing of daily life, how I try to live my life “normally”. In contrast, most people I know were struggling with the restrictions placed upon them. I’ve missed seeing my children and close friends the most but saw this as the opportunity for life to reboot, save the environment by turning the focus from capitalism and “bigger is better” mentality. Now I find myself despondent that those with power are not going to use this amazing chance to do things differently for the good of all on this planet.
Hi Fiona, I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I think that a lot of people would agree with you that this could be an opportunity for a reboot, a turning point.
Of course those whose power and profits depend on a return to “normal” are scrambling to ensure that happens, and understandably so from their perspective.
What gives me the most hope is that we’ve seen of how connected we all are, and how we can unite and act decisively given a unifying narrative.
Thanks so much for reading and commenting 🙂
I confess that although we’ve missed our friends, I’ve enjoyed staying home these last few months. Since we home-school and have plenty to keep us busy and happy at home, and are not reliant on weekly grocery shopping, its been a welcome respite from the normal business of life.
It’s also been a reminder to stay focused on continuing to build more self-reliance — the bare sections on the supermarket shelves were a reminder that the supply system we normally rely on is precarious.
How about you – how have you coped with the lock-downs and the supply chain disturbances?