During my stay in Ecuador we participated in nightly reflections. Each time there would be a theme, a reading and a series of questions or statements to prompt discussion. Towards the end of the trip, the question was asked, “What is something that has changed for you during your journey?” A number of answers and stories were shared by the group. Billy, our service leader host shared with us, “I’ve been here for a few months now and the thing that has changed the most for me is the definition of what is normal.”
In the past week, I’ve seen people’s capacity to do a lot of different things and it has really raised this question again in my mind,
How do we define normal? Can we even do it?
I haven’t written for a while and that is because on October 15 I took a job as a Triage Worker for an organization working to end homelessness in a growing region of Massachusetts. Whenever I met people in the organization who asked about my background of school and work, I’d answer, “English and Art” resulting in the same strange look. But two weeks ago, an employee I hadn’t met yet introduced himself and we got to talking. He was also an artist who flat-out just enjoyed helping people. But when the question of my background came up, he didn’t give me any strange looks, he thought it was awesome and asked very casually why I loved being here. My response,
“I’m a writer, I love characters.”
He laughed all too knowingly of his next statement,
“We have plenty of those here.”
Because working in a shelter, you see and meet a LOT of characters. You meet people with stories that simply couldn’t be written. I’ve wanted to write a lot of them for a while now but due to confidentiality and the fragility of starting my first career, being cautious was my first move. But after getting my boss’ permission (who is a wonderful boss if she is reading this) to write about my work and some of the cases I deal with, recent events in particular have pushed me to the keyboard.
When I first joined the organization, I went through a rigorous two-week training program. I had to learn every in and out of this organization. Two months later, I haven’t stopped learning for one day. But those two weeks were crunch time. At one orientation in particular, directed by the organization’s COO, she told a story about why our organization is different from others. Her words were,
“We don’t give up.”
My first reaction to this statement was a positive one. Of course I had no interest in giving up. As a fresh young graduate starting small in a large non-profit, giving up on anything was the farthest thought from my mind. But over the past few months, things have proven difficult with this motto holding firm in my head. Because the people who come to me everyday are the ones who have been given up on by everyone else in their lives. And unfortunately, many show and explain legitimate reasons to be given up on. But my job description doesn’t include judgement, it includes getting them to the point of self-sufficiency so that there is no need to be given up on again.
But getting there is no easy journey.
When you are sitting at home, warm, comfortable, satisfied with life, is that normal?
When you are sitting across from a man strung out on heroine and alcohol, is that normal?
Most that I know would said no to the latter. But consider that for that man, that is his normal. His world populated by drugs and alcohol is all he knows.
The difficulty is not in defining normal, but in tolerating it and even more, respecting it.
Because while we grow up in a middle class lifestyle sharing in the common differences that is human nature, we lack the knowledge of the vast and rare differences that the world is populated with. What is normal for some unfortunately is seen so poorly by others.
What sparked this concept in my head were multiple instances last week. Each dealing with a different scale of normal.
The first was talking to a friend who was upset about her boyfriend and his actions of late. She expressed her frustration with his lack of knowledge of seemingly obvious boyfriend etiquette. I asked how many girlfriends he had in the past. She stated none, she was the first. Being objective, it seemed clear that of course he didn’t know “obvious boyfriend etiquette”, he had never been a boyfriend before. But her definition of normal wouldn’t let her accept this answer. But his concept of normal wouldn’t let him to understand her frustration.
About two weeks ago a gentleman came into the shelter with bloodshot eyes. We drug tested him and he came up positive for heroine. I told him there wasn’t a penalty, it was more for liability we needed to be aware. He seemed lost and confused and I handed him my card and said come here in two days and I’ll help you. He returned in two days and had been sober for all of 2 hours and withdrawals had begun. We went to my office and began calling detox centers all over. One after another they said they were filled and the look of disappointment swept over his face. I told him we were going to keep calling. He asked “Why are you helping me? I’ve never done anything for you.” I looked back and before I could answer, he saw a bracelet on my wrist which I have worn for years. He spoke up again, “What does that say?” I responded,
“What the hell does that mean?”
“We are all related.”
He smiled and sat back. I called the next detox and sure enough they had an open spot. I drove him there, shook his hand and explained to find me when he was clean and we’d take a next step. I felt proud until the next day he stumbled into the shelter smelling of alcohol. But I didn’t see him for quite a few days after that. Until mid last week when he came pounding on the front door. I happened to be there and answered asking how he was doing. He was clearly intoxicated and said confidently,
“I am going to go jump in front of a train, I’m going to go kill myself.”
My heart sank and I felt myself go into shock. I had him sit down inside to run to my boss and ask what to do. Within the hour we had him sitting with a counselor talking. When they were done, he went to bed. The counselor who was from outside the organization asked me his story. When I explained it she was surprised we still helped despite the self discharge from the detox. She seemed judgmental. I had this moment of clarity when I realized that despite this being her job, she would have given up. Because something I was taught early on in my training was that you must suspend your judgement when working. But more importantly, you must suspend your definition of what is normal. Because if you sit in silence with anyone thinking, that isn’t normal, then the barriers to the relationship will never go away.
Last night I was at a family Christmas party and we decided to get a fire going in the backyard. One cousin who is 25 and another who is 19 went out to the back to start it up and I joined. We huddle around the small but growing flames chatting and catching up. When two of our little cousins, ages 7 and 10, ran out to join us, they wanted to throw everything they could find into the fire. My older cousin and I assumed the parental roles in the situation to make sure our littlest cousins weren’t about to be barbecued. He, a teacher, got very stern and strict with them. I, a case manager, took the more casual and relaxed route.
My other cousin of 19 stood back laughing at the two of conducting different parenting styles and stated he enjoyed not being one of the “older cousins” quite yet. He openly continued to comment on our personality types busting out as we tried to prevent the little cousins from burning down the property. Eventually when it came to putting out the fire and having the little ones go inside, it was young parenting at its finest. His teacher voice was in full discipline mode while I quickly understood that these two had no intention of obeying him or I in a parenting duel. My response was walking over and tossing them both over my shoulder and taking them inside. When I put them down inside, half the family was laughing and half was appalled. I explained the situation and my uncle, their grandfather, stated “did what you had to do.”
I walked back outside and helped put the fire out. My younger cousin still laughing at how the two of us handled it in our different ways. And it made me realize how someday my older cousin, who I refer to as my older brother, will have kids. And I’ll have kids. And those kids will be very different from one another. They will be raised, like we were, by two very different sets up parents. But he will love mine and I will love his, unconditionally. Because while we all have our own particular definitions of normal, it makes no one else’s wrong or bad, it makes it their own.
There were a lot of instances from the past week that made me think of this concept. But with each one I tried to stop myself and ask, “Is it just someone else’s normal?” And I think it’s a valid question to ask when dealing with the things we don’t understand. Because that’s just it. We don’t understand them. I think there is a lot we don’t understand in this world. About each other, about different cultures, about the world. And instead of thinking it is wrong or weird, we should strive to understand and appreciate why is it someone’s normal.
Webster’s Dictionary defines normal as “conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern” And I guess you have to ask yourself, how do you define normal?