The Abnormality of ‘Normalcy’

Lisa Asili Aubrey <lisa_aubrey@hotmail.com>

The life stories of the young middle class contributors from the ages of 20 to 40-plus are quite ordinary as each one modestly tells us. It is the very fact that they are ordinary that makes each of them extraordinary — in that the authors are everyday folks, like you and me, and they realize and actualize their power to change their life path and change the world. They are rejecting the system that forces us to live against ourselves, and to live at war against the universe that nurtures and nourishes us. The voices of the contributors speak to and for many, all over the world, who desire to live in a better world; to create a world that is more just and fair, and that is more accepting and appreciating of difference; that values human contact in a communitarian spirit and peace, over cold individualism, isolationism, and war. The life stories challenge us to stand up, exercise our freedom, and make choices about how we really want to live.

Each of the stories told parts of my life, as I am sure it will for many of you who will engage these life stories. These personal narratives expose the "abnormality of the ‘normalcy’" of individuals and institutions living and functioning in the modernist megamachine (many thanks Yusef). How can we not suffer the "abnormality of ‘normalcy’" as we are hooked and programmed into this megamachine by the agents of socialization which we all face — parents, extended family, schools, religion, social organizations, the state? Even the more liberal of these structures force compliance, with positive rewards and negative consequences. Non-conformity is labeled deviant, and solutions to the "problems" are sought out scurriedly, and sometimes scurrilously to get deviants back in shape, towing the line of conformity. What is the line, and what and whose benefit does it serve?

The line follows a certain mode of logic and behaviorist rationality of cause and expected effect with presumed, but faulty, universal aspirations and values. It goes like this, as many of the life stories reflect: Be a good boy or girl. Go to school, be well-behaved and make good grades. Do what the teacher says. Be nice. Graduate and get into a prestigious college. Stay on track, continue making good grades and if you don’t buck the system you’ll get a good job. A good job, of course, means one within the megamachine where you make a high salary which affords you to live a comfortable, externally flashy, designer-dictated, technologically cutting-edge, enviable material lifestyle, even when you, with your bleeding heart, are doing "development work" for the lowly and unfortunate lumpen, and feeling empty and lost inside. The icing on the cake is acquiring, alongside these nice-ities, an accomplished and upwardly-mobile wife or husband who is also a conformist on the rich and successful megamachine track. Together, you can buy even nicer things; you may not be happy, but that’s not important. It’s besides the point. What is important is that you keep up the impression and the nice house and the bank account. Then you have children and raise them as you were raised, socialize them to be mimics of yourselves, and the cycle continues. The megamachine wins of course, but you are, by this time, numb and emotionless, and how you feel does not matter because you are only a lifeless cog in the machine. Besides, it is very unprofessional, and simply not characteristic of the educated class, to express emotion. Oh, lest we forget, you do give to charity — every now and then.

Where then is the freedom to be, to learn, to create, to live? Parents press for conformity, mostly without thinking. It’s a knee-jerk reaction, as well as the modern art of parenting. Incidentally, we spend so much time cogging, that we have little time for our children. Moreover, what parent does not want her/his child to succeed? The truth is that we don’t know how to deal with kids who don’t fit into the box. I struggle with this myself, searching for alternatives, within the megamachine as I also live in it with a child who does not at all fit in the box, taking occasional strolls outside of it to breathe and think and feel and glimpse a different, more satisfying life. Extended families press for conformity because an educated, successful family member means increased financial remittances and heightened social status for the family. After all, they’ve put all their hope and dreams in us. And they’ve boasted about us to the neighbors. How dare we disappoint them?

Schools press for conformity more than education, as their mission is social control — hence the suppression of real learning and writing outside of the lines. Remember getting paddled and/or scolded when your cursive letters didn’t fit the lines just right? Schools entrench hierarchies of leaders and followers — elitism and classism — and underscore the importance of abiding by norms. Grades matter. Schools, perhaps, are the most potent, mis-educators. Religions press for conformity and punish and excommunicate the infidels. Socials organizations demand conformity and inflict physical, psychological, mental, and emotional violence and death on those who don’t "belong," often espousing essentialist, racist, sexist, ethnic, caste, jingoist arguments under the carefully crafted but foolish and narrow guise of nationalism, patriotism, and fundamentalism.

And the state is an essential component of the megamachine that props up the markets that systematically suck away our brawn, brain, tears, sweat, and labour for its own sustenance and growth, leaving us little energy for critical thinking, creativity, sharing, conviviality, and love for family, friendships, and community. The state also takes away our freedom to effectively reject the megamachine without dire consequences. You must go to school. You must get a job. You must pay taxes, hence you much consume. You must abide by the law, even if the law is created to oppress you and your exercise of your rights as a human being and a citizen. What then is the quality of life if there is no "choice"? And all of this in the age of liberalization? The ironies are rife.

These life stories are stories that interrogate all of these issues in a multiplicity of ways. They are stories of the bravery of ordinary folks because they illustrate that those with a desire to unlearn mis-education and the megamachine can, in fact, exercise choice, even in the small spaces of freedom against multiple formidable opposition. Some who made choices against conformity were aware of the magnitude of struggle they would face, and some, by instinct, just knew intuitively it was the right thing to do. Some chose to unlearn by rejecting middle class trappings and going out on a limb without middle class financial and social protection against the advice and pleadings and warnings of family and friends; some decided to be "geeks" rejecting mis-education turning to creativity and inspiration and real learning from computer technology, farming, friendships, music, art, books, spirituality, the seas, the subaltern (of which we are part); some left high paying jobs and career paths which ensured public leadership, accolades, material comfort, celebrity status, and upwardly-mobile, rich, good-looking partners; some struggled against parts of themselves that, in a not-so-abnormal duality, desire and deserve those comforts and "successes." And ironically, some embraced and even became parts of those very institutions that are part and parcel of the megamachine. That includes me. Though the consensus of the life stories is strongly against attempts to "reform" the system and the megamachine, perhaps there lies a subversive space within.

Most relevant and inspiring about the personal narratives is the thread of honesty that exists, linking each of the contributors to the other. There is an openness and sharing from the soul that rises up from the life stories that does not exist in academe and other petty bourgeois places, those places that deny the existence of the immaterial, and higher orders of knowing. The contributors shared stories about themselves and their lives that would make the proper middle class flinch and sweat with discomfort and embarrassment, while, at the same time, they race to the couches of their shrinks [psychiatrists]! The life stories tell of fear, bad grades, family estrangement, drugs, alcohol, skipping school, low self-esteem, elitism, therapy, mediocrity, dis-empowerment, dropping out of school, medication for diagnosed attention deficits, racism, classism, condescension, conditions of being reading-impaired, being shunned, lying to fit in, obsessions, desires for power and privilege, conspicuous consumption, marginality, gullibility, discrimination, and disaffection. All of these were outcomes of the system of forced mis-education and conformity.

Another common thread which links the individual journeys into a collective search for change, satisfaction, and happiness was the contributors’ choice to take action to live against the norm, to find alternatives. All of the contributors made that choice, and engaged in action to be different in ways that satisfied their souls. Their choices were not easy, and the paths not always clearly defined; and, some endured and still endure obstacles along the way, but they are not deterred. In diverse ways, each one knew intuitively, that the beaten path of mainstreaming toward material success was, for them, not the right route. In fact, for many, it was in opposition to their very existence. Many express in different ways, "I knew it was wrong," "It just didn’t feel right." One contributor says, "Escape found me." And many were led to their paths, having had experiences, feelings, chance meetings which had permanent indelible impressions on their consciousnesses, but which are just now making sense to them as they are looking more deeply into their souls, finding their own voice and confidence, expressing their own passions, and creating their worlds.

Regardless of each individual’s trajectory, all of the life stories converge on the desires for justice, peace, sustainability, understanding, happiness, respect, choice, freedom, love, spirituality, intimacy, non-exploitation, creativity, humanity, community, ethics, critical consciousness, equality, human security, non-violence, and most importantly faith.

The life stories made me laugh, made me cry, made me want to know more, made me love and respect even more deeply, made me more secure in my actions toward change in my little subversive space against the mainstream, and made me more driven in my actions against the megamachine. Most of all, they reaffirmed again my faith in non-conformist humanity. The greatest challenge lies in how we, at this juncture, offer our children the freedom against mis-education and forced compliance demanded of them by all that exists in their relational environment. It is important not to repeat that which we critique. Otherwise we again legitimize and consort with the "abnormality of ‘normalcy’."