This past weekend, on Mother’s Day in fact, my wife was walking downtown when she saw a cardboard sign that had been affixed to someone’s front porch. Roughly, the sign read as follows: “To the person who stole the flowers I had planted in memory of my grandmother, was it because you forgot it was Mother’s Day?”
What worried my wife wasn’t so much the sign, but the severity of her reaction to it. She said she felt sad for the people who had their memorial stolen, angry at the bastards who did the stealing, and proud of the people for putting the sign up and not just sitting back and taking the abuse. The fact that the sign had almost reduced her to tears of both anger and sorrow made her feel like there was something wrong with her.
As a little background, you should know that my wife has been diagnosed with an acute anxiety disorder and a persistent panic condition. Because of this, she is continually worried about her emotional reactions. She continually wonders what a “normal” person’s reactions would be in similar circumstances whenever she has strong feelings about any incident.
Looking at that paragraph as I’ve just written it, I can’t help but be reminded of a song from the early eighties by Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn (pronounced co-burn) called “The Trouble With Normal.” One line in particular sticks in my head: “The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.”
I’ve always interpreted that as meaning the way in which society becomes inured to events, how we, while not necessarily deeming it acceptable behaviour, take it for granted that things like someone digging up flowers from another person’s garden, are going to happen. Our desensitization is such that, in general, we require stronger and stronger stimuli to elicit any sort of reaction.
If we can read in the papers about millions of people infected with the AIDS virus, or starving to death, or dying in a civil war, all without turning a hair, there’s probably no reason to expect anyone to get upset because someone has had their flowers stolen. It probably seems pretty trivial to most people; it’s just some plants that can be replaced.
We used to have an asshole crack dealer/fence living across the street from us. What made it worse was how so many people on the block would actually buy stuff from the guy even though they knew it was stolen. A couple of summers ago, a whole bunch of plants, shrubs, and even a small tree showed up outside their apartment.
The tree particularly caught my eye, as it looked exactly like one I had seen just being planted in the front yard of a house around the corner. I don’t remember what it was called, but it was ornamental and obviously quite expensive. On a hunch, I went around the corner and noticed the tree was no longer in the same place. I knocked on the front door and asked the woman who answered if she had transplanted her tree.
She said no, it had gone missing some time the previous day. She had gone out in the morning and come home in late afternoon to find it gone. Someone had dug the tree out of her front lawn in broad daylight and carried it away. I told her I knew where it was and would get it back for her.
I went home and found one of my idiot neighbours had bought it. She started to put up a fuss. Even though she knew it was hot, she didn’t want to return it. I threatened her with the police, picked it up (it still hadn’t been replanted), and took it back to where it belonged. It seemed like no big deal making sure that someone didn’t get screwed over by assholes and creeps, but to the woman whose tree it was, it was very important.
First there was the material worth of the tree, and then of course the emotional investment, but what really amazed her was that anyone would care enough to help get it back for her. In turn, I was amazed by her reaction. I was just doing what I considered normal. Something wrong had been done, there was a way to fix it, so I did. Big deal.
But that’s not normal. What’s normal is to buy the stuff from the assholes even though you know it’s hot and not think twice about whose stuff it could have been. It’s normal to know something is wrong and do nothing to correct the situation. It doesn’t matter if it’s a stolen tree or plant, neighbours selling crack to 14-year-old kids, or making enough noise all night long to keep the rest of the block awake; people just shrug and say “What can you do, it’s just the way things are.”
So when my wife starts getting worried that her emotional reactions might not be “normal,” I ask her if she really wants to be, or even cares what is, “normal.” I look around and see that for many people, the world ceases to exist beyond the tip of their nose. Not just because they are locked into their cell phone or have portable music wired into their brains. Even unplugged, far too many have stopped considering that there might be other people sharing the same planet.
How else could you explain supposed adults in their thirties and forties lining three cars up in a residential neighbourhood, turning all three stereos on full blast, and calling the person who tells them to turn them off an asshole? How else could you explain people being able to walk by someone lying on the sidewalk bleeding without even using their cell phones to call 911?
If being normal means not stopping to enjoy the sound of bird song, getting pleasure from watching birds have dust baths, or squirrels chasing each other around the trunks of trees and not dancing in the rain for the sheer hell of it, I don’t see much about it to recommend. If being normal means ignoring the person standing beside you who might not like your groceries resting on their foot or sitting in the elderly and handicapped seats on the bus and making a fuss when you’re told to give the seat up to someone who needs it, the argument for abnormality just got stronger.
A while ago, I wrote that, given the conditions in today’s world, being on some sort of anti-anxiety medication is probably a healthy sign. At least it means you care about the state of the world. I find it more unsettling that more of the population isn’t medicated. That means far too many people think there’s nothing wrong and that everything’s normal.