We try so hard, you know?
I swear, it must be half of our brainpower dedicated to it. It doesn’t matter what our state of affairs is, we must always do what we can to appear normal, which, I’m guessing, is a survival adaptation, “looking normal” must mean “looking like an ‘in’ member of our social group,” and so we avoid expulsion or persecution so long as we do.
I knew a fellow, he had been my mother’s live in boyfriend for many years, and while they had split up and he had moved out, he keeled over and died ay Mom’s dining room table during a visit. Several minutes passed before the ambulance arrived and they revived him, and there were some weird things when he woke up. First of all he had lost either a decade or more of the most recent of his memories – my mother and her family completely wiped out – or most of his life, it was hard to tell, because we didn’t know enough about his earlier life to tell what he knew or made up. Made up, I say, because he seemed to think he was constantly switching planets and lives. All this was immediately after his heart attack and demise, I can’t say whether he recovered any in the intervening years, but it was his efforts to appear conscious and functional that stuck with me. He didn’t recognize us, but seemed to get that he was supposed to, so he pretended. Anything we asked about was a positive – “Oh, yeah, I know that, I remember that” – and then some story that might have come from L. Ron Hubbard’s discarded first drafts!
The social pressure, the need to look normal . . . that was an extreme case, I know I’m not proving anything about the rest of us with the tale of a flatlined, brain damaged man’s priorities, but it’s there, and it works in some number of different ways. It’s a priority for us all.
(Plus of course, ‘normal’ can move around, and it can be very different from crowd to crowd. Some of our most extreme efforts to appear to fit in with our group can be exactly what places us so firmly in others’ ‘out’ categories . . . the obvious cases being the polarization of political groupings. This is probably more the point of what many people are trying to describe with terms like ‘confirmation bias.’)
From silly things like trying to look cool through a trip on a flat floor to amnesiacs keeping up appearances to what degree they can, to my mother’s boyfriend’s altered reality – me, in a sports bar on Superbowl day – the importance of an image of comfort and belonging seems to be very basic. Closer to foundational in our psyches rather than modern or cultural. Again, not that I’m a prime example of primality or anything! I may have been the weak link among those examples, but still. It’s almost certainly an important survival trait, for anyone who knows anything about fighting or ever watched a boxing match. If you can look normal, unhurt when you really are, perhaps your opponent doesn’t rush in for the kill every time and you have a chance to come around again and survive the round, the match, the real, primal struggles that we as a species have known forever. Statistically.
So, like many things, not a bad thing in the long run, part and parcel of being the beings we are, an important adaptation for ourselves made somewhere along our evolutionary path and not likely to change anytime soon anyways, but just something good to know about ourselves. If I can really cram this idea into my own head, that whatever altered state of mind a person is in, that what we see is them trying their hardest to look normal. If not normal, at least like they’re not the sort of abnormal that doesn’t belong. Maybe there’s a sort of a no-man’s-land for outliers within our groups, as long as they’re not clearly ‘in’ in some other group either.
I have this idea that the naïve, the starry-eyed and trusting among us, or the plain dumb, like me, what we don’t get is that people aren’t being genuine, that no-one is really themselves. I mean, I always just assumed, why wouldn’t you be? We only get one life, probably, at least it seems that this is the place we are this time through, so why would someone go through life pretending or lying? Just in case that sounded like false self-deprecation there, try this: blind and stupid as I am, I have been writing, thinking and talking child-rearing and abuse for my entire adult life and I can still ask the questions in this paragraph without ever having made the connection. I mean, I assumed it of the few users and liars that I’ve encountered in my life, that they had been abused and lied to and that it seemed sort of normal to them, but I sort of thought that unabused, we would all just be ourselves.
Not so sure of that right now . . .
I’ve just read two different books, both telling a disturbing story about some tests that were done with epileptic people who had required and received that surgery where they remove the connective tissue between the hemispheres of the patient’s brain. I think the theory is that a seizure that originates in one side doesn’t take over both sides, and there is improved quality of life. But the experiments somehow showed that when one side of the brain does a thing, that when questioned, the person’s other hemisphere will tell strange, tall tales about it, that is make up the reasons for the action. They may come up with something possible, even plausible, but it’s a guess or something, because it’s not what happened. It makes the authors consider that reason itself is an illusion and we’re all just making it up after the fact. Add to that what we have all heard over the last few years about memory, in the context of eyewitness recall and some celebrity false memory faux pas, it would almost seem that we’re so concerned with looking normal that we have completely forgotten to try to be! It’s a sad thought that perhaps looking like we know what we’re doing is as good as it gets.
(The books were The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker and The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty, by Dan Ariely. I don’t think Ariely got into any detail to warrant a citation, but I’m sure Pinker tells us exactly who did what and what they learned. I’ll try to find it.)
This is getting long. I guess this can stand as Part #1.