Celebrating the forthcoming release of the new book, The Storyteller, today is Day 7 of the Book Giveaway! Each day for ten days , I will post a question and response from the book’s Discussion Guide . Anyone who posts a response with h/her thoughts either on WordPress or Facebook (“Stories That Matter”) will be automatically entered to win a copy of the book when it is released! I will give away 3 copies.

Day 7’s Question:

What is normal?

Discussion Guide

As a teenage girl, I was not like everyone else. There were no parties, no boyfriends, no drinking, no anything, actually, except writing. An astronomy teacher once came up to me before class and asked me who I was writing letters to. When I looked at him blankly, said, “I’m not writing notes, I’m writing a book,” and opened my notebook to show him I told the truth, he replied, laughing, “Oh. Okay. I just thought, man she has a lot to say.” When I wasn’t squirreling away napkins to write on or using my own skin to jot down notes, I was reading. This, and country music, pretty much summed up my entire existence. While there were the usual high school groups–the cheerleaders, the outcasts, the geeks–I didn’t really fit into any of those categories neatly.

But that didn’t mean I didn’t see the other kids surrounding me. I did. I would compare myself to them on a nigh constant basis, and I was terrified of them. I wasn’t going to let them know this, though, and I’d much rather be seen as a loner by choice than an exile. So I played the part of a voyeur, trying to find similarities amongst the sea of kids about whom I didn’t really know much. As I’ve grown older, the trend continues. I’m fairly adept at pretending to be self-assured; confident. I’ll happily give speeches or teach a class or lead. If I’m teaching kids, the reason for this is simple: I don’t compare myself to children. If I’m leading adults, the only thing that makes sense is that there isn’t really anyone to compare myself to at that moment: I’m supposed to be different, I’m leading. I’m really good at engaging others and pretending to be … whatever it is I’m supposed to be then.

Normal, the official definition, is a:

“(adjective) conforming to a standard: usual, typical, expected.”

Oxford Languages

Expectations have always been the standard I’ve held myself to. What did my teachers expect of me? As and Bs, papers they’d hang on to for decades after I left their classroom, obedience. Living up to those expectations was my life’s mission. Was it normal? No. But I didn’t know that. In fact, the thing about “normal” is that none of us can say for certain what typical thoughts, feelings or behaviors of another person really are. There might be indicators but I can tell you with 100% confidence that sometimes you’re not looking at what you think you are most of the time. Years ago, I had to give a speech, but this one was unlike the others I’d given before because this speech was to be in front of fellow authors. I remember sitting at the table waiting for the presentation to start and feeling so unbelievably nervous, way more so than I ever had before any other event. This was a smaller audience, and I was prepared, but the fluttering of my heart felt like I was going to pass out. More recently, when I enter into a room at work full of colleagues to lead a portion of it, my bones literally start shaking. I feel queasy and the whole time I feel like an oversized toddler trying to play dress-up, terrified these normal, successful people will call me out on the charade.

Others. It’s like a dystopian novel where a group of people are separated and it sparks curiosity, and shame, in the ones left to marvel at lives beyond what they think they’ll ever reach. Of course, they have it all together. Their Instagram ready and Facebook perfect stories show how well they are winning at life. They are the majority, they are normal. Normal forty-one year old women are married, for instance. Normal adults have social lives, for example. In the book, The Storyteller, none of the characters are normal. If I had to pick the one who most closely matched the expectation of normalcy, it would be Dana. She came from a good family, lived in the city as a teacher, grew tired of that city life when her parents died, traveled and wound up in a smaller town where she unfortunately met Dusty. All-American life traded in for the definition of dysfunctional.

Reality is different. Some of those cheerleaders I secretly watched in high school would have known exactly what I was going through. Some of those elegant and impressive women who made me feel like an oversized toddler went home to panic attacks brought on from the stress of pretending to be something they really weren’t. And with the sheer amount of filters and editing tools readily available, anything seen or read online is suspect.

Messy. Incomplete. Joyful. Hard. Normal is that sometimes you feel self-assured and wake up singing your own empowering song, but by the end of the same day, you find yourself needing to self-medicate (in any of about a bazillion ways) because you’re not sure you can even sleep “normally.” Normal is Cole running away from Ginger Belle because he didn’t want anything to do with the house, the land or the people associated with the most traumatic time in his life. Normal is Daphne flinching when Cole reaches out to help her stand because she’s been taught that unexpected movement means a strike. Normal is posting smiley photos as you live the dream during your epic #vanlife adventure because dreams can come true. Normal is crying uncontrollably and taking the blame for absolutely everything because you’ve been taught that absolutely everything is your fault during that same epic, dream-come-true #vanlife adventure. Normal is who we are because, the truth is, none of us are normal. No matter what size your sample, you don’t know what “typical” is unless you account for every single living person on the planet—and, if you did that, you’d find common emotions but not people. It’s why each of us have our own individual, unique set of thumbprints and DNA. There isn’t another one of you. There isn’t another one of me. And, therefore:

Comparisons are not even possible because there isn’t anything to compare ourselves to.

A better definition of normal might be: “behaviors or emotions commonly practiced or felt by those of a particular culture.” In other words: going to school, in one way or another, is something most children in America do; it is normal. But going to school would be considered abnormal in Somalia where only 10% of children attend school. If you’re going to really try to define normal you have to account for the environment. Marriage is considered normal for many cultures, but if you happen to be a part of the Mosuo tribe in China, then those cultures who support marriage are weird because the Mosuo people do not marry or even live with their chosen partners. There are exceptions to everything and, to someone, I am the exception. Does that make me wrong or weird?

Living as a Christian with a strong belief in the God of Abraham, I look to the Bible when I have questions. The main example I have is Christ. If you take even just a casual skip through the scriptures, you’ll quickly gather that Christ was different than absolutely everyone. He truly was an anomaly, an aberration. Weird. Outcast. But He didn’t look to conform or to change Himself to fit anyone else’s mold. Instead, He called people to be abnormal. Being normal was exactly what He did not want to be, and He didn’t think it wise for anyone else to be normal either. The truth is: normal is a concept that we are first taught and then internalize, but we don’t usually use it to uplift ourselves or others. Instead:

“Normalcy” is most frequently a weapon used to beat down self-esteem, dash dreams and shatterproof glass ceilings.

There are many lessons I’d like to teach my two daughters, but teaching them to be normal is not one of them. Rather, I’d like to teach them to be true to themselves. If that means putting makeup on and plucking your eyebrows because you want to, then, by all means, pluck away. But if you’re putting that lipstick on and arching those brows because you think it makes you more like one of them, then putting that make up on is not only harmful to you but also contributes to the perpetuation that squeezing one’s self into some self-created box is desirable. Normal is an illusion; it doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist because the only people we see are expressly unique: they cannot be duplicated. Laughing at my own stumbles, like the day I wore two completely different shoes to work without realizing it (yes, that actually happened; I’m rather stunned I haven’t gone barefoot…yet) or how I’m apparently so weird people squint and talk to me funny when they realize I don’t learn by doing; I learn by reading, this is how I find peace with who I am. If only the whole wide world could do the same…