Who Defines Normal?
I am surprised in my study on disabilities by the prevailing claim that those who desire health, healing, and independence for their disabled loved ones just might be members of a cult of normalcy.1 Maybe you’re familiar with this cult, or know friends who are trapped in it, and desire a way out. Some speak of it as a “tyranny of normality.”2.
When comparing bodies, such as my sister’s, with bodies that are unlike hers, are we not in a way determining what is a normal body and what is not? Are we then, by default, as some are arguing, seeing those who are disabled (a modern construct) as those who exist “on the margins of human “normalcy.” 3
Can we agree that the “idea of a normal body/mind is constructed by a society that uplifts the characteristics it prefers,” as pointed out by Bethany Fox in Disability and the Way of Jesus? (pg. 94). If so, are we not all members of this cult of normalcy?
Now that I’ve learned of the cult of normalcy I’m forced to ask a few questions. Hopefully by now you’ll be asking the same questions.
It appears to be a necessary concept that may help me better tell – rather, interpret and evaluate – from my perspective of life with my older sister who has cerebral palsy.
Training to be Normal
Since this was the first I heard of this so-called cult, I knew more exploration (and processing of it) was needed. I knew this would undoubtedly lead to many more questions that would be difficult to answer.
This brought to mind a memory from early childhood – maybe when I was four or five years old. Every morning my paternal grandfather drove seven miles from town out to the family farm to help dad with the chores on the place.
I was always delighted to see him. Perhaps it was because he greeted us kids with a paper sack filled with goodies. Or was it because he really saw me and took notice of me? It is easy to be invisible as an abled child when another who is disabled requires so much attention.
Often, before returning to town, Grandpa invited me along to spend the night. This may have been his generous way of giving my busy mother a break. It may have been a way for me to spend time with my grandmother who had raised nine children of her own. One memory lingers still from all the others.
Grandma and I were in the room behind the kitchen, like a back porch, with a door into the back yard where a cherry and apricot tree grew. A lovely schrank stood against one of the walls. Several types of sausages were made in this room on pig butchering days.
On this particular day though, while helping grandma with whatever she was doing, I started to chatter. I kept on chattering, asking all kinds of questions, totally unaware of her perturbance. That is, until I felt her knuckle atop my head, reprimanding me for asking too many questions!
Perhaps she believed it to be a bit abnormal, out of the ordinary even, for a little girl to be asking so many difficult questions about life! Best teach me early to accept the fact that there is a way of being in the world that is normal!
Unfortunately, or should I say, fortunately, the lesson did not take. I’ve spent decades asking the hard questions, causing much consternation to others. I have to admit that I failed in being normal!
Unsuspecting Members in the Cult
Just today a meme shared on FB proves the point that most of us assume we all agree on what is and what is not normal.
Yet, strangely, I know many people who go around destroying people’s lives, maybe not intentionally, but who are nevertheless considered by society to be normal. So, how do we determine who is and is not normal?
A few years back, when pursuing my undergraduate degree, I decided to switch my degree to Biblical Research. When explaining to the head of the department at that time my reason – that I desired to study the Scriptures on a deeper level to explore the many theological questions I believed mattered to the church – I was surprised to meet resistance. Why? According to this person, this was not the normal intellectual path for a female.
Oh my! Was he member of the cult of normalcy and didn’t know it?
When I think of a cult, I envision a charismatic, narcissistic person who dupes unsuspecting individuals. He or she convinces them to throw all caution aside, enticing them to join a particularly prestigious community.
The cult increases and succeeds because we all long to belong! We’ll do some pretty crazy things to be in the good graces of the crowd. But we know how this story ends. Those attempting to escape the clutches of the cult and its leader – and those who contest the status quo – often lose their lives. Not a pretty story!
I do not have any answers to the questions. Yet, I realize it is important to reflect upon them. Have I in any way unwittingly compounded my sister’s disability, or worse still, the disability of anyone else? Even as I ask these questions I am uncomfortable.
- Am I a card-carrying member of this cult of normalcy?
- If so, when did I join?
- How did I fall for the propaganda that resulted in my entrapment in the first place?
- Is there a safe way out that doesn’t lead to my demise?
- Are our actions justified if we convince ourselves we are seeking the good for the disabled ones in our care or those in the midst of our communities?
Evaluating the Notion of Normal
Our picture of normal for an individual is that after birth – the infant learns to walk, run, play, read – all with the goal of developing into an independent individual who successfully joins the rest of society. As a mature adult, he or she holds down a job, becomes a consumer and a contributor to community.
If you asked me a few months ago to describe my sister’s physical impairment I would have had no problem agreeing that she has not lived a normal existence. That just seems so obvious. The medical diagnosis for her disability is two-fold: a profound cerebral palsy and a delayed intellectual development that requires a guardian. Because this injury at birth left her crippled all her life – those milestones are out of reach. Without someone providing that assistance, she would be unable to live.
It is easy to classify those who fail to meet these milestones as abnormal, peculiar, anomalous, strange. These are the odd ones – the others – whom we exclude from the rest of us – the normal ones.
So I ask again, is my desire – that my sister enjoy “health, healing, and independence” – a misguided goal that only reveals I want her to be as normal as the rest of us, so that I feel better at her expense?
Normally, those who identify as Christians turn to Scripture for answers. But that is not always the case, as we find even Christians seeking answers to the conundrums of life elsewhere. Paul anticipates this struggle we have in desiring to belong, to be part of community.
In chapter 12 of the letter to the Romans, Paul challenges us to reject the normal ways of being. Oddly enough, Paul calls us to an abnormal way of living! Scripture calls us to reject the ways society expects us to exist in our physical bodies, by being with one another, rather than distancing ourselves from those different than us.
In a way, Paul (and Jesus) call us to repent, to turn, from the cult of normalcy when he urges us to resist the world’s way of seeing others (Rom 12: 1, 2). By calling us to look beyond the labels – and for sure how we determine who is abled and disabled – we are called to live with one another as vulnerable human beings, relying upon one another.
Thomas Reynolds makes this amazing assertion, “[W]holeness is not the product of self-sufficiency or independence, but rather of the genuinely inclusive communion that results from sharing our humanity with one another in light of the grace of God. To exist as a finite creature is to be contingent and vulnerable.” 4
Only after reflecting upon our understanding of what makes a human being – created in the image of God – genuinely human, can we free ourselves from the cult of normalcy.
How do we become genuine, truly abnormal human beings? That is a subject I plan to discuss in Part 2 of the Cult of Normalcy, hopefully in a few weeks.
But, until then, stay tuned for my next post – “A Tale of Two Churches” – where you will hear of Vickie’s remarkable story of finding Jesus.
- See the article by Thomas E Reynolds, The Cult of Normalcy, available at https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/188186.pdf (accessed 2/25/22); Also
- Stanley Hauerwas, “Community and Diversity: The Tyranny of Normality,” in Critical Reflections on Stanley Hauerwas’ Theology of Disability: Disabling Society, Enabling Theology, ed. John Swinton (Haworth Pastoral Press: Binghamton, NY, 2004), 37-51.
- Brian Brock and John Swinton, Disability in Christian Tradition: A Reader (Grand Rapids: MI: Eerdmans, 2012), pg. 3.
- Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality by Thomas E. Reynolds
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