“Why can’t you just be normal?”
I was beginning to study things I had not yet considered. The world had just been shocked by the bombing of the World Trade Center. The campus of the university I attended had an unsettled calm about the whole event. Some of my friends from a religious student center gathered in a small bedroom and watched the television as our country’s president outlined the plans for retaliation against the nation he believed was responsible for the terror inflicted on a people that desperately needed someone to blame. Then it happened.
We heard a roar of excitement. We saw students running through the streets with American flags. We saw news cameras rushing in trying to get soundbites and images to capture the intensity of, what looked to me, like a celebration. Some of my friends joined the river of people who chanted slogans and released their frustration of not knowing what to do with the hurt, anger, and fear that was inflicted on them the past week. The town, the university, and the students were accustomed to this type of activity because we were all about sports. But, this was not sports. This was something all together different.
It all happened, for me, in slow motion. It was not a release for me. It was not something to celebrate. What it was, in a very real way, was a loss of my sense of belonging. Not only a loss of my sense of belonging to my student group, but in a very real way, to humanity. I could see normal. Normal, at that time, meant that you were happy we were bombing another country. Normal, at that time, meant not asking anymore questions and accepting that this action was the right response. I walked around the campus, being bumped by enthusiastic “others”, answering questions such as, “is this great or what?”, and wondering what had happened to compassion.
This, however, is not a treatise on war. It is not even a vote for peace. What it is, is a commentary on my realization, that day, that I would never be normal. It was that evening, when I gave up trying. As I saw the crowd take on a life of its own, I made a decision not to try and affect crowds of people. My life since has been spent trying, in small ways, to change the lives of people, one smile, one grace given, or one kindness done in secret, at a time. My hope is not based on some reward in an afterlife. My desire is not to change the world. Every gift I give of myself is met only with an immediate sense that I have done something, with a goodness, that would not have been birthed into the universe, had I not given it.
And this is enough. Some may say it is self-serving to help others only for the satisfaction of having helped. Perhaps they are correct. If the alternative is trying to impress others, or harder even still, to impress God, then I am happy to try to satisfy only myself. For nearly 50 years, I am the only person that has been involved in all of my many incarnations of personalities, personas, and development as a spiritual being. Only I am able to determine if I am doing good motivated out of need, or out of graciousness. I am comfortable with that role. I am certainly not going to leave it up to a religious leader, a self-help guru, or even a close friend.
One of the best things for me, in what I have experienced in life, is the fact that my “normal” is not anyone else’s “normal”. I was fortunate in my early days to travel with groups and alone. I recommend both. Part of my heart remains with Happy, a gentleman in Zambia who struggles with religious teaching. Part of my soul remains in Jamaica, not in the resorts, but with Susan, who explained to me that she eats what she can find, not what she desires. And my mind often sits and shares a meal with the people in a shelter in downtown Miami.
But before we go assuming I am some philanthropist with only experiences of charitable works, I also go back in my mind to conversations I have had with millionaires, professionals, and those that have lived lives of which I could only dream. The only thing I have learned about people is there are no normal people. What frightens me when thinking of people is not what situation they find themselves in at any given moment in life. It is their acceptance of that situation as normal. It is that their hopes, and even my hopes, are somehow limited to what we know. There is always more to be known.
And as for crowds and the tendency to trade individuality for a feeling of belonging… I have never been a fan. Crowds are easily manipulated because they are made up of people who have already given up some small piece of their thinking about a thing. But here I am, in this or that group, with this or that agenda, with this or that purpose or goal. I am not normal. I lost that description early in life. At times, I miss that emotion. There are times that find me wishing I was more a part of anything. A war effort, a peace effort, an investment group or a charity, or even one particular belief system.
What I know more than anything is this. We are all here. We are all a part of something bigger than ourselves, whether we are normal or not. For some, it means that we should conquer the mind and spirit of others, and for some, it means we should cultivate the mind and spirit of others. Perhaps both are only an attempt to replicate our thoughts and propagate our way of life. Maybe that is normal. But if we lose the desire to be normal in this way, we can appreciate the small things. The things we are given. The things we hope for ourselves.
And on hoping? Think great things. It is not so much that you must change who you are, but it is that you must be open to your own kindness. You will not be duped or suckered into something that is false. You are your only judge on this earth. And if you profess a belief in God, and that comforts you, imagine speaking to the Divine in the way you use to criticize yourself or those around you. If this does not match, change the way you speak to yourself and others. In this way, the Divine might find words in a conversation where it sometimes finds little room. You are not normal. You are extraordinary.
Keep this in mind and begin each day with peace that makes people think you are up to something. Smile for no reason. Be encouraged and encourage others. Find the way of happiness and let go of the desire for happiness. Keep trying. There will be rest. For now, accept each breath with gratitude. And before anything else, know that a Love that you only know in part, surrounds you and wants only good things for you.