What is your normal?
I remember the first one very clearly. Sitting on the grass of in the back garden of my house with my best friend from school. It was awful. Retchingly, wretchedly awful. That smoke hitting the throat, the coughing, the gasping for oxygen, the taste of ash. My lungs were loud and clear: ‘What the hell are you doing?’ they screamed. ‘Tar and smoke and tobacco and nicotine…? Seriously? What the hell…?’
I blocked out the physical protests and persevered with determination and commitment (in the way I hadn’t with piano lessons or German) until I became a very competent smoker. Go me.
Over weeks and months and years of consciously over-riding what my body needed and wanted, I developed a tolerance for the toxin. I continued until tolerance became a 40 a day craving. This was now my normal.
In Jean-Paul Sartre’s L’Etranger, the main character who has just left prison speaks of how we get used to anything. Leaving prison with all its hardships was hard. The deprivations and restrictions had become his way of life. Similarly, the character Brooks in Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption kills himself shortly after his release, believing he cannot live outside of what he knows.
Layer by layer, cigarette by cigarette, glass by glass, mindless distraction after another, belief by belief, fear by fear, we create and then hide away in these prisons of ours. And we label them ‘normality’. This is how things are we tell ourselves. This is how the world is. This is who I am. This is what I need. I cannot survive outside this.
Our normality seems to be about what we tolerate, how much shit we can take. We up our dose to numb ourselves to the side effects of the dose. We seek comfort where we can find it. Preoccupied, confused, insane, we draw these illusions of what we need around us in the way the victim of domestic violence seeks the protection of the partner coming at her with the raised fist.
Then something happens.
We wake up.
We come into the reality of what we are doing or thinking or allowing and we see how impossible this supposed normality is in the light of who we really are.
It might be because our normal has suddenly become unthinkable. A dear friend told me that the beginning of the end of her morbid obesity was when the doctor told her the weight had created irreparable osteo-arthritis.
It might be because we cannot allow what has become normal for ourselves to become the reality for another. A woman who has suffered years of abuse may finally leave the day he hits her children.
It might be because we see where this normal of ours is leading. We might realise that ultimately there will never be enough alcohol or drugs in the cupboard to numb us to a life so out of sync with who we really are.
It might be because our eyes suddenly open. As my sister emerged from a heart and lung transplant, the column of nictotine in my yellow-stained fingers stubbed itself out for good.
Why did it take so long? There’s no answer.
Or we might, as many of the clearest leaders and thinkers once did, simply wake up one morning to the truth that we are not who we thought we were, the world is not as it appeared to be, that our normality of desperation and resistance was simply because we temporarily forgot the loving, creative, connected, excellence of our being.
This is the ultimate shift. It is the switching on of the flood lights to reveal reality in centre stage.
We look into the eye of the storm. We see that all that destruction and suffering in its approach and wake was only ever caused by a mind and body out of alignment with simple truth. We realise we do not need to retreat from and defend against what has never been there in the first place.
We see how tolerance with all its incumbent resistance, hatred and helplessness had kept us trapped in the language of the standstill and stand-off. I / you / they / it should be different. These words simply increased the gradient of the treadmill while we sweated and strained, our eyes fixed on the same film of insecurity and inadequacy on continuous repeat.
As we look into the eye of the storm, we realise there is never anything to change or resist. There is only reality. The cigarettes and the alcohol and the food and the insults and the violence and the fists and the pain come down to the simplest barest mechanics: humans beings, confusion, thought, wisdom, love.
There is nothing in any of that to resist or tolerate. There is nothing to change. None of our energy feeds the illusion. We love it all. We are all of it. Exactly as it is.
In love there is no such thing as tolerance. There is just love. In this new normal of ours we start loving everything exactly as it is. There is nothing to put up with or endure or suffer. Nothing has to change. And in that truth, and only in that truth, is the possibility of change.
Love the cigarette. Love the person shouting at you. Love the numbing food and drink. Love the fears and the insecurities. Love the prison. Love the fumbling awkwardness of not knowing how the hell life works. And the truth of that, will, as it always does, set you free.
‘Normal’ will never be the same again.