WHY NORMAL IS TRASH
PSYCHOLOGY + THE STICK
Back to normal. Have you heard that phrase lately? Yep. It seems to be one of the few things that Americans can agree upon these days. A desire to go back to normal. Really? Normal? Well, let me set fire to that unifying idea. Why? Because normal is actually horse shit.
For one, there is little usefulness in returning to something that no longer exists, yet this idea of holding on to what we thought of as normal with a cold dead hand, feels necessary for so many. Specifically those who are adverse to change and are unwilling to look within. To do the work. So what gives?
Well, it remains true that the only person you can really change is yourself, but damn if we don’t look like assholes when we refuse to change. With all honesty and empathy friends, we can only run so long and so far from all this emotional stuff. It catches up with everyone. As we get older and others change and evolve and choose growth, the refusal to work toward change is ultimately limiting. Stifling even. We end up working harder trying to outrun it than we would being curious, looking within and doing the work. Stop being afraid of getting to know yourself.
It’s for the best, I promise.
When I hear the phrase back to normal, I am reminded of psychologist Esther Perel and her extraordinary work with couples. When a relationship is on the brink of ending due to deception and infidelity Perel tells the couple that their old marriage is over. They must now make the decision to end the relationship, or agree to enter into a second marriage with each other in order to honor the relationship moving forward from there. Not defining the relationship on past ideas, needs, and understanding. But redefining based on moving forward. It has been a revolutionary idea in couples therapy and is extraordinarily successful. Not back, but forward.
We currently stand in a similar position. Not through deception but through unforeseen circumstances, we had a hard and fast break from normal. Whatever that was for us. For some normal was great, others suffocating. Even deadening. And for lots of folks, normal was already a dumpster fire. How well did normal really serve us? Not so well.
When I think of this hard and fast break from normal, a story from the show Billions comes to mind (which if you don’t watch, stop listening to this right now and go watch that show).
The scene goes like this:
The character Wendy Rhodes approaches Jack Foley with the question, “What do you do when there's no play to be made? When no matter what you choose, it'll end in disaster?
Foley answers by telling her the story of a classic double bind. The story goes something like this: A zen teacher holds a stick and tells his student, if you think the stick is real, I will break you with it. If you say it is not real, I will break you with it. If you stay silent, I will break you with it. In response, the student reaches out, grabs the stick from her teacher and breaks it. Jack Foley says to Wendy, “ If a situation is untenable, Mrs. Rhoades, you break that fucking stick.”
The thread I am pulling here is that, about 12 months ago we were bombarded with a similar untenable situation. Who among us broke the stick?
The circumstance that usually forces us into this lesson is grief. Loss. It is the absence of love, or more appropriately the next stage of love. It’s hard. It hurts. And we do everything we can to avoid it. But this time, we couldn’t. Grief came in at us with an immovable force and she required everything to take notice and change. And it’s been hard. And there are many who have pushed up against her as hard as they can. You might be one, and if you are not, you most certainly know someone who has.
The script sounds like this, This external thing cannot force me to change. Even a little. Even if people’s lives are at stake. I will not change. And fuck you for asking that of me.
Well, that’s nice. To which I say, take a deep breath. Relax. Do not be afraid. You don't need to put in any hours on the analytic couch to have the sense to wear a mask. Just do it. And while fighting the stick instead of being creative enough to see that it can be altogether broken, and rearranged seems weird, and stubborn and short sighted, and it is all those things, the response of those to push back at the grief, at the immovable force is also expected, and therefore normal. But does that make it good? See what I’m getting at with normal here?
Is it really a place we want to go back to?
So I propose this. Instead of going back to normal, we go forward to better. What does that look like? Well, I don’t know yet. But I like to think that the stick we were all holding so hard and fast was broken for us, whether we saw the play to break it or not. When it all came crashing down. That’s why breaking the stick is such a brilliant play. The options go from zero to limitless potential in an instant. The situation is no longer untenable. Now we get to decide. What we put back together and what we trash.
Forward to better includes trashing a lot. Of course we have loss and that does not change. One in three of us have lost a loved one to this devastating virus. Nothing will replace that loss. We have little locus of control there. But when it comes to other things, decisions, ideas, beliefs, and feelings, we have a lot of authority and a lot of autonomy. Probably more than any of us feel safe recognizing. Because to change like that,break the stick, to turn away from normal, is scary. And ooooh is that some big change. I mean if we are holding on to normal and normal is trash, then the idea that better exists must be terrifying. If better exists and we are not working for it, well that would mean we might be responsible for maintaining normal and shit, that can be hard to reconcile. For many of us this kind of change can only take place when we are completely knocked from our orbit. When the situation in untenable and we are left with no choice but to break that fucking stick.
Here’s what I know. I’m a stick breaker. Time and time again. And grief always gets me in that position. Through grief I have made changes I would not make otherwise, I dig deep inside myself and ask the big questions I spend a lot of time hiding from. I reevaluate. Look within, without, above and below. I can say with great professional and personal experience here I am thankful for the times I reached out and broke that fucking stick. The times I turned away from normal - my normal and decided to give better a try. The important lesson to remember here is, when you break the stick, you don't end up with nothing. You now have two sticks. And you get to decide what to do with them.
Here’s to a year.
Thank you for being here.
Listen to this episode of JOY IS NOW here.