Tuesday, December 07, 2004

that's not normal

I recently watched a film in which, during a dramatic scene, a young boy of 9 or 10 witnesses his uncle (and several bad guys) get killed. My first thought was, "Wow. That kid's going to need a lot of therapy." This got me thinking, because in the vast scope of human history, it is only recently that this level of violence has not been witnessed by a large number of us, children included. Now, I'm not saying that witnessing the death of a loved one is somehow "good," or is part of the "natural order" of growing up, but you have to admit that it puts certain things in perspective.

I don't know what it is about modern America, but we seem ready to send ourselves and our children to therapy, onto medication or into clinics and hospitals for the strangest of reasons. Perhaps we sucked our thumb for too long time as a child or were ridiculed by our peers as adolecents. Parents, educators and psychologists seem to believe that children are so fragile that not enough affirmation as a child is enough to drive every one of us to psychosis. Even serious events like the death of a classmate or the serious illness of a relative warrant "code-red" emotional triage. And that's probably a good thing. I'm sure every school district in the nation has a plan to respond to the psychological needs of students in the event of a serious campus event.

But what did we do for all those years of human history when those responses weren't available? When men routinely went off to battle and didn't come home? When women and children directly witnessed wars, famines and plagues? Those that survived managed to make it to adulthood and become contributing members to society, with families and careers despite the devastation of their childhoods. We can't be as emotionally fragile and we're sometimes made to appear

So, what is "normal"?

If normal is defined by what is most common, then from the standpoint of human history, it is much more normal to experience tragedy than to avoid it. And more than history, this type of evil continues today around the world with famine, genocide, rape and more. From an evolutionary perspective, humanity must have adaptations that allow us to deal with tragedy at this level, or we never would have survived as a species.

If normal is defined by what is most healthy, then it becomes a bit trickier. From a Biblical perspective, God obviously didn't create us (in the Garden) to experience tragedies of this magnitude. So perhaps tragedy is not normal. On the other hand, humanity fell with Adam, and God has sustained and healed us throughout generations without the help of professional psychology or a cocktail of SSRIs. Some people might simply argue that evidently every generation before us really was messed up, and no one could have been truly happy. I'm not buying that so easily. And let's be honest, although depression and suicide have been around forever, growing up in a less violent culture doesn't seem to help much. The Swedes haven't fought a war in years, and they have among the highest depression rates worldwide.

[Note: This is the part of this blog where I will likely get myself into trouble]
Part of me thinks that we've become a society of pansies, who scream at the first sight of blood and have become so sensitized to pain that we freak out when we encounter it. We believe we have a right to lead a pain-free life, and feel put-upon when tragedy occurs. We've come to believe that we're so fragile that we can no longer handle the tragedies that every generation before us in history considered a natural part of life.

Another part of me thinks something more insidious is going on. Psychologists and psychiatrists have an incentive to make us believe that we're irreperably messed up, because it benefits their bottom line. So they continually feed us this line, no matter what we say about our childhood or past. But more than that, if we can convince ourselves that everyone is "messed up," then no one needs to feel inferior to anyone else, because really, we all need counseling. Anyone who doesn't admit this is seen as even more messed up with their delusions of invincibility. We make ourselves feel normal by assuming that, in fact, no one is. (this is similar to the argument made in "The Incredibles." If everyone is "special," then no one is). We're told that any little character flaw reveals our deeply held neurosis - that we can't even recognize our issues because we've become so blinded by our pain or bottled it up so tight. The strength of this arument is that it is impossible to escape. Once it is proferred, any denials only reinforce its truth! It's the Salem Witch Trial argument in a modern form.

So on Pearl Harbor Day, take a minute and remember the real tragedies we experience. The brave men and women at Pearl Harbor that not only survived, but in many cases became heros, and I bet most of them made it through without large doses of Paxil or years in a counselors chair.
Grace & Peace