Normal... it's just a six letter word, average, common and ordinary. It's hard to believe how much power it can have.
Take Jim, for instance. He has allowed that little word to rule his life, he has gone so far as to attempt to renounce his gifts on its behalf. I've been thinking about it for a couple of days now and sometimes I wonder if he can see the irony in his father's words... somehow I don't think so.
I know I don't have anywhere near enough information to pass judgment but some of the things he's said do strike me as odd. From what Jim told me, average just wasn't an option in the Ellison household. The norm was something to be scorned, he was expected to be well above it in everything he did, he was expected to perform flawlessly, to excel no matter what and mistakes were most definitely not allowed... did his father consider those demands to be 'normal'? Did he leave any room at all for his sons' humanity to shine through? Did he understand the difference between a human being --and a child at that-- and a machine? I seriously doubt it... and yet having a wonderful natural talent was enough for the man to label his son as a freak, it was enough for him to see him as abnormal. Whether I like it or not Jim comes from a world in which effort was to be rewarded but talent was something to be thwarted.
From what I can see William Ellison sought to program his sons --as too many parents do-- to conform with certain specified guidelines, to meet a very narrow definition of success, and sentinel genes certainly didn't fit into that equation. His attitude was one I saw countless times as I was growing up, in which too many parents seemed to be always disappointed at the thought that their children were not who they had dreamed they would be. It was like their children's talents and shortcomings were not where their parents expected them to be and they couldn't quite get over that fact... they couldn't accept that their own children were in fact individuals. They kept pushing them relentlessly to be who they wanted them to be rather than who they were. It is an attitude that's never quite made sense to me.
Many things can be said about Naomi's parenting style, but never that she pushed me too hard to do more than I could do, to be someone other than who I was... if anything I pushed myself. I was lucky enough to have a mother who placed my happiness above my grades, who understood that being normal didn't have to mean being the best, that an 'A' didn't necessarily mean success, that there were other things that were so much more important than that... Jim was not so lucky.
In his world his own happiness was deemed to be irrelevant from the time he was a small child. His happiness, his present, were seen as things to be sacrificed on behalf of a future success, to be traded for a better life in an ever distant future. It is sad to see that that's such a prevalent view in our society, in our own hyper-competitive world. It is one belief that unfortunately too many never quite manage to escape. People keep living for tomorrow rather than today and end up regretting all their missed opportunities because no matter how long they wait, tomorrow never comes and before they know it they are looking back at a long string of yesterdays... and all the reminders of the things they never got to do because they were too busy planning for the future. That's what's 'normal', that's what's expected.
Sometimes I wonder what would some of those 'primitive' tribes I've studied in my expeditions think of us. If they were to observe the way in which we live, as we insist on observing them, what conclusions would they draw? The truth is that I don't know, but I suspect they would be far from flattering.
I think that's the problem with Jim, 'normal' is a concept he's never quite been able to understand. He craves a sense of normalcy without realizing that there really is no such thing as 'normal'... he doesn't get that normal is --for the most part-- nothing but an arbitrary cultural convention defined by a society's own arbitrary rules. 'Normal' is a concept that changes even within our lifetimes and yet we refuse to acknowledge that fact.
In fact I don't think Jim even realizes that that's likely to be one of the key reasons why he was happiest among the Chopec, where the definition of normal was different and for the first time in his life it was a definition that allowed him to be accepted for who he was.
Of course, it's not just Jim. The whole thing with the definition of 'what is normal' is fascinating. To see it shift, take on different forms even in the course of a single lifespan is extremely interesting... and from a historical perspective it can be downright fascinating.
There are plenty of examples of that, but perhaps the most telling in recent times has to do with women. What is a normal woman's life in the late twentieth century has nothing to do with what it was in the late nineteenth century, but that is not the only example of that phenomenon. In fact a far more interesting one is the one that is to be found in the problems that seem to plague youth today. Few people seem to realize that it is a situation that can be traced to a notable shift in what we perceive to be the normal life patterns in which society has vastly out paced evolution... it is a shift that can often be seen in rites of passage that are a remnant of a time and lifestyle that are long gone.
Take a bar mitzvah, for instance. It is a ritual that is supposed to signal the end of childhood, and yet it takes place at the tender age of thirteen. That may have made sense in biblical times but that is no longer the case. A couple of thousand years ago the onset of adulthood coincided with the onset of puberty. One hundred years ago, adulthood began --for the most part-- around the age of sixteen. Nowadays it is not unusual for the formative years to extend well into the twenties, maybe even into the early thirties, due to the amount of knowledge young people are expected to accumulate if they want to stand a chance to be 'successful' in our modern world. From a rational perspective it does make sense, the only problem is that the biological imperative that urges children to distance themselves from their parents hasn't moved, it remains stubbornly set around the age of fourteen or fifteen years old and that forced coexistence between parents and their offspring well past that point has a natural tendency to cause a growing sense of friction. That is also why it is a problem that is almost exclusive to our 'modern' and 'civilized' society.
In that sense I guess it is possible to say that we've gotten to a point where we are so far removed from our own biological roots that what we deem as 'normal' is in fact totally unnatural... and yet something as natural as a sentinel cannot possibly fit into our definition of what is acceptable.
To this day Jim is still deeply troubled by that concept, by the fact that he does not see himself as a regular guy. It is telling that --in spite of all of his ridiculous mind-games involving his children-- the most hurtful thing William Ellison ever said to his son was to call him a 'freak'. That is something that even after all these years is still hanging over his head, something he can't quite escape.
It is also interesting to see how Jim abhors what he craves. He wants to be normal but he also wants to be the best. He has a competitive streak a mile wide but he sees nothing wrong with that, he doesn't see it as interfering with his desire to be normal, yet his senses are an entirely different story. Those he has trouble accepting. He wants to be the best he can be but in order to do that he's going to have to learn to feel comfortable in his own skin... and that's something he'll never accomplish unless he can learn to let go of his father's words.
After all, 'normal' is just an ordinary six letter word.