Existential Angst — 55 and Still Not “Normal”?

“Let’s face it. You’re not exactly normal…” Vicki Vale …. “It’s not exactly a normal world, is it?…” Bruce Wayne/Batman

” Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by it’s ability to climb a tree, it will live it’s whole life believing it is stupid”. — attributed to Albert Einstein.

I have been preparing mentally to write a blog about what it was like to be 55 for awhile now, but as I thought about it, as I measured my life, combined with some other things, I became depressed, and burnt out and angry for reasons that seemed stupid. This morning, after a lengthy vacation and in conversation with my younger daughter, I have finally figured our what was going on. Mentally, I had brought a knife to a gun fight and couldn’t figure out why I lost all the time.

It started like this: As I watched Rev. Jeff Brown’s work and the depth of it, I felt like I wasn’t doing my best work, somehow. I was jealous — not of Jeff or his job — but of something else. He had made something of himself and I… hadn’t? My friend Todd Farnsworth, a pastor nearby, is incredibly successful, it seems to me, but not necessarily in “bringing thousands to Christ” or “making a bazillion dollars”, but in something else that I was supposed to be. I wasn’t sure what that was, but … I wasn’t it, or hadn’t become it… whatever it was.

As one who suffers with depression, I knew that it made no rational sense. I was successful at the things I wanted to be. I have a thriving therapy practice a good, long marriage and two incredible children who seem to prove I know something about parenting. People say I write well. I certainly write a lot. By any measure that I could come up with, I was successful. Work was hard, but rationally,  I was “successful”.

I began to think about “making a difference in the world” and whether I had done that, and I thought about my friend Pat Spear who had urged me not to go into psychology because I could on;y change one life at a time, and that mental health was directly related to the conditions people live in. I could help more people by being a leader of people than I could by myself. I haven’t actually led anybody in years. I had causes that were dear to me, but couldn’t get followers for the life of me. I wasn’t in a parish. Did I now want to go back into the parish? Maybe, just to see what it was like. I have been blessed suddenly with parish preaching and ministry duties for the entire summer, so there was something there, but I still felt like I had done absolutely nothing with my life. I had lots and lots of friends, people who treasured me, but I still was a failure? To whom, you might ask? The answer was me.

Burnout came on, and I needed rest. 12 days of time with no real schedule, no burning questions, no saving people’s lives or sanity, just time with my family made a major change within me. Still, I wasn’t settled. “I mustn’t be asking the right question”, I thought. God was still talking to me, so it wasn’t that… What?

Last night, as we were nearing home, my daughter got into a discussion with the family about what she was going to wear to school the first day of freshman year. People suggested to her that, though she was an incredible person, she should dress “normally” to fit in, rather than as the “nerd” or “geek” or “fan girl of Harry Potter” that she sees herself as — at least for a day. Given that teenagers “try on” identities as part of their development, it didn’t bother me, but neither my wife nor I wanted her to have problems with her peers. Been there. Done that.

But that’s not what my daughter was saying. She didn’t care if she fit in. She didn’t care if she wasn’t popular, She didn’t care if she was “normal”. She didn’t want people to think she was normal. She was answering a different question than we were asking. This morning, it hit me that that was the issue. I was trying to be “normal” when I wasn’t. I didn’t used to care about being normal, or what other people thought about me, like my daughter. Then I did. Now, all these years later, I find that that’s not enough for me.

As far as I can tell, a “normal” person couldn’t hear what I hear every day in the office and survive. A normal person shouldn’t have to. Jeff’s work that impressed me wasn’t “normal” parish work. Todd’s parish work — joyous and loving and wonderful — wasn’t “normal”, if by that you mean “average”. It was better than that. The work I myself did in Bridgeport with the Black community wasn’t considered “normal” by anyone, including me. It was faithful, though. Most people agreed on that.

There were people who told me then that I shouldn’t do it — that it wasn’t proper — because it wasn’t my work, and that I would undercut the community’s sense of itself. Because I didn’t care what other people thought of me, and because I knew my motives, I did it anyway. Because I did, I have been blessed with friendships beyond my wildest imagination (and I don’t think I’ve undercut anyone — if I have, let me know, please). I’m not sure, but I don’t think I did “normal” youth work, simply because I did youth work. When my seminary colleagues found it beneath them, I found it thrilling. They went on to great careers, doing great things in churches, I’m sure.

What my daughter doesn’t get, and I didn’t for a long while, is that there’s nothing wrong with being “average” or “normal”. It works for most people. Statistically, that’s why it’s “normal” or average. Gravity applies to all of us. There are only 24 hours in a day for all of us. We all make mistakes, most of them minor.  Normal life works for most people. Those parts work for everyone. What actually is, in the present, works for all of us best if we don’t fight it.

But if you want better, if you want the future to have new things, if you see things that others don’t even see as a possibility, if you can’t do anything else but be creative, then “normal” is not going to work for you.  If you need things to be better than they are, for whatever reasons, then normal’s not going to do it.  If life has made you “odd”, then  some of normal is going to be helpful, but worrying about if your clothes match or if you’re allowed to care for someone seems like a colossal waste of time.

I have confused helpful “reality’ with “the real world”/”the way it’s supposed to be” for years, and I have had “help” getting into all of those boxes — the litmus tests, the advertisements, the shame, the “standards”, the books of etiquette and politeness, “the way things have always been” are presented every day by the world. For the times I have chosen to get into them, or agreed to go into them, I have slowly diminished my soul, diminished myself. If my life were average, that might be enough. If I wanted my life to be average, that might be enough. I actually believe God calls most of us to be unworried, okay with “normal”, and happy.  God called others of us to be creative, hopeful, joyous, silly, frivolous, experimental and I’m okay with that. If you’re not, I’m also okay with that. But know that it doesn’t work for me — and it hurts my soul when you try.




2 thoughts on “Existential Angst — 55 and Still Not “Normal”?

  1. Actually John you are wrong. (Sorry, but I had to lead with that!) Today is not 24 hours for all of us. It’s 24 hours and one second.

    And I get belligerent with people who talk about any human as “normal” or “abnormal”. There is no such thing as a normal person. Have you ever met one? Think about it for a minute. And if you have, I’d like to meet this person.

    1. Bob: I know people who talk about normal/right (i.e. like them) and abnormal/wrong (i.e. not like them) all the time. I have to remember that 1) It’s not helpful to cast the question that way and 2) if there’s a “normal”, they are not the arbitrators of it.

      I’m just trying to process it all without getting tired in this piece. Thanks for the reminder.



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