Susan's Blog

Friday, May 16, 2014

What, Exactly, Is Normal?

I just now drove down into the busy part of town and while I was stopped at a light I saw a man standing alone, smiling. I looked back at the red light and then quickly back again at the man. Sure enough, he was smiling still, the same full-on toothy genuine kind. I gave him another nanosecond, glanced again. Yep, still. I concluded that he was autistic. To back up my conclusion: he was swinging his body slightly. He tilted his head back, and the sudden breeze touched his hair as it breathed through the leaves overhead. He rolled his head downwards, still smiling.

A velvety pain spread through my chest, but I wasn’t sad. The closest I can come to naming this was a kind of exquisite tenderness, a protective small love, almost. Stay happy, Autistic Man. Sweet soul.

The light changed and I moved slowly, back to the small sharp sparks of driving in traffic. I thought about the man, and how purely joyful he seemed and then I wondered with a tinny pang if I was being patronizing. I know that I’m at least bumping right up against that line, assuming anything at all about him. But I don’t think so. If a broad continuous smile and enjoyment of a breeze doesn’t mean happiness I don’t know what is. Am I to assume that just because he’s autistic — and of course there’s the possibility he is not — that the smile could be anything? A sensory grimace? A meaningless arrangement of facial muscles upward? No. We humans have the power of observation mixed with intelligence and experience, and so we get to draw certain conclusions.

His easy happiness made me think about his difference. He — along with so many others who have developmental disabilities — just did what he wanted. Which is exactly what is “wrong” with him. In our society, normal means subtlety. Normal means taking an average of the population’s actions and expressions and going with that, rather than the astounding burst of unique feeling you may have inside. This guy was letting his insides show. Even though his inner joy was harmless and probably innocent, it is still socially incorrect to show it, unless the social average does that. No harm done, of course, in this case people were just walking on by. Good that they weren’t being pills about him; bad that they weren’t touched by him.

I got to thinking about how people sometimes assume that those with Down Syndrome, for example, are happier than most, and that that is the special gift they give us. “I don’t know, they just seem to love people more, they just see the goodness in them,” is what some might think. But I don’t agree with this assumption, however, because we don’t know if a given person is happier than we are. But I do think that we can look at another person and conclude that he is showing his happiness more blatantly than most.

To me, it is that ease the autistic man had with his happiness that was the gift. It was the fact that he may not have even known that you’re supposed to reign it in a little or risk judgement.  Or he was simply unable to act any different. Or that he was consciously acting different. Any one of those possibilities is a gift to me because I have a real difficulty sliding into my most natural self. I am hyper-aware of others, it’s how I was raised. I may seem to be ultra compassionate and perhaps socially sophisticated, and okay I probably am. But one thing I can’t do very well is just stand there grinning my head off in front of a bunch of strangers. If I enjoy a breeze, I am conscious of enjoying the breeze and that it is, in that instance, okay to shut my eyes and smile. Maybe laugh briefly. But it has to end soon, or I’m a little weird.

(It’s only on my bike or with Ned that I’m the most me, where I can just laugh or sing without thinking.)

The way this man stirred my heart and made me think, and feel, in an otherwise ordinary boring crawl through traffic is special. I hope he never learns to be any other way.



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