There is no dearth of perspectives when it comes to trying to define what might be considered normal.
“Normal” is a multivariate concept and has been defined in a number of ways.
There is the individual concept of normal – we believe that what we do by and for ourselves is normal for us.
There is the conformity sense of what is normal – where our actions, thoughts, and feelings match those of the immediate society around us and are thereby considered average, typical, or normal.
Finally, there is the normative or statistical concept of normal where all of the behaviors of people are ranked on a statistical curve and those that fall within a certain range, perhaps as much as two standard deviations of the mean, are considered to be normal while those beyond those points, either above or below that range, are not.
People may fit these three criteria, along with several others that form the multi-dimensional concept for normal, and still delude themselves and others into thinking that they are healthy while they are clearly not – because healthy and normal are not necessarily the same.
This can happen, for example, when we place our own drive for self-esteem or self-worth above those of everyone else.
I chose self-worth as an example because it has an interesting history of research over the last two or three decades. And after all these years of study and attempts to train insecure people to value themselves, it turns out that while viewing yourself as a valuable member of society is important, self-worth is not worth all that much in terms of success in the world at large.
To be successful requires understanding not just your inner feelings but reacting to the facts of the outside world and finding a better, more effective manner to fit in. To achieve that one must have a greater sense of what is normative and normal.
Too much self-worth may be a sign of pathology. Too much ego can make someone a narcissist. Therefore, what is significantly more important than self-worth is self-control.
Self-control, however, can be both a positive and a negative factor in creating a sense of normalcy. To be healthy, self-control must be coupled with avoidance of extreme thoughts. The conformity definition of normal indicates that extremism, be it in ideas, politics, or day-to-day behavior, is not normative at all. You cannot be normal even if you have self-control when you use that control at the farther margins of normative ideas and behaviors.
Hitler, for example, exhibited tremendous self-control but his ideas functioned at extremist levels. But Hitler was so beyond the norm that he can be cited only as a radical example of pathology. There are more subtle ones in our daily lives. Because they are either distant from our daily existence or so common, we overlook them or diminish their importance.
And who can blame us? We cannot go through life with a slew of extremist worries constantly eating away at us. But they exist and we must be vigilant in dealing with some of them. If we’re not, we leave an opening for those who may appear normal but who possess extreme tendencies. Any opening can give these extremists entrée to sow their pathology.
We all believe that ISIS, considered an extremist religious and social organization by all but those who conform to its thoughts and beliefs, is clearly dangerous and beyond the fringe of acceptable normal. Its members are so extreme that we can offer no rationalization for their doctrines. Yet the radical regime of Iran, which has at its core the same ideology as that of ISIS – to develop a caliphate and sponsor the terror and destruction needed to make it happen – is seen as less of a threat.
True, Iran operates as a state while ISIS at the moment is only attempting to. Also true, it is predominantly the Iranian leadership that is bent on world dominance, not necessarily the greater population. Still, aside from Sunni versus Shia religious differences, the political goals and personality styles of the leaderships of ISIS and Iran are very similar.
In pursuing any kind of deal with Iranian leaders, treating them in a normal manner will not work if they do not follow a normative perspective.
So the question is, how do we engage with those who are beyond normal?
If we are true to the ideals of healthy and normal behavior and remain determined, fair, grounded, and considerate, with strong direction from above, we will always overcome the pathological.