Relative Normality – How my idea of normal changed completely
What is normal? How do you know? Even identifying normality as a simple question of numbers is fraught with problems in practical terms, because we don’t know everyone and generally associate with people who are similar to us. For most people, normality is all about the people they spend most of their time with.
There was a time when I thought church was a boring, ritualised affair, carried out in a big stone building with horribly uncomfortable pews. To me, that seemed normal, because it was what I grew up with. It never occurred to me that there was anything strange about lots of people sitting on cold, hard benches, mumbling the same almost incomprehensible words week after week, before eating a tiny, dry wafer and having a small sip of nasty fortified wine.
My sense of normality was only really challenged when I got involved with a different tradition at university. There were no robes. The music was entirely alien to me, modern (after a fashion), and played on guitars – even more extraordinary, people got excited, jumping up and down and waving their hands in the air! And all these people spoke with total confidence about God, as if they knew Him intimately, a far cry from the foggy academic notions I was used to.
It all seemed very odd and definitely Not My Thing, but as I hung around I got used to it, and the abnormal became normal. Over time, I got used to the strange habits. I learnt to pray in groups, something I’d never previously encountered; I began to understand the pattern of meetings, and to know what to expect; most importantly, I picked up a lot of jargon and habits of speech that helped me to fit in – it’s a strange fact of life that what you say in evangelical circles is often less important than how you say it.
Having come to see all this as normal, I naturally started to view other things as abnormal, or at least less normal than my newly formed standard for comparison. I didn’t suddenly conclude that the entirety of my previous experience was just a bizarre outlier, but my frame of reference had shifted dramatically. On top of this, general opinion in this environment could be quite negative about churches that had different approaches (not to mention the rest of the world), which coloured my views.
I started to see my “previous normality” not as a part of my life, but almost something to be ashamed of. It had apparently kept me from discovering what I now saw as normal and healthy, which seemed like sufficient reason to criticise, if not actively oppose it. A convert’s zeal works both ways – not only have you discovered something new and uniquely wonderful (or so it seems), but it casts your previous views in a bad light, as a distraction or even an obstacle in the way of this important understanding.
What seems so incredible in hindsight is how quickly all this changed. My expectations completely altered in the space of two or three months, to the point where my idea of normal was something that had been effectively unknown to me before that time, affecting my beliefs, practices and cultural expectations. Even other people who didn’t know my background noticed the rapid change, and that was all coming from a single meeting a week and relatively similar beliefs.
It’s become commonplace after shocking ideologically-motivated attacks to hear people giving their opinion of a friend, relative or colleague based on knowing them several years before, but any surprise they express counts for very little. Put anyone in the right environment, especially a highly insular one, and if they don’t move on quickly they’ll change very fast to fit in with the norm. They’ll also usually start to strongly oppose the very things they used to think and do.
We can imagine someone coming to believe something new, but rejecting old beliefs often confuses us, even though it’s all part of the same picture. Contrary to our instincts, we drop existing beliefs just as easily as we pick up new ones. Very often, we don’t even see it as a big deal or consider how others will feel about it. It’s just a natural consequence of those new beliefs.