It’s my senior year of high school. Like always, I’m the last one off the basketball court after practice, heading for the showers. Coach Arney, these last four years my mentor in this game I love, is leaning against the wall by the door, eyeing my approach. He says out loud, almost as an afterthought, like giving voice to a daydream, “Kalas, you run like your feet always hurt you.”
What? I’m confused. Like, as if he had said, “Kalas, I notice that you inhale and exhale.” My feet do always hurt me. I thought all basketball players’ feet always hurt them.
One doctor visit later: I have a diagnosis of Morton’s syndrome. It’s a congenital anomaly wherein the first metatarsal is shorter than the second, whereas in a normal foot it’s longer. It throws your gait to the outside of the foot, and basically grinds the bones in your feet to pieces. The X-ray revealed a hairline fracture and snowflakes of bone fragments. Yikes.
The moral of the story? Human beings have a seemingly endless penchant for normalizing that which is in no way normal. Not even close to normal.
I think of the celebrity therapist Dr. Phil. He has a “signature line” with people. They talk. And talk and talk. Phil listens. And, when the subject is done talking, Phil leans forward with all sincerity and friendliness. You have to pay attention to catch the irony. Phil says, “How’s that working out for you?”
And that’s exactly the mystery — that human beings can work a plan over and over, even for years and years, that has never worked for them. Not once has it worked. But they are still working the plan! They have normalized futility, and the resentment to which they feel entitled because the plan isn’t working.
Now, when I say “human beings,” let me clarify that my critical inquiry is reserved for adults. Children are innocent, and have no choice but to normalize their lives. If your parents are incompetent, mean or evil, then part of the way you survive is to normalize it. That’s how parents are. That’s how life is.
Adults are a different story.
Take vocation, for example. It’s amazing the number of people who have normalized meaninglessness, boredom and mediocrity at work. “Back to the grind,” these people say. But I say it’s in no way normal for vocation to be forever and always a grind. Hard? Rigorous? Challenging? Of course! But, a grind? That’s up to you and you alone.
Take marriage, for example. It astonishes me the way couples normalize not talking. Not having sex. Not sharing their hearts. And, conversely, normalizing bitterness and criticism and complaining. There’s an ol’ real estate joke: “The only thing holding this house together is the termites holding hands!” Well, the only thing holding some marriages together is the contempt holding hands! (Don’t laugh. Contempt is a powerful bonding agent.)
Take raising adolescents, for example. Drops my jaw to see parents normalizing drug use, drinking, bringing the girlfriend/boyfriend back to the house for sex, tolerating physical threats, degrading verbal assaults and damage to property. There’s nothing normal about being held hostage in your own house by a gangsta, punk teenager.
And take misery itself, for example. No one is more miserable than the one who does not yet know he/she is miserable. Which is to say, the one who has normalized misery.
One good use of therapy is to open a door — long sealed shut — to examine what we have normalized. And then to ask the question, “Is that, in fact, normal?” And if the answer is “no,” then, voila, we have more choices for healthier and happier living.
The wife weeps and complains about the husband’s profaning her with vile words. He begins to explain and defend himself. She ratchets up her protest. He escalates. And I interrupt. (I’m the most interrupting therapist I know.)
“Whoa, whoa, everybody,” I say and turn to him. “Do you respect the man who calls his beloved a (expletive deleted)?”
He looks stunned. Wide-eyed. Chews his lower lip for a bit. “No,” he says quietly, looking at the floor. “So, why not start there,” I say. “I mean, I’m pretty clear about your wife’s opinion of this behavior. Sounds to me like you’re not a big fan of this behavior, either.”
See, there’s nothing normal about using words to profane, degrade and humiliate the people you purport to love. Nothing normal at all.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at skalas@ reviewjournal.com.