Read an ExcerptTodos Somos Normales Hasta Que Nos Conocen / Everybody's Normal Till You Get to Know Them
By John Ortberg Editorial Vida
Copyright © 2004 John Ortberg
All right reserved.
To make a start where we are, we must recognize that our
world is not normal, but only usual at present.
Community is the place where the person you least want to
live with always lives.
In certain stores you will find a section of merchandise available at greatly reduced prices. The tip-off is a particular tag you will see on all the items in that area. Each tag carries the same words: as is.
This is a euphemistic way of saying, "These are damaged goods." Sometimes they're called slightly irregular. The store is issuing you fair warning: "This is the department of Something's-Gone-Wrong. You're going to find a flaw here: a stain that won't come out; a zipper that won't zip; a button that won't butt-there will be a problem. These items are not normal.
"We're not going to tell you where the flaw is. You'll have to look for it.
"But we know it's there. So when you find it-andyou will find it-don't come whining and sniveling to us. Because there is a fundamental rule when dealing with merchandise in this corner of the store: No returns. No refunds. No exchanges. If you were looking for perfection, you walked down the wrong aisle. You have received fair warning. If you want this item, there is only one way to obtain it. You must take it as is."
When you deal with human beings, you have come to the "as-is" corner of the universe. Think for a moment about someone in your life. Maybe the person you know best, love most. That person is slightly irregular.
That person comes with a little tag: There's a flaw here. A streak of deception, a cruel tongue, a passive spirit, an out-of-control temper. I'm not going to tell you where it is, but it's there. So when you find it-and you will find it-don't be surprised. If you want to enter a relationship with this model, there is only one way. "As is."
If you were looking for perfection, you've walked down the wrong aisle.
We are tempted to live under the illusion that somewhere out there are people who are normal. In the movie As Good As It Gets, Helen Hunt is wracked by ambivalence toward Jack Nicholson. He is kind and generous to her and her sick son, but he is also agoraphobic, obsessive-compulsive, and terminally offensive: If rudeness were measured in square miles, he'd be Texas. In desperation, Helen finally cries to her mother: I just want a normal boyfriend.
Oh, her mother responds in empathy, everybody wants one of those. There's no such thing, dear.
When we enter relationships with the illusion that people are normal, we resist the truth that they are not. We enter an endless attempt to fix them, control them, or pretend that they are what they're not. One of the great marks of maturity is to accept the fact that everybody comes "as is."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said people enter relationships with their own particular ideals and dreams of what community should look like. He wrote surprising words:
But God's grace quickly frustrates all such dreams. A great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves, is bound to overwhelm us as surely as God desires to lead us to an understanding of genuine Christian community.... The sooner this moment of disillusionment comes over the individual and the community, the better for both.... Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.
Of course, the most painful part of this is realizing that I am in the "as-is" department as well. Throughout history human beings have resisted owning up to that little tag. We try to separate the world into normal, healthy people (like us) and difficult people. Sometime ago the title of a magazine article caught my eye: "Totally Normal Women Who Stalk Their Ex-Boyfriends."
The phrase that struck me was "totally normal women." What would one of these look like (or a totally normal man, for that matter)? And if the obsessive stalking of a past lover is not just normal but totally normal, how far would you have to go to be a little strange?
We all want to look normal, to think of ourselves as normal, but the writers of Scripture insist that no one is "totally normal"-at least not as God defines normal. "All we like sheep have gone astray," they tell us. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."
This explains a very important aspect of the opening pages of Scripture.
One of the most ironic remarks about the Bible I hear from time to time is when someone says that it's a book about pious, stained-glass characters who do not reflect the real world.
I always know that means they haven't read it. Have you ever noticed how many messed-up families there are in Genesis?
Here's a quick summary:
Cain is jealous of Abel and kills him. Lamech introduces polygamy to the world. Noah-the most righteous man of his generation-gets drunk and curses his own grandson.
Lot, when his home is surrounded by residents of Sodom who want to violate his visitors, offers instead that they can have sex with his daughters. Later on, his daughters get him drunk and get impregnated by him-and Lot is the most righteous man in Sodom!
Abraham plays favorites between his sons Isaac and Ishmael; they're estranged.
Isaac plays favorites between his sons Jacob and Esau; they're bitter enemies for twenty years. Jacob plays favorites between Joseph and his other eleven sons; the brothers want to kill Joseph and end up selling him into slavery.
Their marriages are disasters:
Abraham has sex with his wife's servant, then sends her and their son off to the wilderness at his wife's request. Isaac and Rebekah fight over which boy gets the blessing. Jacob marries two wives and ends up with both of their maids as his concubines as well when they get into a fertility contest.
Jacob's firstborn son, Reuben, sleeps with his father's concubine.
Another son, Judah, sleeps with his daughter-in-law when she disguises herself as a prostitute. She does this because she is childless since her first two husbands-both sons of Judah-were so wicked that God killed them both; and Judah reneged on his obligations to her.
These people need a therapist.
These are not the Waltons. They need Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura, Dr. Ruth, Dr. Spock, Dr. Seuss-they need somebody. (Feel any better about your family?)
Why does the writer of Genesis include all this stuff?
There's a very important reason. The writer of Scripture is trying to establish a deep theological truth: Everybody's weird.
Every one of us-all we like sheep-have habits we can't control, past deeds we can't undo, flaws we can't correct. This is the cast of characters God has to work with. In the way that glass is predisposed to shatter and nitroglycerin is predisposed to explode, we are predisposed to do wrong when conditions are right. That predisposition is what theologians call "depravity." We lie and sacrifice integrity for the sake of a few dollars ("I don't understand, Officer-my speedometer must be broken"). We gossip for the sake of a few moments' feeling of superiority. We try to create false impressions of productivity at work to advance more rapidly. (A new software package allows you to surf the net at work, then with one click switch to a fake screen that makes it look as if you're working on a project; it's called "boss screen.") We seek to intimidate employees or children to gain control, or simply to enjoy the feeling of power.
Everybody's weird. This is such a fundamental insight, you may want to close the book for a moment and share this thought with the person closest to you. Or the person it most reminds you of. Or perhaps these are the same person.
Because we know in our hearts that this is not the way we're supposed to be, we try to hide our weirdness. Every one of us pretends to be healthier and kinder than we really are; we all engage in what might be called "depravity management."
Every once in a while somebody's "as-is" tag becomes high profile. A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian is guilty of plagiarism; a politician's career explodes in sexual scandal; a powerful CEO resigns in disgrace over illegal document shredding. What's surprising is not that such things happen; it's that the general public response is, "Can you believe it? And they seemed so normal." As if you and I, of course, would be incapable of such behavior.
The problem with the human race is not that we have just a few bad apples in our midst. Writers in the field known as abnormal psychology work hard to distinguish the abnormal from the normal among us. One of the dangers in studying the topic, sometimes called the "intern syndrome," is that students start to see themselves in every diagnosis. "There is almost no one who has not harbored secret doubts about his or her normality," a recent textbook says. But writers in Scripture say that when it comes to the most important form of pathology, we are all in the same diagnostic category: "All we like sheep have gone astray...." From a spiritual perspective, our "secret doubts about our normality" have something important to tell us. As Neil Plantinga puts it, "In a biblical view of the world, sin is a familiar, even predictable part of life, but it is not normal. And the fact that 'everybody does it' doesn't make it normal."
From the time of Adam in the Garden of Eden, sin and hiding have been as inevitable as death and taxes. Some people are pretty good at hiding. But the weirdness is still there. Get close enough to anyone, and you will see it. Everybody's normal till you get to know them.
The Longing to Connect
And yet ...
The yearning to attach and connect, to love and be loved, is the fiercest longing of the soul. Our need for community with people and the God who made us is to the human spirit what food and air and water are to the human body. That need will not go away even in the face of all the weirdness. It marks us from the nursery to the convalescent home. An infant lifts up her face hopefully, she holds out two stubby little arms in her desire to be held, she beams a smile of delight when she is picked up and rocked-what heart can keep from melting?
At the other end of the spectrum, the widowed father of a man I know falls in love with a woman at his church. He proposes, she accepts. They walk down the aisle. He is eighty-four, a retired doctor; she is eighty-one, a retired missionary. It is her first marriage. She kissed dating good-bye during the Truman administration. You would think she might have given up on the whole marriage deal by now; yet she finds not only Mr. Right, but Dr. Right. They throw off the age curve of the Newly Married class by six decades.
As frustrating as people can be, it's hard to find a good substitute. A friend of mine was ordering breakfast during a recent trip in the South. He saw grits on the menu, and being a Dutchman who spent most of his life in Michigan, he had never been very clear on the nature of this item. So he asked the waitress, "What exactly is a grit?"
Her response was a classic. "Honey," she said (in the South, waitresses are required by law to address all customers as "honey"), "Honey, they don't come by themselves."
Grits don't exist in isolation. No grit is an island, entire unto itself. Every grit is a part of the mainland, a piece of the whole. You can't order a single grit. They're a package deal.
"Call it a clan, call it a tribe, call it a network, call it a family," says Jane Howard. "Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one." It is not good for man to be alone. Dallas Willard says, "The natural condition of life for human beings is reciprocal rootedness in others." Honey, you don't come by yourself.
Edward Hallowell, a senior lecturer at Harvard Medical School, speaks of the basic human need for community. He uses the term connection: the sense of being part of something that matters, something larger than ourselves. We need face-to-face interactions; we need to be seen and known and served and do these same things for others. We need to bind ourselves to each other with promises of love and loyalty made and kept. These connections involve other people, of course (and especially God); but Hallowell observes that people draw life even from connecting to pets, to music, or to nature.
There is a reason for this. Neil Plantinga notes that the Hebrew prophets had a word for just this kind of connectedness of all things: shalom-"the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight." Try to imagine, the old prophets told people then, and tell us still, what such a state of affairs would look like.
In a world where shalom prevailed, all marriages would be healthy and all children would be safe. Those who have too much would give to those who have too little. Israeli and Palestinian children would play together on the West Bank; their parents would build homes for one another. In offices and corporate boardrooms, executives would secretly scheme to help their colleagues succeed; they would compliment them behind their backs. Tabloids would be filled with accounts of courage and moral beauty. Talk shows would feature mothers and daughters who love each other deeply, wives who give birth to their husbands' children, and men who secretly enjoy dressing as men.
Disagreements would be settled with grace and civility. There would still be lawyers, perhaps, but they would have really useful jobs like delivering pizza, which would be non-fat and low in cholesterol. Doors would have no locks; cars would have no alarms. Schools would no longer need police presence or even hall monitors; students and teachers and janitors would honor and value one another's work. At recess, every kid would get picked for a team.
Churches would never split.
People would be neither bored nor hurried. No father would ever again say, "I'm too busy," to a disappointed child. Our national sleep deficit would be paid off. Starbucks would still exist but would sell only decaf.
Divorce courts and battered-women shelters would be turned into community recreation centers.
Excerpted from Todos Somos Normales Hasta Que Nos Conocen / Everybody's Normal Till You Get to Know Them by John Ortberg Copyright © 2004 by John Ortberg. Excerpted by permission.
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