Captives of Normalcy (Part 1)

Self-Portrait withs Masks, James Ensor

Dear Readers,

The following is the first of a 4-part excerpt from Chapter 1 of Sacred Selfishness, Captives of Normalcy.


Captives of Normalcy

For certain societies that people today like to call primitive, the dominating trait of life was not the economy–that is even true of the Middle Ages–but rather man’s development.

–Erich Fromm


Whatever happiness is, it seems to wear many masks, and we have no objective way to tell whether we are happy or not. A few years ago this basic dilemma was captured in a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. Calvin and his stuffed tiger and imaginary friend, Hobbes, were playing outdoors on a sunny day. Suddenly Calvin realized that it was late in the weekend and his free time was running out. As his awareness grew, his panic increased until in desperation he exclaimed, “Each moment I should be able to say, ‘I’m having the time of my life, right now! Valuable minutes are disappearing forever, even as we speak! We’ve got to have more fun!'”

Lying serenely in their wagon, Hobbes ironically replied, “I didn’t realize fun was so much work.”

Calvin’s creator Bill Waterson captured exactly how happiness has become an inaccessible experience for most of us. One of the most unconscious, and yet constant, of our ongoing activities is the pursuit of happiness. And, just when we think we’ve found it, it escapes us. Like an obsession-driven lover we discover that once our conquest is won, joy and satisfaction disappear and the fulfillment we hoped for remains an empty promise. The new car we were so thrilled over, or the boat, motorcycle, RV, appliance, or the expensive new outfit, frequently become boring or forgotten about before they’re even paid for. We have become prisoners of advertising’s messages that relentlessly define and redefine how we should look, what clothes we should wear, what color hair we should have, and what cosmetics we should use in order for us to be admired and envied, in order to be happy. We are bombarded with images of affluent, young, slender women and muscular men to make us think that everything from the right underwear to the newest diet will make us attractive and lead us to love, success, and happiness. Movies, TV shows, and advertisements focus on youth, comfort, and having fun, and would have us believe pleasure and contentment lie in the products we purchase.

Ironically, we have built a society that uses our desire for happiness to fuel an economy based on continued dissatisfaction. The harder we try to find happiness and fail to do so, the more frustrated we become and the more we consume. How do we find happiness? we ask ourselves. Why is it that we think everyone else knows the answer, but it continually eludes us?

When we talk about ourselves we are usually, or often, talking about ourselves in connection to others. This is only human and here, too, any product that has to do with relationships seems to have a market. Relationships, the term that really covers our longing to be known and loved and to know and love, are one of our most vulnerable areas. When it comes to relationships we are filled with hope and cynicism. The dilemmas we are experiencing in this area remind me of a comment Prince Charles made when questioned about love by a reporter around the time of his fairy-tale engagement to Princess Diana. Instead of answering the question he quipped, “Whatever love is.” This appalling remark reflects the cynicism beneath our hope. But even cynicism and failure can fuel a market. We have over sixty thousand books in print advising us how to make our relationships successful, overcome their problems, and survive their failures.

A woman who had been married for sixteen years came in to see me for an initial visit. She sat down and said, “I’m tired of struggling. I just want to be normal and happy!” As she finished her statement she was quietly weeping. Lisa was attractive and well dressed in a manner that showed she put care into things.

“Can you tell me more?” I asked.

Her shoulders slumped and I could see the weariness in her body and around her eyes.

“I’ve been married for all of these years,” she said. “I think I love my husband, or at least I used to. But we argue a lot, and he doesn’t seem to desire me. I don’t think he even really sees me anymore. We don’t talk. But we have two children and he’s not a bad father. . . . I’m just exhausted. We’ve been to counseling. I’ve read a stack of books. I said it already. I’m worn-out. I want to be happy.”

We talked about her situation, and Lisa felt better as she realized she was being understood and that other people had shared her experience. I just want to be normal and happy is a statement I hear almost daily in my practice. I hear it from men as well as women, frequently through tears. And I hear it from concerned and loving parents as they make the same wish for their children, “I just want them to be normal and happy.” Every time I hear this plaintive lament I am touched by it, for it is so very human.

Wanting to be happy and normal is the result of how our society conditions us. I doubt if people in the Western world were very concerned with “normalcy” or “happiness” before the modern age.

The great thinkers and teachers over the centuries have never seemed very concerned with these either. The ones like Lao-tze, Buddha, Socrates, the Prophets, Jesus, Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, Paracelsus, and Goethe were seeking more comprehensive visions of life. Their visions focused more on living a life that had meaning and purpose, one that could be fully experienced, including its sorrows.

As different as their ideas often were, the Western teachers almost unanimously agreed that the development of our ability to understand and endure true suffering was necessary in order to open us to the experiences of joy and fulfillment. In general they considered happiness an incidental state, one that is sometimes here and sometimes not; they never considered it something to be sought or obsessed over.

In the modern world we have learned to emphasize practicality at the expense of much of the wisdom of the past. Focusing on science, technology, management, and the ability to learn a skill or profession to earn a living has left our system unbalanced. It is often the “non-practical” courses in classical literature, philosophy, drama, and the arts that teach us what it means to be human and what it’s like to struggle with life’s problems. If we really want our children to learn values we should have them seriously study these areas and the lessons they contain as a foundation for their academic journeys. Classical mythology, for instance, shows how we create our fate when we live with too much arrogance, act without self-awareness, and treat each other and the powers of life disrespectfully.

Great art pictures these motifs and music expresses them. I love these studies and I’m convinced they have the capacity to teach us more than we would normally learn about what it means to be human and the values that support life rather than destroy it.

In the introduction to his best-selling book Care of the Soul, the former monk Thomas Moore says, “During the fifteen years I have been practicing psychotherapy I have been surprised how much of my studies in Renaissance psychology, philosophy and medicine have contributed to the work.” Moore’s writings grew out of the foundation begun by C. G. Jung. Jung was quick to see that the study of art, symbols, and literature led to insights in human nature and that developing a fulfilling life was art in itself.

Moore refers to Jung as “one of the most recent doctors of the soul.” It was in this capacity in 1932, speaking before a convention of pastors, that Jung said, “Among all of my patients in the second half of life . . . there has not been one whose problems in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life.”

If we stop and think about his statement for a moment and consider its implications, its audacity becomes clear. Imagine what it means to say our anxiety, depression, weight problems, addictions, relationship troubles, and other psychological difficulties come from the lack of a religious orientation toward life, instead of saying we’re neurotic and dysfunctional!

Obviously Jung was a complex thinker who was not proposing a simplistic solution to our problems. Merely going to church or temple every week and ascribing to a religion that doesn’t challenge us to grow, or participating in some spiritual exercises prescribed by self-help gurus, whether religious or secular, isn’t what he had in mind. In fact, by the time Jung made this statement, he had long since come to feel the traditional Western religious systems no longer made much sense. His patients told him their churches and temples were out of touch with their personal needs for an experience of God and the sacred dimensions of life. My own work as an analyst indicates that this experience is as true today as it was for Jung over seventy years ago.


art credit: Self-Portrait withs Masks, James Ensor

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2 Responses to “Captives of Normalcy (Part 1)”

    • Dr. Bud Harris

      Dear Christina, Thank you so much for your response. The journey reflected in this blog series is a deeply personal as well as a professional one for me and I am glad to know when it resonates with others on the journey. -Bud

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