Friday, December 30, 2011

Relativity of Normality

"No one who can rise before dawn, 360 days a year, will fail to make his family rich." - Chinese proverb as quoted by Malcolm Gladwell

"Instead of being regarded, as it ought to be, as a matter of personal convenience and adjustment, it has come to regarded by many as if it were part of the essential morals to get up early in the morning." - G.K. Chesterton

     It has occurred to me in recent days as I have simultaneously been reading Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, G.K. Chesterton's Tremendous Trifles, and Glenn Beck's Being George Washington that "normal" is an entirely relative term. As are "morality," "education," and "success." I suppose it's no big break-through, and I know I've vaguely acknowledged this fact before, but the combination of isolation, great literature, and winter break tends to clarify things... while at the same time making me question my self worth.
     I counted. With the exception of a horse show three Saturdays ago, I hadn't seen, let alone spoken with another person my age for 22 days straight. Regardless of the freshness of the company, I can get somewhat senile when I'm around only adults for that long. Thankfully, tagging along on a business trip to Chicago solved that problem, but not before I began to question the solidity of the definitions of normality and success.

     How should success be measured? Could a low perception of my self worth be determined merely by an incorrect definition of success? Can going 22 days without seeing another teenager be considered normal, even if I am an only child?
     Malcolm Gladwell, in his book on the "non-randomnity" of success named Outliers, presented, (in his enjoyable way), a study conducted in 1921 by a man named Lewis Terman. In essence, the study concluded that children with IQs in the genius level were, later in life, divided into as many successes and failures as a grouping of people with entirely random IQs. This meant that a child of a high IQ had an equal chance of success in adulthood as a child of a low IQ. What, then, determined the success and failure of Terman's group of geniuses, or, for that matter, the success and failure of anyone? Poring over data collected throughout the duration of the study, the only unifying factor between all of the successes and between all of the failures was upbringing, family background, financial status, and social status. 
     Terman's study was able to pattern the adults into three groups; A, B, and C. The 150 comprising top 20% were what Terman called the "A group;" the "true success stories." The middle 60% was the B group. These were the adults who were doing "satisfactorily." The bottom 20% were the C group. These were the adults "who had done the least with their superior mental ability." The data showed that nearly all of the successful adults had, as children, come from the middle or upper class; from families who raised them in concerted cultivation. This is simply a method of actively fostering talent through activities and organized lessons or instruction. It's the kind of childhood I had for roughly the first ten years of my life, and, to some degree, it still is my life; but not to the same extent. Somewhere along the way in my life, there was something of a paradigm shift; a prioritizing. It was not a shift however, if I can use the metaphor, in "getting up before dawn" like the Chinese, to Chesterton's appreciation for sleeping in. Rather, it was a recognition that "making your family rich" is not "an essential moral."
     But to clarify. I do not, in any way, think it is wrong or immoral to make money or be materially successful. On the contrary, it is good that we prosper in the work God has given us. Money is not the root of all evil. It is the love of money that is the root of all evil. (1 Timothy 6:10). 
     In moving away from the society of concerted cultivation and into a society of agricultural cultivation, it placed our family, once in the middle class, into a culture which is primarily the working class. It places me in the unique position where I interact with people on both ends of Terman's alphabetical spectrum. Unfortunately that usually implies large swings from low self esteem to a "too-high" self esteem. 
     I'm starting to realize that it shouldn't bother me in the least to know I may have more material potential than what my circumstances dictate. It doesn't bother me because I'm realizing that in the long run, material success is not that "standard to which the wise and honest can repair" to quote George Washington. What really matters when it's all said and done, is not material success or even fame. It's success in the Kingdom. It's relationship. It's discipleship. Sure it'd be nice to win a Nobel Prize in Physics, or see your own book on the shelves of Barnes and Noble, but here again, the kind of self esteem that is generated in success is essentially worth nothing in the world to come unless it is done to glorify the King and advance the Kingdom on earth; a very tough order, but never one to shy away from.
     If my goal is success in the world, I may be justified in my drop of self esteem. As it is, I have no cause to see myself as any less (or any greater) than the range of classes that my life is presenting me with. Why? Because my self esteem should dictated by my contentment in my current community, family, and lifestyle; not by comparisons to the lives of others. No longer should I dabble in comparisons as I attend the same online school as a television actor and a boy who's written a book on positional chess, before picking up fresh milk from the dearest working class farmers that live down the road. Contentment, and not comparison is the key to a healthy self esteem. Glenn Beck, in the authors note at the beginning of Being George Washington sums it up quite nicely as he places things in the proper perspective:
     "You're not going to be George Washington next week, or even next year. You may not, in fact, ever cross the finish line. But that's okay. It's the simple act of reaching for a standard that so many others will dismiss at unattainable that is enough to make a real difference. I can tell you unequivocally that being George Washington will be the hardest thing you will attempt to do in your life. But it will also be the most fulfilling and rewarding. Living a life of honor, integrity, and humility may not make you millions of dollars, or result in your name being splashed across movie posters, but you will earn something far more enduring: the lasting respect of those you care about most, and if that doesn't happen, well, you can always eat ice cream."

On that note, I'm off to eat some ice cream... perhaps with some other kids my age. I've officially decided that's normal.

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