An examination of the dangers of trying to identify the “normal”, which often means “the best”, time in life
By Mark D. Harris
Imagine a conversation between a middle-aged husband and wife:
“Our family hasn’t been normal since our oldest daughter left for college in the fall of 2012.”
“No, things stopped being normal when our son developed epilepsy in November 2011.”
“That’s not right. What about when my father died in June 2009?”
“Or when mine died in August 2008?”
“I guess you’re right…things haven’t been normal for nearly 11 years.”
“But they certainly weren’t normal before our youngest child was born in September 2006.”
“Yes, except we thought that they were normal because we didn’t know that she was coming, and then we didn’t know how life would be with her.”
“But things weren’t really normal when I worked in DC and we lived in that rental house.”
“Nothing about DC is normal.”
“Perhaps the only normal time in our lives was from the fall of 2007 to the spring of 2008, about six months.”
Too strange to be true? No. Nearly everyone has some variation of this conversation, some when they are young and almost all as they grow old. In our reminiscent moments, we evaluate the times, people, and events in our lives. We pine to relive some days past and thrill that others are behind us. Calling a time “normal” really ends up meaning that it was “the best”. If the past is the best, nothing that follows can be as good.
Orson Welles captured this part of human nature in his classic Citizen Kane. The movie opens with the death of its subject, billionaire media mogul Charles Foster Kane. His last word is “Rosebud”. The story recounts Kane’s life through the efforts of reporter Jerry Thompson to discover the meaning of “Rosebud.” Thompson fails, but in the last scene a faceless worker holds up a sled that Kane used as a boy of eight, before tossing the sled into the fire. The name on the sled is “Rosebud”. The message seems to be that after a life of glamorous women, undreamed wealth, glaring fame, and exceptional accomplishment, Kane’s fondest time of life was as a child, riding on “Rosebud”. Perhaps that was his “normal” time.
The first problem with setting a “normal” time in our lives is that it is idealized. In the 1940 Christmas film Beyond Tomorrow, three elderly engineers are killed when their plane crashes into a mountain in a snow storm. One of the men, a former British major with service in India whose son was killed in World War I, was allowed to go to his version of heaven, which looked a lot like his happiest times in life, serving King Edward in antebellum India with his wife and son. The past is never the same as we remember it. Usually, the pain recedes and the glory grows. Only rarely do our sufferings look larger through the lens of time.
The second problem with setting a “normal” time in our lives is that it is impossible. In the 2008 movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Dean Charles Stanforth tells Indy “We seem to have reached the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away.” On a geriatrics rotation during my family medicine residency, a geriatrician told me that old age is a series of losses – strength, capabilities, job, friends, spouse, etc. – and then you die. But these melancholy thoughts are only partly true. Good things – grandchildren, relationships, adventures, new tasks, and wonderful experiences – also come to the old.
The couple in the dialogue above could have gone back much farther. How could our family have been normal after our grandmothers had died in the early 2000s, or our grandfathers in the 1980s? Were our greatest moments in our newly wed years, traveling around Europe as a pair? Other people could identify job gain or loss, and marriage or divorce, as their best or worst times.
Mitch Waldman, a friend at church, served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy under George W. Bush. I asked him if that was his best job. He cautioned, “I always tell the young people who work for me not to think in terms of ‘best job’ or ‘best time’. Each is different, and ‘best’ in its own way and at its time. To think otherwise is to be always dissatisfied and striving for something else.”
The Bible tells Christians that the best is still to come. This life lasts but a moment, and then those who know and love Jesus Christ will taste eternal glory. Nothing in this life is “the best”, and nothing in this life is even “normal”. Whether in days or decades, I will step off the stage of life; I will cross the Dark River. Only then will I find “normal”, and even “the best”. Long lost family members and friends will be there, as will brothers and sisters in the Lord that I don’t know, or perhaps don’t even like, now. And our bonds of love and unity will be greater than I can possibly imagine.
Lastly, He will be there – Jesus, lover of my soul. Then and only then, life will be normal, and will be best. �