The Normal Paradox.) Dr Ghaemi is by no means the first to comment on the positive association between manic-depressive tendencies and outstanding achievement, but he goes much farther by calling “normal” into question.
Basically, Dr Ghaemi is asking: If the right kind of crazy is optimal in times of crisis, what does that say for normal? Can’t we at least regard normal as serviceable in a pinch? No, is his unequivocal conclusion.
The basic fallacy about normal, if I am interpreting Dr Ghaemi correctly, is that this condition (yes, let’s call it a condition) leaves a lot to be desired, in the first place. Dr Ghaemi’s starting point is a study from about 50 years ago by one of Freud’s last disciples, Roy Grinker.
Dr Grinker screened a group of 343 college-age men, out of which he selected 65 he deemed to be in the middle of the mentally healthy range. Based on subsequent interviews, Grinker came up with a detailed list of mental health attributes for these “upright young men.”
There was, however, a major catch. These paragons of mental health suffered a severe case of “average-itis.” They had slightly above average IQs, their grades were average, and they were not leaders on the team sports they had played in high school.
In effect, their main positive attribute was they played well with others. Dr Grinker came up with the term “homoclite” to describe these drearily normal individuals - “those who follow a common rule.” Their goals were to fit in, do good, and be liked. Apparently they would grow up to become part of the “great silent majority” that Nixon infamously pandered to.
As Dr Ghaemi points out in his book, Dr Grinker’s homoclites represented the norm (a statistical average) and normal (an absence of illness), but hardly an ideal.
Which brings us to the $64,000 question ($523,412.54, adjusting for inflation): When the chips are down, would you truly want one of Grinker’s homoclites as your President or Prime Minister?
Or would you would feel more comfortable with someone who had been temporarily expelled from school, such as JFK?
Basically, Dr Ghaemi is validating what many of us have felt all our lives, namely: those of us who are not normal have no desire to become normal. True, we don’t want to be severely depressed or manic, either, or for that matter overly anxious or cognitively impaired or just plain feel miserable inside our own skins. We want to be better, to be ourselves.
But normal? No way, normal sucks.
I’ve related numerous times here on Knowledge is Necessity a knock-me-over-with-a-feather moment from a grand rounds I delivered three years ago to a psychiatric facility in Princeton, NJ, but it bears retelling and reinterpretation. Obviously, the individuals I was addressing were considerably smarter than your average homoclite. Nevertheless, we are living in a homoclite culture that apotheosizes normal. Just about everyone is in on the act. Just about everyone believes in the myth.
So here I was, trying to get through to a bunch of what I now know to be accomplished homoclites.
"Keep in mind," I said, "a lot of us view the world through the eyes of artists and poets and visionaries and mystics. Not to mention through the eyes of highly successful professionals and entrepreneurs. We don't want to be like you."
It was as if I had let rip a roof-rattler and everyone was too polite to laugh. Then I blurted out: “To me, you all have flat affect.”
Kelvin grade frozen stony cold silence.
Suffice to say, my talk was a disaster.
I naturally assumed that I had been wasting my time trying to get through to people heavily invested in the myth of normal. But, after reading Ghaemi’s book, maybe something else was going on, as well. Maybe these individuals suffered basic deficits in the empathy department.
There is a biological component to empathy, but a lot of it has to do with getting blindsided out of nowhere by whatever life has decided to throw at you. Picking up from Ghaemi’s account:
Franklin Roosevelt had a glorious future ahead as a homoclite golden boy. Mind you, FDR was no dullard. Quite the opposite. According to Ghaemi, FDR was an “omnivore and an innovator,” with certain manic tendencies consistent with a “hyperthymic” temperament. But, “until 1921, Franklin Roosevelt had led a charmed life.”
Everything changed at age 39, when he was felled with polio. He returned to public life three years later a different man. According to longtime friend and political associate, Frances Perkins, recounted by Ghaemi, “an untried flippant young man” underwent “a spiritual transformation,” emerging “with humility of spirit and with a deeper philosophy.”
Years later, Eleanor Roosevelt would remark: “He certainly would have been President, but a different President.”
So here I was, in Princeton, talking to a bunch of mental health professionals who couldn’t see the merit in even “a little bit” crazy, who could not even relate to the possibility that a good many of us do not want to be like them. That, to people like us, normal sucks.
Naturally, I could understand why they wouldn’t want to be like me. But could they not, at least, validate my creativity and other traits the way I value their stability? Could they not acknowledge that maybe they, too, could benefit from some of my strange gifts?
Introspection, enthusiasm ... empathy?