This piece was featured in the printed July edition of the magazine “Orienda”, here is the online version. It’s a little deep, so grab yourself a nice cup of tea, get comfy and let your mind go on a little wander.
Look out your window frame. What can you see?
An old man walking his French Bulldog? A young couple driving their car? Think about what lies beyond the visual frame. Maybe that French Bulldog has its own Instagram page? Maybe the couple in the car are about to have their first baby? We have no idea. It is just too hard to know from this single frame in time and space.
Life can seem like this frame shot. A quick glance and it can be understood in one way – an entanglement of relationships, places, skim cappuccinos, societies and events. These aspects may occupy your vision for a little while, a pleasant and logical scene. But then as you delve deeper and study the picture more intently, another side presents itself: religions, spirituality, death, cultures and the universe’s incomprehensible expanse. The blend of the two aspects and the various angles it can be perceived allow countless interpretations and conclusions to be drawn. There is no exclusively correct understanding, as each person’s viewpoint and frame will be different.
Take this window frame for example; it gives us a clue of what lies beyond but because of its restricted view, it can only depict a segment of the entire picture. From this single view, assumptions of what lies beyond can vary from person to person. The entire image could actually be one of an extensive forest (1), or of a small courtyard within a built up area (2). These are both valid and possible perceptions, but conclusions cannot be drawn until the entire picture is revealed.
In this same way, an individual’s experience – their family, environment, culture, friends, life events and religion – shape the frame of their perspective on life. Our frame of view and understanding is both limited and stretched by our personal experiences. We only know what we know. The uniqueness of each frame makes it then difficult to characterise what is the universal ‘normal’. Some frames will overlap and have common features, such as two frames showing a mixture of trees and roads. However, a frame showing only the building will contain completely different elements from one looking only at the grass. In this case, how do we determine what is the collective normal of the picture? Are the buildings the normal because they take up the majority of the picture? That is like us assuming that ‘normal’ in our world is being a Chinese speaking female called Muhammad, yet in my life I’ve never met any females named Muhammad who speaks Chinese but I know lots of Lachlans who speak English. What we depict as ‘normal’ in our own little frame does not fairly represent the ‘normal’ of the entire picture.
The vagueness of normality is marked in its very definition.
Normal: conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.[i]
That definition can lead us to explore what ‘normal’ looks like in our lives, by asking what is usual, typical or expected? Through my window frame, I would expect to see families living in half-acre, single storey houses, driving their cars to work, school or uni. I’d see people going for runs in their Nike active wear along the paved streets, listening to Justin Beiber on their iPhone 6s and watching Farmer Wants a Wife on their HD TVs. This all seems perfectly normal to me and it might to you. But I’m sure you’d have some questions if you were to live within my frame for a day (Why is no one listening to Kanye West?).
To put it plainly, I always thought I lived within the best frame shot of the whole picture – that in my area, we were living and doing life the way it should be done. From our food to our houses, our education and our daily routine, it was all I’d ever been accustomed to so I figured that it was the acceptable and even desirable norm. But what I soon realised, by seeing more of the picture was that 1. people in different frames, of different cultures and lifestyles share the same comforting thought that their ‘way’ was ‘the way’. It is all they have ever known. And 2. just because our frames are different, doesn’t necessarily make one superior to the other. Both sets of normality work and suit their own setting and purpose.
Last year, I stayed in the Italian town Lucca for a few weeks over Easter with my Italian-speaking Auntie. Here, like everywhere new, we noticed all the peculiar things they do differently from us. Through the window frame in Lucca, we saw people rapidly downing their short black coffees and buying pastries en route to their occupation. Then from 5-6pm it was social hour, where everyone, of every age would walk up and down the main street of town for an hour, greeting their friends and neighbours. They would drink aperol spritzs, return home for a long dinner before re-emerging for an after-dinner shot of coffee or drink.
And you know what, this doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll take an aperol spritz and a walk around town any day over my usual 6pm gym session. Suddenly, ‘The Australian Way’ doesn’t seem so bloody beautiful.
The distinct differences in our normalities do not characterise the frames as being better or worse, just different. Each lifestyle function suits its context, and many things that are normal and work in one frame, will seem weird in another. There is no single, one-size-fits-all portrayal of normality, as the concept itself is based on subjectivity. Our idea of normal is purely a result of our individual experience, so whilst spending an hour everyday walking up and down the main street, socialising may seem strange in your frame, in their frame having dinner at 6pm would be classed bizarre.
I don’t know about you, but isn’t that so encouraging? That this fixed idea of normal is a ludicrous invention? That your life choices can never deviate from what is normal or expected because this strict criteria does not exist?
Rather, being open and appreciative of differences should be the normal, as they teach us to broaden our perspectives. Our understanding is both restricted and extended by our experience. So in order to understand more we must experience more, learn more, travel more and widen our interactions.
Sitting in Edinburgh Airport, waiting for a flight back to London, I noticed that 9 out of 10 people had plonked their carry-on bag on the seat next to them, as to avoid the ‘awkward’ intimacy of an unknown stranger sitting next to them. I myself did it without thinking. I realised that this is a symbol of what we value generally as a society. We prefer the familiar and known company of our ‘things’, rather than unfamiliar human company. Even though this is so limiting. Over the years, so many opportunities have presented themselves to me – jobs, ideas, relationships, travel opportunities and a wealth of knowledge – all through the chance meeting and development of conversation with someone I had never met before. Talking to people opens your eyes and widens your horizon to the diversity in lifestyles, opinions, beliefs, languages, childhoods, dreams and opportunities that there are on this earth. It also provides a shift of perspective, that sees beyond the world of cappuccinos, clubbing, studying and working. It doesn’t diminish the importance of your life, yet exposes you to the possibilities of other lifestyles and choices.
Interacting outside your comfortable, familiar frame makes you realise how there isn’t just one ‘right’ way of doing everything. That any ‘normal’ aspect within your frame, may simultaneously appear absurd in another frame.
So open the curtains and add a few more panels to your window frame, embrace the weird and wonderfulness of this world we are in.
Images Derived from: World Bank. 2015. World Development Report 2015: Mind, Society, and Behavior. Washington, DC: World Bank. doi: 10.1596/978-1-4648-0342-0. License: Creative Commons Attribution CC BY 3.0 IGO
[i] Oxford Dictionary. Oxford University Press. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/normal