My friend Jeff and I went to see The Matrix on opening night and it was unlike anything we had ever seen. We went straight to his house from the theater to hang out for the rest of the night. While there, his mom asked us what it was about. Neither of us could find words to describe what we had just watched so we quoted a line from the movie.
“No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.”
Pitch anything like The Matrix to a studio today and the executives with power to green light a project or send it to development hell will shrug their shoulders and say “meh.”
These days, explaining The Matrix is simple. Humanity experiences the world through a computer program in their mind while their bodies are converted into batteries for living machines in the real world. Some people have escaped and are able to transfer between the real world and the matrix through a giant cable jack in the back of their heads; these people seek to free the rest of humanity. They learn kung fu, they do stuff in slow motion, explosions happen, Laurence Fishburne wears glasses that defy the laws of physics, and Neo is The One. Everyone is a hacker. Alice in Wonderland is frequently referenced. There are allusions to Christian theology, classical philosophy, and Eastern mysticism.
But sixteen years ago, this movie was not easy to describe after watching it for the first time before anyone had the opportunity to spoil the plot. How could we have possibly detailed the complexities of this masterpiece to Jeff’s mom? We had no words available to elaborate on the red pill/blue pill question, surgical removal of the tracking bug, shape shifting agents, telephone exits, Trinity’s latex suit, bullet-time.
The Matrix was a memorable movie for a host of reasons from the religious allegories, killer soundtrack, twisting narrative, and revolutionary special effects. It is a story that has stayed with me over the years.
In one iconic scene, Morpheus and Neo visit the Oracle. Once there, Neo encounters a young boy who is holding a spoon that bends without any recognizable force. The boy hands the spoon to Neo and tells him "Do not try to bend the spoon, that's impossible." The kid's message is wrapped in Buddhist teachings on mindfulness and encourages Neo to change himself rather than change specific objects. The trick – what the boy calls truth is one of the most quoted lines from The Matrix.
You want to change something? Realize that thing does not exist. It is the self help staple - changing yourself is the best method to change your circumstances. "Then you will see it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself."
Could I propose a slight change of words? Replace the spoon? Try this.
"There is no normal."
I gave up on normal a long time ago. That happens when you're the artistic geek an a family that thrives on ESPN. When you're the odd man out among your peers. When your father suffers a debilitating workplace accident. When all of your friends are wealthier, better looking, and more popular than you. Throughout my childhood, I was given constant indications that I was not normal. Yet I still believed that normal existed somewhere else. For other people, but not me.
Then I grew up. I hung out with musicians and creative people. Like me, they were not the paragon of normality. They affirmed my weirdness and gave me room to indulge in my eccentricities.
Then I became a parent. Maybe I should try to be more normal. Maybe?
But my oldest was diagnosed with Aspergers. Once again, the possibility of normal evaporated. When parenting kids on the autism spectrum, you begin hearing words like neurotypical to describe other kids - those who are neurologically typical. Every utterance would remind me that my son's brain was not typical. It was something different.
Then I became a foster parent. And then an adoptive parent. Each step another hint that my path is one that wandered away from normal.
The sum total of life experiences not only rejected the idea that I could be normal, but also questioned if normal actually exists.
The older I get, the more I am convinced: there is no normal.
My oldest son will tell me that he wants to be like everyone else. He wants to fit in. But he is not the only kid I hear voice such aspirations. That was something I heard from a lot of my classmates when I was growing up. I hear it today from the kids that hang out with my kids. The desire to be normal and fit in has been a plot line in every family oriented sitcom; from The Brady Bunch to Modern Family, you see characters that feel weird and out of place. We see these TV tropes over and over again because it is one of the most universally experienced feelings of childhood and adolescence.
How could normal exist if everyone (at least at one point in time) felt abnormal? How could normal exist if one of the most common driving forces in child development is the quest be normal?
Here is what I have come to realize and accept as truth: there is no normal. Normal is a construct of our imagination. It is a word we use to describe something that is not us. It is always someone else.
Those that feel they are normal are that way for one reason. Like the child in the Oracle's apartment encouraged Neo to bend himself to bend the spoon, self-declared normal people do so because they defined their own normal. They bent themselves in order to bend and redefine what it means to be normal.
Honestly, those people are some of the most peculiar and awesome people on earth.