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I remember studying World War II in high school, specifically the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I read that 225,000 human beings were killed by the bombs instantly. As many died slower deaths from radiation poisoning, burns, and other injuries. I remember the tone of the textbook and teacher, which suggested that this intentional holocaust was justified, necessary, and in a word, normal.

My reaction was that this was not normal, that it was a hideous act conceived by ignorant and deranged minds. The image of the destruction was horrifying and equally so was the presentation of the bombing as "right," which, no matter how I looked at it, I could not justify in any context. The feeling of this obvious absurdity initiated a line of questioning about many things I was taught in school, which became a constant source of irritation for my teachers.

Like suddenly noticing so many blackened spots of chewing gum on a subway platform, I began to see examples of weird and illogical deeds and institutions everywhere. These were called normal and good, like the naked emperor insisting that his clothes were fine. The names given to things was so opposite of the actual function and intent that I began to suspect a cynical conspiracy to mess with my head. Here's a tiny sampling of what surfaced:

A warring empire's invasions, assassinations, wholesale destruction, and murder of communities and cultures is called "defense" and "peacekeeping."

A system designed to brainwash, indoctrinate, and render passive the capacity for genuine initiative, creativity, and critical thinking is called "education."

A cult of illness that charges huge fees to destroy the capacity for people's bodies to effectively heal and be naturally balanced is called "healthcare."

A political system that favors the rich, powerful, and nonhuman entities called corporations; allows rule by a malleable mob, that steadfastly obscures its agenda to confuse constituents; is referred to as "democracy."

The list seemed endless, and as a teenager led to a state of deep confusion, hopelessness, and cynicism. Having just read 1984 and seeing a manifestly Orwellian world in which Big Brother's slogans of the operative paradigm—War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength—I understood the easy slide toward insanity or suicide.

The coup de grâce was noticing that all the contradictions and absurdities I saw in the world were equally reflected in myself. I was a bundle of contradictions, unkind to the people I loved, easily distracted from my values, generally unable to stick to my intentions and achieve what I set out to do. Worst of all, I saw that I was suggestible, lacking in tenacity to find what was really true, and would believe any old thing suggested by the right person or authority. I saw I was a microcosm of the ignorant, divided, upside-down world.

This blow to my trust in the fundamental basis of everything was paralyzing, but gradually became a fuel for a line of questioning that went something like this: What is normal, and how do I, and people, individually and collectively, achieve normality?

I haven't found any final or definitive answers, but I've picked up a few clues from a variety of sources. Here's a small sample in the 240 words remaining to me:

Striving. I learned about this from my children's kindergarten teacher. She said the way young children learn is mostly by example and participation, and the most important quality to embody is striving. This, she said, is not a striving to get somewhere else, but an effort to give a fullness of attention in the moment, to fully embody values of mindfulness, integrity, and reverence. Striving to be present, to do whatever one is doing fully and well, is a mode of being that has a certain flavor which is a key component of normality.

Mutuality. Being humbled is different from being humiliated. The word humble has the same root as humus, the organic component of soil. It means standing on the ground of one's being, present to what one is experiencing, here and now, without trying to manipulate internal or external factors or otherwise flee from suffering. In this place of humility we can have mutuality, recognizing that we are all equally exactly where we are, and that we can meet one another without superiority or inferiority on this ground of being.

Positivity. This is to use our power of imagination to hold a positive view of our own fulfillment and the future of humanity as a whole. This is not Pollyanna or unrealistic. Mostly it requires sacrificing gratuitous negativity—all the unnecessary thoughts and expressions of complaint, criticism, ill-will, and contempt. Positivity also requires holding attention on an image of a possible normality—a picture of ourselves and the future that shows at its epicenter what is most valuable and precious.

—Jason Stern

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