By Ryan Sprague
I recently took my family to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, where we spent hours admiring God’s creativity in the aquatic world. One exhibit features a tropical reef tank—a bustling world of chromatic brilliance. From afar, the tank is a psychedelic, swimming kaleidoscope. Moving closer, each unique fish commands attention. A cobalt blue Palette Surgeonfish (more commonly known as “Dori”) glides past a canary-yellow Longnose Butterfly fish. Pink and yellow Bartletts’ anthias are joined by my favorite of the reef dwellers, the Squarespot Anthias—an eponymous raspberry sherbet, square-shaped spot marks the otherwise peach-colored fish.
God’s unmatched creativity was on display, and we all agreed that it was good. However, one young man profaned the moment when he said, “That one’s ugly . . . ,” pointing to a fish Picasso would have appreciated. The unicorn fish isn’t like the others. While the exhibit offers diversity in shape, size, and color, only this guy, the “ugly” one, features a horn protruding from the top of its head.
In a tank displaying profound uniqueness, why did that young man feel that the unicorn fish stood out? And why did he choose the world ugly to describe it? One simple word, one destructive idea: Normal.
My wife and I welcomed our first son, Caedmon, into our family in 2004. Since then, three more boys have joined the family, and the seventh member of our family arrives in August. I have five siblings and my wife has two. We share three in-laws, and those marriages gave our boys five cousins. Considering all those relationships, there are twenty-five people in our immediate family. When aunts, uncles, and cousins are included, the number climbs to more than fifty. Caedmon is the only one with cerebral palsy.
Before we moved to a larger city, Caedmon was the only person we knew who had cerebral palsy. Unfortunately, we’ve heard comments made about Caedmon that are similar to the one the boy made about the unicorn fish. Bear in mind that we’ve also heard comments that reflect thoughtful encouragement and deep love. We’ve received appropriately sympathetic support and surprising generosity.
This story isn’t about pity; it’s about perspective. My perspective changed when my son was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. I was instantly transformed from being an ignorant passerby to being a becoming-informed advocate. I was forced to rethink parenting. We swapped a stroller for a wheelchair and began reconsidering previously assumed milestones: “When will he walk?” was replaced with “Will he walk at all?” We instantly had a new normal, and it forced me to ask, “What is normal anyway?”
I’m the only member of my family who stands 6’5” tall; am I normal? My sister is the only one who suffered a spinal cord injury and now uses a cane to walk; is she normal? My brother is the only one who has a metabolism that outworks his food intake; is he normal?
The more I thought about it, the more difficult Normal became to define. Eyes can be green, brown, blue, and hazel. God covers people with fair, dark, olive, tan, and freckled skin. People can be tall or short, skinny or muscular, bald or hairy. What is normal skin or eye color? What is the normal body shape? Is there a normal intelligence, a normal ability, or a normal level of achievement? Why are we so quick to say that someone with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, or autism isn’t normal?
It all goes back to what we view as normal and what value we place on being considered such. Within any given school you will find pockets of people who believe themselves to be normal: jocks, geeks, preps, goths, emos, etc. Each person looks around at the kids sitting at his or her lunch table and essentially sees himself or herself. When the emo kids look across the room at the kids in the varsity jackets eating the cheerleaders’ ignored chicken nuggets, they roll their eyes, shake their heads, and judgmentally say, “Animals,” because normal to them is tight jeans, dark hair, and melancholy music. As they observe individuals who don’t exhibit acceptance of their preferences, they assume the position of the socially superior and dehumanize anyone else.
Ultimately, Normal is about you and what you’re comfortable with. Anyone who falls outside our view of Normal is tagged with new labels: abnormal, irregular, odd, strange, unusual. They’re all negative labels, and these are the words that float through most people’s minds when they see someone with cerebral palsy or Down syndrome.
Without the benefit of relationship, when we see someone who doesn’t fit our definition of normal, many of us tend to have those negative ideas. Why? When we see a child in a wheelchair, why don’t we think “exceptional” and “extraordinary”? Normal is why we drift to negativity, but we must reconsider Normal.
We all have an image of Normal in our minds and, more often than not, it’s a bad thing. To a young girl with an eating disorder, Skinny Normal is destroying her body. To the athlete tempted by steroids, Muscular Normal is poisoning him. To the child in a wheelchair, Walking Normal steals his hope. Color Normal leads to hate. Elite Normal fueled the holocaust and fuels the destruction of pre-born babies who have Down syndrome. We have to reconsider Normal and its implications. We must embrace abnormality and recognize its beauty. What makes a person unique makes him special and exciting.
There’s a fundamental difference between familiar and Normal. What surrounds us becomes familiar; it’s a morally neutral perception. The danger is when we let that perception define Normal. That Normal is a lie. The truth is, nobody’s normal; we’re anything but. When we embrace the idea that nobody’s normal, we can begin to embrace the majesty of our unique designs.
When we’re liberated from the tyranny of Normal, we’re free to love our neighbor. The priest and the Levite saw the beaten man in the ditch, and he was far from their perception of Normal. Their Normal hardened their heart and they passed by. But the Samaritan rejected Normal and embraced the unfamiliar. He realized that nobody’s normal and loved his neighbor. Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”
One of the great perks of homeschooling is that any vacation can become school and any moment of education can rightly become edification. Meandering through the Georgia Aquarium gives us opportunities to compare mammals to fish, mammoth filter-feeders to miniature predators, and God’s unmatched designs with mankind’s ingenuity. One of my favorite facets of the aquarium is the merging of man’s talents and God’s creativity; it’s truly something to behold. I love it when God reminds Jeni and me, the teachers, that we’re still students as well.
Overhearing that young man’s verbal graffiti jerked me from a moment of holiness into the mire of our sinful world. God used it to remind me that skepticism runs deep and that generations are being raised without a reverence for their creator. That little boy was unimpressed with the awesome power of our Lord in the animal kingdom, and that arrogance leads to hurtful attitudes within humanity. But we know God exists and created the natural diversity behind the glass, and therefore each color combination, fin design, or method of mobility allowed us to proclaim His glory to our sons.
Is a unicorn fish ugly? I don’t think so, but that young man disagreed. So is it simply a matter of opinion? If so, does the same subjectivity apply to you and me? If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, does ugly live there too? Naturalistic thinking allows beauty to be defined by us. Theism recognizes a transcendent God who is the creator of life and author of lives—He is the judge of beauty.
Scripture teaches us that all humans are created in the image of God; therefore, all humans are inherently beautiful. When we embrace the self-centered lie of Normal we assume the role of God and declare someone ugly simply because he or she doesn’t look like us. That’s ugly. However, when we embrace the God-centered truth that nobody’s Normal we maintain our humble role as God’s child and appreciate His exquisite creativity. That’s beautiful.
After serving as a pastor for nearly a decade, Ryan Sprague entered the domestic mission field of Crisis Pregnancy, working at the PHI Center in Tallahassee, Florida (http://phifriend4life.org/). He writes three blogs, accessed through http://ryansprague.com/, and has written a book, Grateful: From Walking on to Winning It All at Florida State. He and his wife are expecting their fifth child this August.
Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.