My lovely wife and I saw the Pulitzer Prize winning musical Next to Normal this week in its Michigan premiere run. It was, as good theatre should be, emotionally cathartic, truth-telling, entertaining and exhausting.
The pop/rock musical tells the story of bi-polar disorder and grief in a suburban family. And any family that has suffered loss, mental illness, or even “normal” family dysfunction would feel the shards of truth poking through the upbeat score.
The title comes from a line at the end of the play when teenage daughter Natalie tells her mother that she does not need a normal life, but a “next to normal” life will do. As that line resonated in my head long after I left the theatre, I reflected on a Douglas Coupland novel I read years ago, All Families are Psychotic. Most of his novels demonstrate the premise of that title: every family has its way of being weird.
From that thread I was taken to sixth grade where I learned in some subject (probably Social Studies) that there is no real “normal.” I can’t even remember the context in which I learned that lesson, except perhaps to demonstrate that we ought not hold out expectations for one another to behave in certain ways. (I was in sixth grade in 1969-70; do your own thing.)
Next to normal. Everyone is different. Do you own thing.
Not quite the message of today’s LDS culture, is it?
Indeed the gospel teaches us we are created in God’s image. The Savior is our perfect example. In the same sense as the Platonic ideal we look to the Godhead for guidance of who and how we should be.
We teach standards to our youth (and have for decades!) to keep them on track, to keep them safe from the temptations of “the world” around them. Our universities impose dress and behavior codes. As an employer, the church and its institutions also exact a standard of dress and behavior, and even in our volunteer service we do the same. At the same time, we are a missionary church, reaching out to an every wider diversity of non-members, yet hoping they will allow the atonement to take hold in their lives, allowing them to enjoy the blessings of gospel living.
Somewhere between rigid conformity and free-spirited do-what-you-please is truth.
There is little doubt in my mind that my Father in Heaven cares more about what is in my heart than how long my beard is. But I fully respect that if I want to serve in the temple, I need to shave my beard. There is no doubt in my heart that God would choose a young woman to be compassionate and kind before counting the piercings in her ear. But I also believe he’d like her to be aware of and follow prophetic counsel. I have no question that the Lord wants a deacon who is honest and true, a good friend and a good influence on those around him more than he wants him in a starched white shirt on Sunday morning, but I also see the value in the starched white shirt for the symbolism that it carries for the deacon and for those whom he serves.
In our quest to conform, however, we need to remember that each of us is a child of God. Just as my seven children are each unique, so are my Father in Heaven’s children unique. The miracle of the Savior’s comparison of his disciples to the lilies of the field is not that the lilies are all the same, but that each is different, and yet the Lord still cares for them. The children’s song is “I am a child of God,” not “We are children of God.” It is an individual anthem, attentive to the needs – just as the Savior was and continues to be – of The One.
Elder Scott spoke several years ago about the fact that in conference our leaders often speak of the ideal – ideal families and individual behavior – but that they recognize that often we do not live in ideal circumstances. Indeed, the point of the atonement is that we all fall short of the ideal and for that reason we need, and have, a Savior. God loves us so much that He provided a way for us to find peace.
Over at Real Intent, a ten-day series on mental disorders is finishing up this weekend. I hope you’ve had a chance to take a look at it. You’ll find a variety of approaches to mental illness from many perspectives. There’s discussion about different disorders, and different ways the same disorders may manifest themselves. There is discussion about a variety of ways to cope with those disorders and a wide array of resources that can help.
One of the things the series has reminded me of, just as the play reminded me of: our baptismal covenant teaches us to mourn with those that mourn, to comfort those who stand in need of comfort. Nowhere in Mosiah 18 does it tell us our covenant includes an injunction to judge one another or to attribute blame for our neighbor’s trials. We are not to be as Job’s friends, obliquely suggesting he is somehow responsible for his own suffering. We are to mourn and to comfort.
In my next-to-normal life, I cherish those friends and family members who have mourned with me and comforted me, and it gives me courage and hope that I can do the same for others.
Note: I loved the production of Next to Normal I saw, and I would encourage anyone who has the chance to see it. Fair warning, however: this play (like so many these days) is laced with profanity. If that sort of thing will trouble you, then proceed with caution. For me, the profanity was tolerable. Far more jarring are the implications of the mental illness and its treatment and effects, but then, that’s the whole point of the play.