Navigating “Normal”

Striving for Normalcy

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was scheduled to teach my seminar on Reminiscence at 2:30PM. In the wake of the 9-11 attacks, I emailed my students to tell them that I would be in the classroom at the appointed hour and would be ready to hold class or to just talk, but that they were not required to attend. All of the students showed up, saying that they were grateful for a reason to be away from TV screens. They asked that we discuss course material because they needed a taste of their normal routine. We did so for a few minutes, but it was not long before the conversation turned to the history-making events of the day.

I was reminded of this need to strive for normalcy in abnormal circumstances on our last morning in St. Petersburg. Amanda, Shelley, and I visited the Museum of the Defense and Siege of Leningrad to learn more about this defining period in the city’s history. The many stories told within this small museum included children attending school and thespians performing for audiences, all while they were cut off from the rest of the world by Nazi forces.  Amidst a highly abnormal situation, routine behaviors continued.

The New Normal

During those 900 days of the siege, food became increasingly scarce so bread was rationed. Below is the picture of a scale that measured the amount of bread for an adult for a whole day (the bread is on the cutting board). As bad as that looks, note that the bread had half the grain usually used to make it; filler materials included substances such as saw dust. The picture on the right shows other substances that people ate, including boiled leather from a belt. Another display told us that an artist began eating his paint.

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Starvation was not the only cause of death in the city.  The left map below shows the location of bombs that hit the city, and the right one is a sign giving people advice about which side of the street to walk on in order to be safest from bombings.  I did not see mention of people being killed by the bombs but given the large number of them, it is hard to imagine that bombs failed to add to the death toll.

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Citizens worked to cover gold trimmings on buildings to reduce cues that could help the Nazis know where to aim their bombs.  More generally the city became so dark that citizens wore glow-in-the-dark pins like those below so they could see one another and not run into each other while walking the streets.

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Life was clearly stressful.  Our audio tape tour noted that the set of three pictures below are of the same woman over the course of roughly a year.  She appears to have aged decades in that short time.

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There is a Russian girl who kept a diary of when different members of her family died. If you look closely at her diary, you can see that it is an address book; she wrote on what she had available.  This girl is a symbol of The Great Patriotic War (Russia’s term for World War II) for Russians, just as Anne Frank is a symbol of World War II for Westerners. Russians and Westerners may have a different name for the war, but the suffering was shared.

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 So what is “normal”?

As I think about the adaptive behavior of the citizens of Leningrad during the siege, I am struggling to understand when the abnormal became the new normal.  Was it after a week or a month or a year of the siege?  Did it differ across individuals based on their ability to cope?  Were there a series of new normals, each tied to a new development (e.g., the fire in the warehouse of food)?  Some edges between normal and abnormal seem stark, such as the morning of September 11, 2001, but when did that abnormal turn into our present normal?  Can “normal” exist without a comparison of “abnormal”?

In addition to raising questions, this museum left me marveling at human resilience and fascinated with how the museum creators told their story.  But the latter is a post for another day.


2 Comments on “Navigating “Normal”

  1. Kristi, you captured so eloquently and succinctly some key moments from that trip to the Blockade Museum. Thank you! I am intrigued by your discussion of the “new normal.” It seems that phrase started gaining currency after the 2008 financial crisis as a way of breaking the bad news that we all better just get used to “it.” From the point of view of a psychologist, what sub-field would you say deals with this human ability to transition from “abnormal” to “normal?” I’m reminded of the oft quoted passage from Dostoevsky’s fictionalized memoir Notes from the House of the Dead (about his time in a prison camp in Siberia): “Man is a creature that can get accustomed to anything, and I think that is the best definition of him.”

  2. Thank you, Amanda.

    Several different areas of psychology explore adjustment from “abnormal” to “normal.” Clinical psychology and health psychology are two of the most prominent. Positive psychology places an emphasis on resiliency in the face of great challenges. Social psychologists have explored how groups influence behavior, including groups influencing individuals to conform to ideas they know are wrong (e.g., Solomon Asch’s classic studies). Behaviorists study the relationship of stimuli (context) and responses (behavior) and those could include abnormal as well as normal situations. Evolutionary psychology is all about adaptation. Developmental psychology examines how people grow and change over time, in response to both “normal” and “abnormal” events. I could go on with additional examples, but I hope the prior list illustrates that a variety of sub-fields have findings that inform our understanding of humans adapting to abnormal circumstances.

    Thank you for sharing Dostoevsky’s quote! As much as I appreciate his point, I am not sure that we are alone in getting accustomed to anything. I recently read a story about sea creatures navigating through human trash in their environment; they also seem able to get accustomed to a range of circumstances. I’m reminded of a comment in Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” “Life will find a way” (or something very close to that phrasing).

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