The Pathology of Normalcy by Erich Fromm

Is an individual sane when he or she is adjusted to an insane society?

Probably this question is what most describes how pathological it is to be normal, to blend in. Societies we live in are to us, humans, like water to fish – swimming our entire lives in the same pond we never notice if the water is slightly poisonous, we think that is the norm so we cannot imagine properly what would we really need. Confirmation bias makes us believe that the society which one lives in must also be the ideal one, in case one is adjusted to it.

It is easy to know what are bad conditions for a psyche to develop, just like it is simpler to define mental health by listing the absence of mental illnesses. Fromm goes in depth in discussing how to define mental health and what a healthy psyche needs for a healthy development.

Fromm defines clearly there are two concepts of defining human nature. One of them considers that a person is merely the sum of the society which they grow up in; the other sees the human nature as an absolute – in ideal conditions similar qualities develop, including a healthy psyche. Back in the 50ies when the lectures were held, the transcripts of which this book mostly consists of, there were more Marxists around who described the absolute ideal human nature as a tool for the society, thinking that the existing form of human existence was the absolute nature. Over many centuries it has been considered that the main motivator for people to work was not to starve.

Fromm voices the evidence that debunks the starvation motive and many other dogmas at the time on the market. There is a belief that human is lazy by nature and all motivation to do anything must be external. Whether the human is lazy by nature, captured Fromm for years. What he learned is becoming more and more obvious these days, but half a century ago must have been revolutionary.

People need lots of sensory input, cannot stay put or do nothing for very long. We get bored. If we were lazy we would enjoy boredom. This is not the case. We are happiest when we can do the things we have an internal motivation to do. We learn best the things that we are interested in and can keep our focus on these matters for hours, or years, however long it takes to solve a mystery or enjoy creating something and learn getting better at this creation. As a study shows, even monkeys focus best on things that captivate them.

Now, there is a movement in the startup field and among more innovative companies to apply this knowledge. People can choose their working hours, contribute to the growth of the company with their suggestions how things should be – the workers are more integrated in the whole company, not just commodities or tools to use. It is heartwarming to see this happening, yet why has it taken so much time to be applied? It is barely the scratch of a scratch of a scratch of the surface. Those companies are rare exceptions. Most of the world still works like slaves.

Slightly blind

In the light of this book I would like to describe a family I met during my trip to South-Eastern Turkey.

The family included two grown up sons who’d left home, two teenage girls, a mother and a father. It was a rather average Muslim family: the father was rarely around and the mother did all the work. The girls had to wear three layers of pyjama to sleep while it was above 35 degrees Celsius, “Because,” the mother would say, “less is disgraceful.”

She was forty-five, angrily worried. From the sight one would not guess she was a day younger than sixty. The father would show up for breakfast, point that the floor is dusty, and all the women began cleaning the entire flat, not bearing witness to the father’s ignorant departure.

The mother did not deserve to be called a woman. When I say this, it sounds perhaps a little disrespectful. Let it be. If archetypally women bear four roles in various situations throughout their lives: the girl, the seducer, the queen, the caretaker; the mother in the family bore merely a half of one of them, the caretaker. She took care of the family’s physical needs such as feeding them; not emotional. No playfulness was present, just serious functionality.

What bothered me was her attitude, her thinking that her kind of behaviour is the one and only right way of being. She had lived in one place her entire life and only knew that culture which happens to repress women. The fact she knew no better may forgive her.

She was a victim of living up to the expectations of what one thinks the society has on them. Rebellion is disgraceful, sweating like a pig is graceful. Defying one’s social environment is normally what brings societies to evolve for the better. This was a case of silent submission to the norms. In her society she was sane. I hope she is happy.

It is an example to how much we think that our ways of living are the right ways. I think that being free and following one’s heart and bliss brings one a happy life. How can I ever be sure that this were actually true?

A definition attempt

Fromm doesn’t quite reach a concise definition, however he gets close. He considers noteworthy that free form of creative spirit arises when the person has become thyself and mental health is constituted by active relatedness.

He had a thing with alienation.

Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.

-The WHO

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