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Mind Boxes

What is “normal”? Normal implies that something has happened over and over again and is now commonplace. “Normal” implies that there is an established and expected  order to things. “Normal” functions under the assumption that anyone coming behind those from before can follow and maintain the patterns that make things well, normal. “Normal” implies that a shared experience can be used to compare to, and deem others contrary to it, as abnormal. “Normal” is predictable. “Normal” is familiar and “normal” is reassuring. 

Yes, patterns are a thing and literally make the world go ‘round. We have the same seasons around the same time every year (well not so much recently but roughly so). We expect a big presidential election to occur every four years. We know the life cycles of even the smallest creatures and microorganisms. We can predict the weather, stocks, trends, sports seasons, and so many other reoccurrences. It’s good to know that if you leave at a certain time in the morning, you’ll miss that long red light and get to the office in time for a cup of coffee. I get it, patterns help us get into a rhythm and help us understand the world.They help create “normal”. 

Isn’t it ironic though that we, dynamic creatures, beings that have never been the same exact way at any two moments in time, find solace in normalcy. Even in the womb, we literally change every day, yet many of us, especially this year, have gone crazy trying to grasp hold of this concept of normalcy as if things have ever really stayed the same. Why is it, that as we are changed and shaped into different beings after every moment of every single day, that change, one blip in our routine, diversions in our plans, or a pandemic, can so easily throw many of us off into a state of frenzy and confusion? 

Well, I sure couldn’t tell you the answer to that. I have been grappling with this concept for the last five months as an MS1. I don’t feel like myself. I haven’t been “myself”, whatever that means. I find myself reminiscing and looking at old pictures of when quarantine wasn’t a thing. When I had a full head of hair minus the stress bald spots. When things were “normal”. I even looked to my family for that sense of normalcy and questioning every big decision I made during this move trying to gauge whether I was doing everything right or not. I am the first doctor in my immediate family. The youngest to start a graduate degree and the only person in my family who can say that they graduated and moved to the other side of the country on my own during a pandemic. Yet I’m still looking for a pattern “normal enough” to fit this experience into. 

I’ve tried to handle things the way my parents would’ve. I watched all of the med school YouTubers and IG bloggers for advice. I tried to keep up with my old hobbies and friends to stay connected to who I was before this year. I thought (and still think sometimes) that if I can just expect something and it comes to pass that then I’ll know that I am still me. But the “me” I was yesterday, last month, and last year, are different people. They are the carcasses of old thinking patterns, outgrown cocoons of versions of myself that had never been tested this much, versions of me that never really fought to succeed academically, ghosts of someone who never had to keep it all together while going through med school while dealing with family issues and health problems, who never had the fear of living in a white town during a time of racial hostility, and someone who never dove as deep into true introspection and bittersweet self-reflection as I do now. 

But to be honest, the normalcy I’ve let comfort me has done more harm than good. Before realizing that I had to let go of the norms in my life, that false sense of “the real me” has held me back a bit and has scared me out of moving forward. It almost led me to believe that others who’ve known “me” knew what was be best for me right now, more than I did.

Physiologists use the word schema to characterize “a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information”. To me, schemas are mind boxes. You make them as a little kid. You make one for the trip to the dentist’s office, another for school, one for a first date, etc. You pretty much start off with two; one “good” and one “bad”; and your experiences (smaller “boxes”) somehow get placed in either of the two as time goes on. Happy is in the good box and sad is in the bad box. Pain is in the bad box. So are strangers and anything unfamiliar. The cuts and bruises you got from learning how to ride a bike were also put in the bad box, but your parents helped you so that you eventually learned how to not fall, and so riding a bike got shifted into the good box. However, the sensation you got from falling stayed in the bad box. Money is in the good box right next to happiness. Criminals are in the bad box right next to that bully from middle school. Good grades made your parents happy so they were put in the good box. Heaven is in the good box. Hell and that devil are in the bad box. For me, bugs, and rodents will ALWAYS be in the bad box. For some of us, some things were put in the good box even though we didn’t want them to be there, and vice versa. You may have lost a parent at a young age, or only grew up with one for other reasons, so the absence of them brought confusion, which ended up in the bad box right next to pain. So on and so forth. The things in those boxes became associated with each other. Over the years our boxes have multiplied into many ideas about the way we see and characterize the world. Our sense of normalcy originated from those first two boxes. Normalcy itself is most likely in the good box right next to stability, consistency, and comfort—as those were the things that helped us make the boxes in the first place. 

So now this semester, you’re probably applying to grad school or starting off just like me confused. Shook. Lost. Unstable. Uncertainty is uncomfortable, painful, and exhausting, all of which are “bad” things at their core. Covid has made us feel many of these things and so we may have identified it as something that was completely bad. So most of us straight up dunked that jawn into that “bad” box. 

But we’re at an advantage. We can choose to not rely on a “normal” that may have never existed. We can actually flex our innate ability to adapt and evolve every day. As many of us have been doing, we can use the changes in consumer behaviors to our advantage. We can take that money for the graduation parties that were supposed to happen and invest it (even though I didn’t, it sounds like a great idea lol). We can make sh*t shake in Zoom meetings from the comfort of our homes, AND in our pajama bottoms. We can really take the time to unearth and resolve strongholds and break unhealthy patterns. We can truly cleanse ourselves of people and things who don’t belong in our life (therapy is so much more accessible nowadays by the way) . Even with our families, we can be enough miles away to muster up the courage and not let “keeping the peace” at Christmas prevent us from putting up well-needed boundaries (yes that was super specific because that is what I’m doing). We have to relearn that change and adaptation aren’t as linear and married to the “bad box” as they may have been when we were younger. We have to learn to recognize our “new” lives and ourselves as “good” as we become people we’ve never been but want to be. 

Perhaps we’re scared because now, in 2020, we have no choice but to make a move. We have been forced to choose between cracking under the pressure or letting the pressure shape us into something greater than who we were before. For some of us, the first option is all we have the strength to accept. For others, we’ve decided that we’re going to fight, even though that has been sooooo very ghetto.

“Normal” is not it. Hate that for us. I don’t want things to go back to “normal” when the vaccine goes completely public or even when the virus is “under control”. “Normal” is us being less concerned about the company we keep, less serious about protecting our mental & physical health, and less aware of how our health, biases, and privilege may be affecting others. Going back to normal would in many ways mean taking steps backward.

So what is “normal”? Is it truly more than predictably and comfort? Or is it really holding us back from creating our own? 

Which box did you put it in?


Ja’Neil Humphrey is a first year medical student at the Loma Linda University School of Medicine, and is the Blog Content Director for Greater Influence. You can connect with her on Instagram @_jgmh 



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