Online Book Club: Everybody's Normal Till You Get To Know Them - Part One

Posted at 18:05pm on 13th December 2010

APOLOGIES! My admin/editing box keeps ditching quotation marks, dashes and apostrophes. This cannot be rectified until the New Year, and as I am having to reinsert them manually, in the meantime, I hope you will excuse any omissions.

Everybody's normal till you get to know them at Daves house. This was the reminder sent out to the Book Club that I lead. It made us laugh when ten of us gathered together - at Dave's house - to discuss John Ortbergs book by that title.

Without exception, we agreed that we had thoroughly enjoyed this month's choice of book, and that we'd found reading it an enlightening experience. Sometimes witty, sometimes moving, it was at all times profound and, as each chapter was followed by a list of questions, I didn't provide my usual aide memoir. Instead, we took it in turns to kick off the discussion.


The premise of the book is explicit from the title. We are made for community, but don't find it easy. The first chapter states that every one of us pretends to be healthier and kinder than we really are, and that we are all, therefore, engaged in what might be called "depravity management". This takes the form of hiding (so that we won't be hurt) yet yearning to connect. Our problem is likened to that of the porcupine: bristling with 30,000 quills which may be driven into an enemy's body, it is not, in Ortberg's delightfully understated opinion, considered a lovable creature.

Its inclination is either to attack, or to roll into a ball. Yet the need to connect, to mate, compels the porcupine to learn to pull in its quills - and learn to dance! In the interest of survival, courtship and engagement must prevail.

It appears to be a lesson that many of us never learn. When asked whether our tendency was to attack, engage, or withdraw, many in the Book Club admitted to the latter. But as one of the few who disclosed an inclination for engagement, even I had to admit that it could often be a painful and humiliating experience, and that there were no guarantees that you wouldn't end up wounded by a few quills and barbs.


Nevertheless, the concept - no, the actuality - of community is paramount in Ortberg's view. He cites loneliness as the deepest wound of all. Quoting Edward Hallowell (psychiatrist and author) he writes that we live in a society that is obsessed with, and enslaved by achieving, yet, at the same time, is increasingly bankrupt and impoverished when it comes to connecting. It was a statement with which we all had to agree. And paradoxically, if are to achieve personal growth, then community and connecting with others is the only way to do so.

Noting that it was before the Fall, when God recognised that it was not good for man to be alone, the author points out that there is a human void which, in the Garden of Eden, God, himself, does not fill! Rather much to the surprise of the Book Club members we see that he creates another human to fill that void.

With great humour, the author tells us of two health issues related to loneliness: unfriendly people have more colds and are, therefore, snottier than friendly people; and it is healthier to eat sweets with good friends than to eat broccoli alone!


As the evening progressed, we, in the Book Club, found ourselves opening up more intimately with one another - which, of course, is exactly what the book author is advocating. When it came to discussing what Ortberg calls the "Fellowship of the Mat" (the story of the paralysed man whose friends demolished a roof to ensure that he was healed by Jesus) we freely admitted that we often found it easier to be in the role of the mat-carrying friends, rather than that of the man on the mat. Our mat may be fear, an uncontrollable temper, or a lack of trust, says Ortberg. Yet we may spend our whole lives doing "mat management" - pretending that we have no weaknesses, no needs.

I shared my experience from the previous week when my mother, a frail old lady, came to stay. She was clearly the one on the mat, and my husband and I did all we could to meet her needs. Until, that is, I pulled a muscle in my back. Immediately, she was transformed! She became nurse: "Anything I can do for you, dear?" then Ward Sister, "Cover her feet up, Paul, before they get cold," and finally, by her own admission, Matron. And she BLOSSOMED! Her need to be needed was met in my inability to do anything for myself. Indeed, I half expected to be taken to the lavatory, which is where I'd sustained the injury in the first place.

Are we quick to offer help, yet reluctant to accept it? We agreed, in the Book Club, that it's not easy to allow yourself to admit to being needy. To do so, makes you vulnerable. Harder still if your need is not physical but spiritual. Listing the deadliest sins as resentment, arrogance, judgementalism and lovelessness, Ortberg points out that they can be committed without having to lift a finger. "We are predisposed to do wrong when conditions are right," he says, reminding us that God, nevertheless, gives us free choice. "In the same way," he writes, "in authentic community, people are never coerced or manipulated into self-disclosure. God allows Adam to hide."

PART TWO of this discussion, The Games That People Play (includes Confession & Forgiveness, Dealing with Guilt, and Stone Throwing) follows.







PERSONAL GROWTH & RELATIONSHIPS (inc. Personality Test & Drama Triangle)


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Author of a number of books, one a Sunday Times No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies offers resources to inform, inspire and encourage. She is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV. Book her here for your event.

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