Our New Normal: Surrounded by Caricatures of Humanity

Normal is such a tricky word. The word presents two double-edged syllables razoring through what we claim to expect while simultaneously dissecting the very banality that has become intolerable in almost every aspect of our lives. There really is no normal, at least not one that is acceptable. To be normal is to be unoriginal. To not be normal is to require medication, therapy, or perhaps surgery, to get back to some reasonable baseline. What is a modern homo sapien to do?

I recently finished Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson. The book is a journey through space and time, stopping along the way to explore the wild edges of genius, madness, inhumanity, and vision. For those who love to explore the extreme reaches of the human drama, the book is entertaining. For those who like cautionary tales offering lessons to be learned from excess, the book is a warning. For those fascinated with the mega-wealthy, mega-brilliant, mega-selfish, and mega-driven, the book will awe, inspire, and possibly nauseate you. For those wanting interesting business, human, and technology insights, you will find Musk’s trajectory very instructive.


For my part, I am sympathetic to Elon Musk, admire his accomplishments, appreciate his success in pushing the envelope of the possible, and recognize his brilliance in solving big problems while pursuing a vision (actually, multiple visions) with single-minded purpose. The guy can really focus. The book is worth reading and his story worth following. It will remain entertaining and educational.

However, the book is also quite troubling. (Note to reader: I’m certain that most of our bio’s, if written under such a microscope, would offer their own version of troubling.) Though the scale and scope of Musk’s story is outsized relative to virtually everyone, his is one more in a world of stories that are increasingly bizarre, reflecting a world of extremes so distorted as to be difficult to comprehend. A tale of accomplishment beyond imagination with wreckage as dramatic as the explosions of SpaceX rockets. And one we can’t stop watching.

One (if not the most) troubling aspect of Musk’s story is his near-sociopathic lack of empathy or concern for the people around him. His outsized “success” can be directly attributed to his ability to use people – by “use” I mean everything from inspire to encourage to cajole to berate to trample – to get amazing things done. I’m certain he does care for people around him at some level, including loving his children and desperately seeking to be loved by others, however, the mission takes precedence. Human beings are cogs in the wheel of progress. In Musk’s case, the mission is to ensure the survival of human consciousness, but human dignity becomes a casualty along the way.

Elon Musk is certainly not the first, nor will he be the last, person to trample upon others to achieve his aims. The last Isaacson biography I read was on Steve Jobs, another brilliant, driven, and bizarrely demanding, man who achieved amazing things. We read about such people and shrug: of course they were difficult and demanding, that’s how they made things happen. The big problem for us a society is that these caricatures aren’t limited to the “great” among us.


What is normal anymore? Family norms? Social norms? Moral norms? We are drawn to the sensational, the extravagant, the outlandish, the dark, and the bizarre. The most famous humans on the planet aren’t really humans, they are caricatures of humans. They are collections of the extreme traits that stem from some the dictionary definition of homo sapien. We watch their movies, listen to their music, cheer them in sports contests, vote for them, “like” them, and talk about them incessantly. We also buy their clothes, read the books they recommend, listen to their podcasts, support their missions, and allow them to influence us.

We admire them and they are changing us.

We can argue that our society is producing these caricatures. After all, Elon Musk is only a reflection of the world around him. Sure, he’s pressing some envelopes, but there will always be outliers. It is this normalization of the extremes that becomes the danger. Not only is it desensitizing, it is changing the DNA of our definition of success and progress, as well as what is acceptable in the pursuit of what we want, what entertains us, and what “fulfills” us.

The battle for our humanity, and our souls, is on. My mind wanders to The Hunger Games and the Capitol, a world that had become a carnival collection of characters, behaviors, and norms, that were caricatures of humanity. Excess had become the norm, and the society had become soulless. A few weeks ago, I was walking on the ruins of a Roman civilization that had collapsed upon itself, a victim of its own evolving definition of success and entertainment and normal. Rome was the Capital, and its collapse ushered-in a time we still refer to as the “Dark Ages.”

Hope Springs Eternal

This week-end, I spent time hanging Christmas lights on our house. In our neighborhood and the surrounding community, that is still “normal.” A few days before, we gathered at my parents to celebrate Thanksgiving with a turkey, stuffing, and part of our family. It was refreshingly “normal.” Last night, I found myself rolling around on the living room floor with my grandchildren, Reagan repeatedly alternating between “tickle me” and “don’t tickle me” as 1-year old Blair wobbled in her first faltering steps. So beautiful. So unoriginal. So normal.

In a world where normal can look boring, banal, and cliched, we need to be on our guard to remember why it became normal to begin with. Those old fences and pathways, we find scattered about, were put there for a reason. All that is old was once new, and some things are worth holding onto, their normalcy being the very bedrock of what makes them special. The caricatures may seem like our new normal, but they don’t have to be.

Showing 2 comments
  • Jerry Berry

    Nice piece Phillip.

  • John Harrison

    Well said sir. Not everything that is “old” is bad. Some things are worth holding on to. For example, “manners” – hold the door for someone, anyone, everyone. Table manners, be kind and polite to others. The OLD basics.

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