Countless daily insanities comprise what we call “normal.”

Well before you get to the edge of what is generally regarded as sanity, we’ve got a few weird, widespread behaviors that belong in a book of some kind. We just don’t have names for them. To name just a few:

  • Our weird terror that anyone should hear us using the restroom, compelling us to run water while we use it – even forcing the water-conscious to go so far as to download an app to simulate the sound of water, because Heaven Forfend Anyone Should Guess What People Do In The Bathroom.
  • Whatever it is that compels us to check our e-mail multiple times under the table in the course of dinner, in case the Internet is having fun without us.
  • The desire to hide our cat’s litter box in something that looks like this.
  • The desire to own custom portraits of our pets dressed in Elizabethan costume.
  • Whatever it is that makes some people insist on talking to you on planes, even though you have brought a book and a Do Not Disturb sign.

These are flippant, but the question of defining what normal is comes to a head this weekend in a serious way with all kinds of implications when the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders comes out.

Judge a book by its cover. (AP)
Judge a book by its cover. (Associated Press)

What is normal?

Well, what’s in a name?

Part of the debate around the updated DSM to be released this weekend can be summed up in Juliet’s question. The manual alters the descriptions and classifications of mental disorders that have already crept into the vernacular. Narcissism’s out. Hoarders are in. Autism has been transformed to a spectrum, on which Asperger’s now falls, ADHD is being broadened, and a hefty debate rages over all these alterations.

“The man who could call a spade a spade should be compelled to use one. It is the only thing he is fit for,” says a character in Oscar Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Gray.” But what about things more subtle than spades? These aren’t, after all, just words: They determine what treatment is covered by insurance and what kind of services are available in schools, and inform our collective vocabulary as we go about the daily task of describing each other to each other. It’s a terrifyingly immense task.

What’s normal? Is there such a thing? Maybe it’s just an absence of symptoms. That’s why the manual stirs so much controversy: The terms that get used in the DSM help define the line between benign eccentricity and treatable condition. The Internet has made it painfully clear that everyone is weird about something. You just need to get to know him or her and find out what it is. But how weird is too weird? There are some clear limitations. But then comes the gray area.

To name something is to limit it. When you say “cloud,” from the ground it seems clear what you are talking about. But when you’re in it, is it mist? Is it water? It’s a lot of H2O hanging out in some form, probably in the shape of something that frightened you in childhood. The DSM seeks to label the cloud, but at the edge, it’s hard to define. Mental illness runs a wide range. Is too much grief a disorder, or just part of being human?

Just look at Google, where most suggested searches from “Is it normal” lead you down a primrose path of concerns. We all want to know what normal is. To suspect that you aren’t – may be the most normal thing of all.

“The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well,” Joe Ancis said. He may have had a point.

But there’s a point past this that is more difficult to define. No wonder the controversy rages.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.