Why Normal Isn’t Healthy: A Review of Bowen White’s Book

November 21, 2019
November 21, 2019 Barbie Wong

I stumbled upon Dr. Bowen White’s website when I was trying to solve a problem. It’s the problem most children face when their parent reminds them to practice their instrument: How can I play my instrument so that it’s not boring or frustrating but actually fun, engaging, and playful? This question drives my teaching and research because it is so pervasive and because I believe there is a solution.

Even though White is not a music educator, he sheds light on this issue in his book, Why Normal Isn’t Healthy. After we spoke on the phone, White sent me his book, and I am so grateful to have read it. Having given seminars and speeches around the world about his experiences as a medical doctor and later professional clown, White deftly combines humor, vulnerability, and personal stories to show readers how to live a life full of compassion, playfulness, and meaning. He articulates clearly how to live a fulfilled life with his innovative paradigms, authentically shares his whole self including his imperfections, and leads by example.

As an avid reader of a variety of genres including self-help books, I thought that I had seen it all, especially all the iterations on the theme of “our experience of the world is an internal thing, so the only way to change our experience is to change what is inside us.” Stop blaming others, stop blaming yourself, and work on creating a better world between your ears. What White does so brilliantly is to present our predicament–the Buddhists call it suffering, Westerners call it reality–as something inherited and that most of the world functions this way. In other words, we all experience the world as a result of what our parents and environment taught us, and even though that is considered normal, it is usually not healthy. White leads us to discover our true state of being by revealing the fact that every single person lives with a “Scared One” inside them. Everyone feels inadequate. We may have buried this Scared One or our feelings of inadequacy, but it is present and responsible for the many ways in which we dysfunctionally interact with our world, such as overeating, smoking, taking drugs, gossiping or any behavior that comes from a place of fear. The path out of fear does not mean abandoning our Scared One, but by first acknowledging its existence and then treating it with compassion.

The second reason why I eagerly anticipated my bedtime reading hour the last few weeks is White’s authenticity. He shares experiences with openness and vulnerability, admitting mistakes he has made and that even though he will continue trying to improve, he will likely continue to make them. Mistakes, however, are opportunities for growth. “I want to use the stressors of my life as a stimulus to change,” he writes.

During our phone call, White told me about his medical practice and his desire to help his patients holistically. When he change to 90-minute appointments, he was able to more fully and deeply understand his patients, even if he humbly refers to his fallibilities with this sign posted on his office door:

His message is clear: embrace mistakes and all imperfections that come with being human. “I think we’re made to miss the mark, to lose our way, to forget what is important, and to be disobedient.”

White fills his book with entertaining stories and draws from scientific studies, poetry, and literature. This include paying attention to our darker emotions. “My feelings, especially when uncomfortable, can guide me back to right relationship. In that way, our feelings are sacred, even the ones we don’t like.”

He also talks about cultivating a loving relationship with his daughters and reminds us about the importance of unconditional love for our children. He sent me a bumper sticker that I have posted above my desk:

After reading White’s book, I have a better understanding about what drives each of us, how our own feelings of shame and inadequacies can affect how we engage in this world, and how to finding meaning in what we do, including playing music. Making music can be a satisfying activity but we must first acknowledge the pitfalls in the road that lead to musical mastery. These include wanting to make music for external reasons such as wanting to look good to others or using music to add weight to college applications. They also include the view that one must muscle through daily practice as if training for the Olympics. I don’t deny the importance of persistence and focus in learning an instrument, but to think that the best way to learn an instrument is by sheer force of will and grit diminishes the deliciousness of music. It doesn’t make space for playfulness, creativity, or savoring the sweetness of music.

What needs to happen instead is a curiously open mind that views mistakes as a part of the learning path. Music teachers must show parents how to guide their child so that each practice session is engaging for the child. Parents need to guide their child with eagerness and balance, infusing attentiveness, playfulness, and kindness into each practice session. Parents must also uncover their own Scared Ones and honor their own mistakes, thereby modeling for their children how to truly live life as a human being, flaws and all. And that is the best gift parents can give to their children.

We all have a need to enjoy life, to engage in satisfying activities. Making music should be no different. Adults can help children honor this need by making practice sessions more lively. This includes playing games, making music with others, and by adults positively acknowledging the child and their music.

“When we are doing what is healthy for us, when we are honoring our needs–our Sacred One–other people may wonder what’s wrong with us. They may see us as selfish. Yet is is only by honoring our own needs that we discover our gifts. Our gifts, once discovered, can then be used in the service of the common good. And we are here to serve.”

Let me know what you think about these ideas in the comments below.

Dr. Bowen White’s website: www.bowenwhite.com

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