No Such Thing As the New Normal
I’m sure that like me, you’ve been hearing this term “the new normal” to describe life during the Coronavirus pandemic. With the sudden collapse of life as we’ve known it, as well as a brand-new set of routines that revolves around regional lockdowns, constant disinfection, moving from in-person interactions to mostly virtual ones, and social distancing for safety, it certainly feels like our ideas of “normal” have been completely turned upside down in a matter of days.
As human beings, we are creatures of habit. Given that our entire way of life has been totally destabilized, it makes sense that we would seek solace or certainty in a “new normal.” Even if that term is used in a tongue-in-cheek way, I recognize that there’s a genuine need to turn to some kind of normalcy—in the form of routines, ideas, or simple frameworks that remind us of who we are and how we’re supposed to function.
To be honest, I’m not sure I agree with trying to find a “new normal.”
The truth is, there’s no such thing as normal! There never was! We live our lives in allegiance to a false sense of security. In the United States, many of us are taught to idealize the past and look nostalgically back upon “better times” when roles were more clearly defined and the world felt stable and safe.
The world has never been stable or safe. This is just a story we have told ourselves in order to avoid feeling the pain and confusion that are such major components of change. That idealized image of stability is nothing more than a fantasy—a cozy blanket that wraps us up all nice and snug in a lie that is comforting, but is nonetheless still a lie.
I gently challenge you to adopt a mindset that allows you to release the need for a new normal. You deserve something much, much better. Below are a few possibilities for how to adapt to change in the midst of the chaos.
We are experiencing massive change right now, and the only way to respond to it is with flexibility and curiosity. We know that in order to stop the spread of COVID-19, we must radically alter almost everything about how we work, socialize, care for our health and well-being, connect with our friends and family, envision our civic responsibility, and mourn some of the freedoms that many of us in the Western world take for granted.
We have come too far to go back to “normal” or define our new lives with this pointless label.
Of course, it is perfectly understandable that we want new definitions, new routines, new stability—anything to help us feel like the world is operating as it should, that we can still experience safety, beauty, and comfort in all the minutiae and little details that make up a life worth living. At the same time, we must come to terms with the fact that some things will never go back to normal again. This can send us spinning into denial or depression, or we can view it as a portal that is inviting us into a new rite of passage.
Accept what is
In 1969, a Swiss-American psychiatrist named Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, who worked with the terminally ill, wrote in her book On Death and Dying that grief is divided into five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Each of us is on our own individual journey to acceptance.
By acceptance, I don’t mean giving in to despair or resignation. I simply mean that the current conditions that face us are likely to derail our carefully formulated plans and our definitions of who we are, what we aspire to, and what we should or should not want.
This isn’t a bad thing. I’ve been thinking a lot about how this moment is offering us a powerful opportunity to redefine our priorities. There are so many things that need to shift on a sociocultural level: among them, our healthcare system and our collective attitudes about productivity at all costs. Now that the engine of industry has screeched to a halt, we are being encouraged to address the parts of our “normal” lives that were broken, and that needed very badly to change.
The prospect of change and the uncertainty that lies ahead have put our collective nervous system into a state of high alert. But what if we are being given the chance to choose our own response, to shift our understanding of what actually matters to us, instead of defaulting to what society says is normal?
What if the way we rewrite “normal” as individuals can have ripple effects that will ultimately be instrumental in creating life-affirming belief systems that benefit us all?
I got some clarity around what I want my response to this moment in time to be when I saw the following graphic that a friend of mine shared on social media.
Moments of crisis are meant to take us into the five stages of grief. But in the final stage, acceptance, we can allow our hearts to be cracked open even more. Even as we experience sorrow and uncertainty, we can simultaneously hold space for gratitude, empathy, creativity, and possibility. We can begin to live in the growth zone.
I think about it this way: When you do yoga, the experience of falling out of a pose and being off balance helps you to feel and return to your center. Likewise, destabilizing experiences provide us with chances to find a stability that we may not have even known was there—a stability that we can only locate if we are willing to turn inward.
Breathe and be present
We are intensely aware of our mortality, and it’s making us feel a lot of different ways: scared shitless, as well as filled with new hope and a tender recognition of life’s preciousness. The pandemic has created a huge fissure in our current reality, and many of the things that used to be considered normal are now falling through the cracks.
If you can, in this moment, take a deep breath and let your idea of “normal” go. Just imagine “normal” softly melting away on your exhalation. If you feel alarmed by this release, gently come back to your breath. In fact, while you’re at it, be sure to drop into your body at least a handful of times during a day, put your hand on your heart and belly, and just breathe. There’s a reason that pretty much any spiritual teacher you meet emphasizes the importance of breathing. Connecting to our breath helps to situate us in the present moment, which ultimately, is all we have. In addition, simply breathing and being with ourselves helps us develop compassion and awe for the incredible, adaptable, and strong beings we are.
You are human, which means you are the epitome of resilience. When you come out of this on the other side, you’ll likely realize that the most valuable and enduring things were with you all along. They never left. And they were so much better than anything “normal” could have promised.
This is the first in a blog series about how we can respond to the global pandemic in powerful ways. If you have a topic you’d like me to address, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.