What is Normal?
If there’s one thing I’m looking forward to it’s “precedented times”. But what even are precedented times? If you were unfortunate enough to exist between 2589 and 2504 BC, precedented times meant that you were an Egyptian slave humping slabs of concrete for hours on end in the blistering desert heat. If you lived during the 14th century, you and everyone you loved would have been subject to social turmoil, filled with plague, famine, and an unprecedented desire for social mobility. And if you existed during the second world war, normality meant that you’d endure bombings, rationing, separation from loved ones and possibly early death.
Since you’re reading this we can assume that you didn’t live through any of that. Instead, the year is 2020. Your government has demanded you to stay at home during the summer months in an attempt to protect health systems from crippling under the strain of over admissions caused by a virus that is so infectious you can basically wipe out grandma if you sneeze within 2 metres of her (and those with underlying health conditions). In comparison to the suffering that generations gone by have endured, “unprecedented times” in the 21st century doesn’t sound too bad. We have Netflix and Tiger King to keep us entertained. We can stay up to date on breaking news by scrolling into oblivion on our iPhones and Zoom lets us host quiz nights with our friends. Sure, all of our hopes and dreams for 2020 have been shat upon, irreversibly ruined. But, this disruption is temporary, right? Come April 2021, we’ll all be skipping down the street high-fiving strangers and reminiscing on estranged times. So until then, let’s rejoice in distracting ourselves with social media binges, DIY projects and a tonne of booze. Sound good…?
Most corona convos go something like this; “Imagine how great the parties will be when this shit is over!”, “I cannot wait to fly away on holiday again!” and “I’m quite excited to go back to work”. I’ve also caught myself fantasising over that magical moment when the government metaphorically cuts the red ribbon and declares the economy officially open for business again. I imagine a sea of people descending on towns and cities in a sort of Black-Friday-esque consumerist opulence only with more gratitude and respect for one another. I’ve revelled in the thought of doing ordinary things like going to a cinema, cafe or restaurant. And perhaps most prominently, I’ve mused about going to a bar on Friday night, befriending everyone inside, and coming home on Sunday morning (Let’s be honest, that’s what we’re all planning on doing). The truth, however, is that we are heading into a very different world and to live patiently in anticipation for the past is setting ourselves up for immense disappointment and the inability to thrive beyond the crises (I won’t call it the New World Order, but that’s essentially what it is if we’re going to be all Russell Brand about it).
Why change sucks!
Change is a difficult pill to swallow. We use what’s typical as a benchmark for what is good. David Hume pointed out that people tend to allow the status quo (“what is”) to guide their moral judgments (“what ought to be”). From a young age, we try to understand what’s going on around us, and we often do so by explaining. Naturally, when something happens that conflicts with our expectations of what the world “ought” to be like it is deeply unsettling. That’s why a toddler might cry if he sees his mother wearing a wolf mask, or why optical illusions freak us out, or why the surrender of our most basic civil liberties in the face of a global pandemic pisses us off. We resist any form of social change that thwarts our expectations and we tend to react in one of two ways: anger and/or sadness. What determines that anger or sadness is whether we believe our loss was within somebody’s control or not. If we believe it was preventable or controllable, then we get angry. If we believe it was unpreventable, then we get sad. For example, if I’m minding my own business walking down the street and someone steals my iPhone out of my hand, I’ll likely want to kick said person in the teeth. However, if Apple halts all production of its iPhones, and I’m forced to buy a Samsung, there’s nothing I can do about it, so I’m likely to feel disappointed, sad even. We all define what “normal” is supposed to be for ourselves. Then we become attached to that vision, marrying it with normalcy and inevitably becoming incredibly upset when that normalcy is taken away from us.
Back to the more pressing issue at hand. We are at the mercy of global pandemic which is killing hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, shattering economies and forcing us to significantly change the way we live. A life of solitude vexed by perpetual boredom, loneliness and financial woe feels pretty abnormal for most of us snowflakes in the Western World. Up until about two months ago, materially, everything was the best it had ever been — we were freer, healthier and wealthier than any people in human history. Now we’ve been set back because some fuckwit in China ate a bat and Donald Trump thinks the solution might involve disinfecting everyone with Dettol. What a time to NOT be alive! Yet, I sense that the consensus is naively clinging onto the idea that this disruption is temporary and when it passes we can all go back to living like we did pre-corona times. The media is amplifying this message by assuring us that we are living in “unprecedented times” — a phrase I’ve grown to despise. For two reasons; firstly “unprecedented” implies that this is an unlikely event that will eventually pass and secondly because there is nothing unprecedented about this situation.
Why we must embrace change
Disruption is the norm. Pandemics have occurred throughout all of human history. For hundreds of years, people have responded by social distancing, cancelling events, closing businesses, and even cancelling church services. Schools and public spaces were closed in Asia in 2009 and 2001 and in North America in 1957 and 1918. Isaac Newton famously came up with his theories about gravitation and optics while quarantining at his mum’s house during 1666 (see it’s not all bad news!). The word “quarantine” itself comes from the Italian word “quaranta” which was invented in the 14th century as a response to the black plague.
Similarly, economic and political crises are the norm for human history, not the exception. And more often than not, they are caused by human fear, stupidity, and irrationality. These things happen every 20–30 years almost like clockwork in most parts of the world. Going back through history, you can hardly go more than ten years without some major, world-altering event that disrupted tens of millions of lives and often had catastrophic implications. In every case, the world has been a different place afterwards. Sometimes better, sometimes worse. Has slavery made us a better civilization? Clearly not. We’re still suffering the fallout from it. Did the Soviet Union create a better civilization for Russians? You could easily argue it set them back 100 years. Meanwhile, things like the Great Depression and the American Revolution definitely produced better results, even if it took many years or decades for them to appear.
The one thing we can be sure of is that real political, economical and societal disruption is the norm. Life is a game of changing. It never stops evolving, it has no moral arc, it does not act consistently and things never revert back to how they used to be. Therefore, we should always choose to embrace change, not resist it. Human progress hinges on our ability to adapt and overcome the elements. The struggle is part and parcel of that process. I’d even argue that suffering is a catalyst for growth. It’s wholly necessary. It’s also the reason you have evolved from a tiny blob of bacteria into a walking, talking, breathing mammal that can appreciate art, understand science and enjoy watching The Great British Bake Off. Some feat! So while this change might feel unsettling, we must choose to embrace it.
Now is not the time to sit around in our pants waiting for the conditions to be right again. While COVID has accelerated the pace of change, it is not abnormal and we must abandon this waiting-room mindset while we await our imminent prognosis. It’s likely that scientists will find a cure for COVID and that the economy will eventually bounce back in years or decades to come, but there is no cure for those who get left behind in its wake. We ought not to be weathering the storm with meaningless activities until we are freed from the prison of homes, but instead innovate, learn and grow in preparation for the road ahead.
For the foreseeable future, we can expect to live a more staggered way of life, where awkward queues lineup outside shops and social distancing is the norm. Beyond a vaccine, we can expect businesses to operate in even more agile ways as they experience first-hand the benefits of having employees work remotely. The rapid decline of oil consumption will undoubtedly change air travel as we know it, perhaps taking us a step closer towards fully embracing green energies. I’m also optimistic that a new globalisation hints of a utopian vision that recognises we have a collective interest in solving universal problems globally, not locally, and can put aside day-to-day arguments about trade and commerce in the face of a global crisis. Whether it’s tackling the climate crisis, ending world hunger or dealing with a global pandemic. Unity and solidarity that is liberated from political terms and conditions could catapult human progress into nirvana. Or perhaps the decimation of small businesses will result in a dependency on the state? Maybe medical martial law will spark greater fear of the microbial world bringing with it permanent norms of social distancing?
This, of course, is all conjecture, but whether you want to adopt an optimistic or pessimistic stance, one thing we can be sure of is real change. Life is an ever-changing continuum. Normal is the label we attach to our time within that infinity. And when tomorrow comes, that will become our new normal.