Let’s Not Go Back to Normal. We Can Do Better.

Normal is a setting on a dishwasher.

Like many people, I’ve now had my first COVID vaccine shot. While I’m relieved to be protected and glad to contribute to protecting the “herd,” I dread the idea of Western life going back to the way it was.

I loved the not-normal. When everything shut down in March 2020, I finally felt—for the first time in 54 years—that the world had slowed to a pace that felt manageable for me. I’d been training for this my whole life! The peace and quiet was blissful.

Disruption often precedes transformation

Change often doesn’t come gently. In my experience, life offers what appears to be chaos or disruption but is actually an opening for change. These events happen so we can evolve, individually and as a species. Remember the lockdown memes about how “the planet sent us to our rooms to think about what we’ve done”? What happened in March 2020 was one massive disruption. People had to adapt, and quickly.

Normal doesn’t exist in terms of life on this planet. “Normal” compared to what or whom? The old “normal” was built on white supremacy, colonialism, classism, patriarchy (with its twin children, misogyny and homophobia), along with unbridled capitalist propaganda. Who in their right mind would ever want to go back to that?  

”Re-opening” is yet another lesson in impermanence. Everything changes, and my opinion of those changes is irrelevant; my resistance only makes me miserable. My task is to accept that this is happening. From there, I can take action (or not) accordingly.

Here are five silver linings to the pandemic that, if we can hold onto them, might help make the world a bit saner.

#1 Showing up authentically

Remember back in the first weeks of lockdown, how novel it seemed for newscasters and late-night talk show hosts to be broadcasting from their living room, or garage? Remember that first #HamAtHome? Actors, locked down at home, used nothing fancier than their personal headphones, yet they were every bit as compelling as they had been on stage.

Of course, as the pandemic wore on, some people showed up awkwardly adorably, and others showed a bit too much accidentally. For the first time in any of our lifetimes, every human on the planet was affected by the same external threat. This created an intimacy among all humans—sort of like people on a sinking raft—and we become super-honest and real with each other. We remembered, for a time, that we’re all humans on a planet spinning wildly around, hurtling through space.

That awareness, however brief, created an opening for Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements. In larger numbers than ever, people began to see that race, gender and ability are human constructs that have no basis in absolute reality. 

#2 Systems thinking and human interconnectedness

Last March, not many people were familiar with systems thinking and the concept of supply chain. By May, nearly everyone on the planet understood both implicitly.

From the migrant workers who pick berries to the factory workers who wash and sort them, to the truck drivers who bring them to our store, to the clerks who place them in appealing displays, we suddenly and viscerally understood just how many people are involved in us putting food on the table.

We began to remember how interconnected and interdependent we are with all of humanity. We have always been interconnected and interdependent; most of us in the first world just never gave it much thought. 

Suddenly, the dots were connected for all of us: If you feel unwell and go to work, you might infect a coworker. That coworker then goes to the grocery store, where they infect a cashier, who then unknowingly transmits COVID to her girlfriend’s grandfather, who winds up on a ventilator and dies. It’s a morbid variation on the butterfly effect.

Our actions matter, and not only to us as individuals. None of us operates in a vacuum, and none of us can survive without the actions of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of other people.

#3 Connecting with non-human expressions of nature

It’s paradoxical that we learned about human interconnectedness and interdependence during a time when we had to stay away physically from other people. That, too, has a silver lining: We began to understand how interdependent we are with all of nature. We often forget that we are animals, we are one of trillions of expressions of nature.

In search of safe companionship, people adopted dogs and cats in record numbers. For those whose leases or budgets didn’t allow for companion animals, “plant parenting” became a big thing, with proud humans showing off their succulents and perennials on social media. We are wired to connect with other expressions of nature, not only with humans. With the option for human connection removed, we learned how nurturing it is, how essential for our mental health, to connect with other living beings, even non-human ones. (And non-human beings can teach us plenty of life lessons on their own.)

In addition, many of us in less densely populated areas spent an increasing amount of time outdoors, walking and connecting with nature. This has multiple physical and mental health benefits on its own. When we slow down and walk in nature, rather than trying to hit a personal best on our 10K or racing through nature on a bike, we begin to remember that we are a part of nature. We are a part of this planet. It is not separate from us.

We also saw how wild animals responded to humans staying home. We began to remember that, oh yeah, they were here before we were. We built our homes in the midst of their home.

We humans have built a world that exclusively benefits our species, often to the detriment of other species. Now, our species is on the brink of extinction. We have forgotten that we share this planet with trillions upon trillions of other species, each of which emerge from the same combination of carbon and electrical impulses as humans, and each of which plays an essential role, even if humans don’t understand what that role is.

#4 Slowing down to a sustainable pace

I easily become overwhelmed by the constant pressures of the professional world; not that long ago, it wore me down and spit me out. In fact, nobody is designed to be constantly busy or productive. That’s a capitalist myth that benefits only the wealthiest, who are mostly white men (and these owners and investors, to be clear, don’t work 80-hour weeks the way they expect employees or even contractors do).

Throughout the pandemic, the white-collar obsessions with “productivity,” “accomplishment” and “optimizing” were shown to be meaningless constructs. In his 2012 op-ed, The Busy Trap, Tim Kreider wrote that many professionals were “busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.”

Those who were addicted to busyness faced a reckoning during the pandemic. But over time, they experienced what it was like to live at a sustainable pace, without having to constantly do more or be more.

This is how we’re supposed to live. Slowly. Deliberately. Compassionately. Not in pursuit of ego rewards, but with the time and space to deeply experience each moment.

(To be clear: billions of people work multiple jobs of hard, physical labour just to make ends meet. That’s not “busyness.” Bragging about “busyness” is a white-collar privilege and ego game.)

#5 Understanding the true meaning of “essential”

In 2014, author Greg McKeown published what became both a bestseller and a cult classic, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. Radical at the time, he suggested that each of us should focus only on what is essential to us—and let go of everything else. The pandemic was a forced lesson in essentialism and the meaning of the word “essential.”

The pandemic showed us that the majority of truly essential workers were not the wunderkinds of Silicon Valley, multinational executives, or Bob from Accounting who can process a dozen purchase orders before lunch.

Rather, white-collar professionals began to learn that the most meaningful work is carried out by the lowest-paid among us—and many without fancy degrees.

In lockdown, many of us learned to eat through our freezers and cabinets and avoid the grocery store except for essentials. In pre-pandemic times, we might have considered our favourite Chanterelles essential. With the perspective of a global pandemic, we realized that we were just fine with the PB&J or chickpeas we had on hand. 

In addition, art emerged as a far more powerful connector of humans than commerce, whether livestreamed Broadway shows, museum challenges or a little gift book about cats (shameless plug). Artists have always known that art is what reminds us of our shared humanity; over the past year, many others have discovered the healing and connecting power of art in various forms.

As many people look forward to resuming parties in restaurants, camping at multi-day events or even traveling for conferences, it’s essential—to our health and the health of the planet—that we make some different choices. Let’s take some time to figure out who and what we each want to be moving forward. How can we show up more authentically? What does essential mean to each of us? How can we reframe our worldview to include all of nature? Let’s deliberately create kind of the world we want to live in.

What are some silver linings you would like to see carried into our post-pandemic world?

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image credit: Suzanne D. Williams via Unsplash

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Sarah Chauncey

For more than two decades, I struggled multiple treatment-resistant mood disorders. I spent more than 20 years in psychodynamic therapy and tried 18 different medications. In 2010, I began searching for ways to rewire my brain naturally for inner peace. I write about the practices and insights that have improved my mental, physical and spiritual health.

2 Comments

  1. carol newall on May 29, 2021 at 4:17 pm

    Right on Sarah. I know that I have slowed down and stopped multi-tasking. I love J
    ay Shetty’s book, ‘Think Like a Monk”.

  2. Janet J. Stebbins on June 2, 2021 at 10:03 am

    Love the way you write and think, Sarah. Always learn something from you.

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