Normalcy isn’t the answer

person working on a laptop, which is resting on a blanket

Last week, I tweeted this:

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, normal is according with, constituting, or not deviating from a norm, rule, or principle. Based on this definition, nothing about our current state of affairs can be normal. It’s not normal for there to be a pandemic… that’s impacting the entire world… and preventing anyone from spending time with others or sometimes even leaving their homes.

Craving normalcy during this time, to me, seems like a recipe for disaster. I find my anxiety increasing when I think about the normal things that I’m missing because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This week, in fact, I was supposed to be at a board game convention (and enjoying my sister’s favorite tacos) in Fort Worth, Texas, but instead I worked during the week and am spending the weekend doing projects around my house. Yesterday, I had to pick some things up from my office, and on top of the strange feeling of entering the building for the first time in 6 weeks, I only saw two other people while I was there instead of the usual 100. Today, I stopped at Target to pick up an online order and the line to enter the store ran the entire length of the storefront.

It would be easy to get caught up in the strangeness of life today. Or ignore it all. I don’t advocate for either of those extremes. Both approaches, in their own ways, are wrapped up in the idea that pre-COVID life was ideal and good, and life in the time of social distancing is peculiar and bad. I believe there’s a middle ground where we acknowledge that things have drastically changed over the past few months, but also focus on our own resilience and the adaptations we’ve made in order to survive in today’s reality.

Because reality it is, but “new normal” it isn’t. One thing I’ve become fascinated with since social distancing became our reality is how much a craving of normalcy has become a part of this experience. From television commercials to professional emails, messaging about our “new normal” has become so commonplace that I’d guess most of us don’t think twice about it. But it got me wondering why normalcy is what we hold on to and not more realistic and more necessary expectations like adaptability or resilience – skills within each of ourselves that we can hone to make our current experiences more palatable.

Adaptability: cooking dinner myself more frequently although I’m used to eating out. Resilience: understanding that I can choose to be frustrated by this – or not. Normalcy: once restaurants and my office reopen, I can grab dinner on my commute home.

One of these things is not like the other.

Adaptability: configuring a workspace in my living room. Resilience: learning how many video calls I can handle in a row and knowing when I need to take a break. Normalcy: having in-person meetings in the office.

The current state of things is so far from normal.

Adaptability: wearing a mask outside and being sure to stay on the opposite side of the street from my neighbors. Resilience: continuing to make these adaptations so that I’m not always cooped up inside. Normalcy: taking a walk outside without having to prepare or think about any of this.

I think “new normal” is what society looks like after COVID-19, post-pandemic, when things start to reopen. The changes that will need to be made then – to diminish the further spread of infection, to support local businesses, and to adapt to the ongoing needs of individuals in our communities – are more likely to be ingrained into our society moving forward, and that’s when we will all need to embrace these permanent changes.

But we need to get there first. That requires adapting to the circumstances that we all currently have to deal with. It might include fostering resilience in the face of these circumstances, which takes extra thought and energy. It doesn’t mean that we have to pretend there is – or needs to be – anything normal about them.

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Aliyah is a scientist, writer, and advocate for inclusion in STEM. She currently works in the Boston biotech scene. A fan of traveling, board games, college sports, and reality TV, you can engage more with Aliyah on Twitter @YourTurnAliyah.

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