With months of social distancing and a daily sense of pervading uncertainty, what we all want is for everything to go back to normal, yet this pining for the way things were and hand-wringing over new norms can slowly wear on a person. The good news is we can set this stress aside with a reorientation of our expectations. Simply put, there is no such thing as normal, and any new type of thing you might consider normal will soon be old. By acknowledging the inevitability of change we can provide ourselves with some much needed internal peace.
What do we mean when we use the word normal?
When we use the word normal in the context of wishing something had not changed, or a state that we would like to return to, what we are desiring is a type of consistency. Something that is normal is something that can be relied upon, expected to repeat over and over with a type of predictability. Using normal in this sense also indicates the opposite of chaos which is order. Our perception is that whatever existed before was predictable and orderly.
Which all sounds great. Why would we not want this kind of normal? Humans crave security. Other than reproducing, it is one of our strongest urges. We take many controlling measures to ensure that our existence and society is predictable. The more our existence and society is predictable, the safer we believe we are.
But as normal as we would like to believe things are, the transitory nature of existence tells us another story. Whether we hearken back to Heraclitus who wondered if we can step into the same river twice or reference the transcendental thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson,
To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which has never been seen before, and which shall never be seen again.
it seems the only thing that is normal is that nothing is normal. Everything around us changes all the time; the environment, our bodies, and the societies in which we participate.
Slow but steady change
There are surely some things that can be relied upon, some things that we might call normal. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Water always seeks the lowest ground. Adult swans are always white – no wait, ignore that last one. I am sure you could think of further examples yourself, but when people say they wish to go back to what is normal, they are referring to society and relationships, not cardinal directions and water.
We would like to think our long term relationships are based on predictability, yet for a romantic couple who spends many years or decades together, the only inevitability is that they as people will change. They, of course, will be the same person over time, but tastes will change, bodies will change, opinions and beliefs will change. You will change too.
Thankfully, I am not the same person I was when I was twenty-one. I hold many different beliefs now than I did back then. Are they better beliefs? I would like to think so, but in another ten years, I may also hold beliefs contrary to the ones I hold now, not because I do not want to have a consistency of self, but because this is the nature of existence. We change, and society changes too.
Though in society there are millions of micro changes on a daily basis, things generally function in a particular way; we have jobs, we drive on the right side of the road, and green means go. While on a macro level it seems societal things do not change, many of the institutions we think have not changed in fact have changed quite a bit. Let us take monogamous marriage in the United States.
It was once assumed that marriage was between one man and one woman. Of course, an unspoken condition was that these two people had to be of the same race. That changed in 1967 when interracial marriage was legalized. The assumption changed again in 2015 when marriage between to people of the same sex was legalized. But you might say, these are just recent developments; originally it was between one man and one woman. While this might be true, customs and roles in that kind of marriage varied widely. Take a look at customs within an American 17th century Puritan marriage and see if you think that resembles what you consider a “normal” monogamous marriage.
Or take public school. Many would like for school to go back to normal, including myself, but when I began teaching, I gave lecture notes on an overhead projector, so what counts as normal? While a sense of normal might be there, and on some level it is, education has changed dramatically over the last 70 years in terms of how instruction is carried out, what things are considered important to teach, perspectives on minority students and students with disabilities, the way technology is incorporated, behavior management techniques, how discipline is carried out, and many other things. Do not get me started on dress code! Each of these changes are the result of other, very small daily changes over time, so the normal you want to go back to is really just the normal that existed right before COVID hit.
Or take your nostalgia driven vision of childhood, or race relations, or women’s rights, or space travel, or religious participation, or title IX athletics, or Civil War statues, or…
All this being said, I acknowledge that some changes are for the worse, not the better. This essay is not saying that change equals good. There are some changes that should be fought against. Associating good or bad to a change gets us into the realm of values, and that is not my aim; we can save that topic for another post.
It would be most helpful if we could, as a start, simply acknowledge that things change, that there is no normal. Stress and frustration result from unfulfilled expectations. When the expectation is that nothing will or should change, you will become frustrated when they do. Yet, the nature of things is that things do change, always. Sometimes rapidly, sometimes slowly over time, but always. Acknowledgement of this is the first step towards a greater peace by understanding the natural flow of things. Flipping this switch is much easier said than done, however.
Change can also be very liberating. I am not advocating that you just let go of any attempts to try to maintain certain consistencies in your life, but the liberating aspect of acknowledging change is that we can rewrite or rather write new things. Existence is an act of creation, personally and societally. Nothing is ordained. The way we do things is our creation; we are the authors. Everything is just preference, and so in acknowledging there is no normal, we allow ourselves the freedom and flexibility not to be bound to dogmatic thinking. Or as Emerson says,
…why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.
This is not a recommendation, this is a charge to create! Creation is never perfect, never not messy, but think what wonders we could build if we give ourselves permission to cast off the confining notion of normal and restrictive dogmatic thinking?
Compliment this essay with another similar topic William James and the Importance of Living in the Present Moment or anything from the How to Live category.
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