If the Pandemic Taught Us Anything, It’s That ‘Normal’ Wasn’t Serving Us
A common theme among my clients, as well as in my own life, is what do we do, now that we seem to be edging toward a return to “normal,” over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic began? March came and went, and as the days get longer and warmer, and more and more people get vaccinated, it’s a question on many people’s minds. In particular, folks seem to be asking, “What do I do now, with the information that I’ve learned about my friends and loved ones over the past year?”
Not everyone, after all, has operated in accordance with the same stringent safety regimens and precautions: From determined anti-maskers, to those who have treated the past year as an opportunity to take multiple vacations, to people who — whether because of chronic illness and high risk, or out of solidarity for friends and family members shouldering that risk — are still minimizing their time spent outdoors, in many ways, we’ve all had to live our values out in the open this year.
Folks seem to be asking: “What do I do now, with the information that I’ve learned about my friends and loved ones over the past year?”
As memes and tweets abound about no longer having COVID as a go-to excuse to turn down invitations to hang out, many of us are feeling awkward and anxious at the prospect of having to see people face-to-face for the first time in over a year. If this anxiety feels familiar to you, here are some things to keep in mind.
We Don’t Have To Return to “Normal”
…and in fact, we shouldn’t.
If one thing has been made abundantly clear this year, it’s that normal wasn’t serving us. We should question what a return to normal really means, and what we expect of it. Over half a million people in the United States have lost their lives to COVID, an undeniable tragedy that we have yet to collectively mourn. Millions of people are still on unemployment. The service industry is still decimated, having contended with partial openings and reduced capacity for the past several months, and thousands of local businesses have shuttered this year. Essential workers, mostly Black and brown people, have worked at higher risk all through the pandemic, while those of us privileged enough to have jobs that could transition to working from home had the luxury of boredom (for some) and ill-advised (and, frankly, unethical) travel for others. We are quickly coming up on one year since last summer’s nationwide protests against police brutality and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and Black people are being subjected to the indignity of the Derek Chauvin trial, despite multiple eye witnesses, as well as video recordings, of George Floyd’s murder. Police brutality, of course, has not abated. There are still children in cages at the border, despite Biden’s campaign promises to the contrary, and variants on the coronavirus are still spreading.
“Normal” was something only ever experienced by a select, privileged few, and while it is understandable to breathe a sigh of relief at warmer days and more widely available vaccines, a return to normalcy is not something to aspire to.
You Don’t Need An Excuse to Say No
As a consent educator, let me remind you: No is a full sentence. While I can appreciate the odd relief that many felt to have COVID safety precautions as a reason to beg off social engagements, if one thing has been made clear this year, it’s that life is too short, too precarious, and too precious to waste your breath fretting over social niceties. As I’m fond of bringing into session: Kindness is more important than niceness, and feeling comfortable understanding and advocating for your boundaries is a kindness you offer not only to others, but also to yourself. For better or worse, our values were made clear in the past year — and we deserve to spend our time on the other side of this crisis in alignment with our values. Sometimes that includes saying “No,” “No thanks,” and “This just isn’t for me.”
It’s Okay to Reevaluate Your Relationships
Finally — one way or another — all of us have had to make difficult decisions this year. Whether to shelter in place, as recommended, or to hightail it to another location where we might have some more breathing room to wait out the pandemic. How to get to where we want to be, if we decide to move. What to do if we’ve suddenly lost a job — or several. Whether, and when, to return to work, and how to navigate workplace COVID safety protocols and precautions — or lack thereof.
All of these choices have to do with survival — especially if you are a person who must navigate one or multiple marginalized identities. We’ve all been tasked with evaluating what we need to survive, and what choices we need to make in order to protect others; put simply, we, as a collective, have been put in the position of living our values. We’ve had to do this on an open ended timeline — even now, whether you’ve had one shot, or both and are past the two week window that it takes for your vaccine to take effect, it’s still not advisable to travel, to dine indoors, or to walk around outside without a mask.
We, as a collective, have been put in the position of living our values.
In the U.S., at least, it’s clear that our individualistic culture largely wasn’t up to the task of prioritizing collective safety over individual supposed “freedoms.” If this is something you’ve observed in your social circle, it’s normal to feel disgruntled by that fact, now that the light at the end of the tunnel almost seems to be drawing nearer. How we each want to handle that is, of course, personal — some may want to ignore the rift and let it mend with time, while others may want to confront it head on. It’s okay to reevaluate the relationships in your life in light of how people responded to COVID safety protocols. It’s okay to ask for a difficult conversation — or more than one. And it’s okay to distance yourself — even as social distancing regulations begin to lift.
Personally, I don’t believe in things going back to normal. We have too much to continue to lose, if we do that. Our “normal” individualist culture should have shifted to a more collectivist one in response to COVID-19. It didn’t, and we continue to pay the price. We are slowly coming out on the other side of an unprecedented, life changing experience; one with consequences that will continue to reverberate for years. It makes sense, therefore, that we should emerged changed — in fact, it is in our best hope, as a society, to do so.