"When will things go back to normal?"
We need to let go of the rhetoric of going back to normal. We can’t go back to a time before this virus changed the world, not now and not in one or six or twelve months’ time. There’s no going back, only forward. Humans are a resilient species, so we will find a new “normal”. But it won’t be the one we once knew.
Grief is an essential part of the process of letting go. Allow yourself to feel sad about what you have lost, mourn for the life you had planned for this year. Grieve for the goals you were close to completing, or the ones you only just started. The delayed graduation date, the missed milestone birthday party, the championship your team was on track to win, the new friend you were really starting to connect with, the promotion you were told to expect, the book launch you’ve had to hold online, the holiday you were going to take, the new career you were going to start, the conference you were booked to speak at. When we focus on “when” we can reschedule those things, we are trying to take our past selves and squash them into a future where they don’t belong. Instead of seeking to go back, we need to acknowledge the loss and be open to the possibility that its time may never come. Only then can we start to answer the real questions, about what moving forward and finding normal will actually mean.
What will reopened borders and international travel look like, when countries with lower infection rates have to find a way forward in tandem with countries who have seen both more deaths and more recoveries/immunity? What will democracy look like in countries where elections have been marred by the fear of spreading infection, or where parliaments have rushed through additional powers to individual leaders rather than convene during the pandemic? How will individual political opinions change or strengthen as more people depend on welfare or public healthcare, or business owners and investors haemorrhage money? What will it mean to take care of the poor among us, when a much greater percentage of people are poor and unemployed than we have known in our lifetime? How will we see job stability and career choices differently after such a drastic shake-up of our economy and the jobs which have continued? How will the cold and flu season look each year, with covid-19 possibly continuing to infect people at a much lower rate after the initial spike has passed? What will the long-term health impacts be on those who recover after a more serious case and ICU stay?
That’s not to suggest that all changes to our future will be negative ones. What habits of hygiene, shopping, exercise and technology use will last beyond the end of the emergency? How will the hobbies and skills people have picked up in quarantine continue to last and change the ways we spend our time, or weaken the stronghold of consumerism? What industries will grow in the new economy? Will more people be able to move out of expensive cities, if their jobs don’t rely on them being physically on site each day? Will this lead to a longer-term reduction of CO2 emission rates and dependence upon oil? How will our family relationships be strengthened or tested by coming through this together? Will there be lasting moments of incidental kindness to the strangers we suddenly realise we depend upon?
Some of these changes are inevitable, others are possibilities based on the twin hope and fear of the unknown. The only thing that is truly certain is that things will change. Normal in 2023 will not be the same as normal in 2019. The longer we focus on going “back to” normal, the longer we are hampering our own growth and denying ourselves necessary grief.
We’ve been told that this is a marathon, not a sprint, and lockdown measures may be in place for several months. A few weeks in, we’re all finding that incredibly difficult. When we ask about when things will “go back to normal”, we highlight that the hardest part for many is the uncertainty: when will I be able to hug the person I love? When will I have stable employment and not fear about putting food on the table? When will I meet the newest member of my family? When will the news be about something else? When will I stop feeling so scared?
I’ve never run a marathon (can’t think of anything I have less desire to do, actually) but I do know one key difference between a marathon and a sprint: for the vast majority of the race, you cannot see the finish line. You just have to focus on your breathing and trust that the finish line is there, somewhere ahead of you. When you get there, it won’t be the same place you started.
Because you are not going back. You’re going forward.