Here’s a question that keeps coming up in conversation and online: when will things go back to normal?
It’s natural to long for normalcy during a trial that doesn’t seem to have an end date. If only we knew the future—if only we knew the specific dates when this trial would be over—we could fortify ourselves by looking ahead to that goal. Unfortunately, the aspect of a trial that makes it so, well, trying is that we don’t see as far ahead as we’d like. We don’t know how long it will last. That’s why it’s natural to want what was normal.
But the truth is, whatever will become “normal” on the other side of the coronavirus crisis will not be the old normal. It will be something new. We are not going back.
So here’s the question I hope we will begin to ask instead: Do we really want to go back to normal? Was the old normal good? Were we really flourishing in the old normal? Was the old normal spiritually healthy?
What was the old normal? A world with less and less in-person interaction, looser commitments, increasing polarization, and, above all, loneliness.
Let’s look again at the old normal:
- Americans have been interacting less with their neighbors as the years go by, choosing instead the virtual neighborhoods of Facebook and Instagram, often at the expense of knowing the names and stories of the people who live only yards away. (It’s hard to follow Jesus’s command to love your neighbor when you don’t know your neighbor’s name.)
- In the past 30 years, our commitments have grown looser, with civic groups on the decline as well as a drop in church attendance. Fewer and fewer Christians attend church every week, preferring a hit-and-miss pattern that easily allows other responsibilities and leisure activities to impinge upon the regular rhythm of meeting together.
- Family time has suffered; parents are more and more focused on job security and maximizing their efficiency, while ensuring they have enough time leftover to binge watch the latest offering on Netflix.
- We are more committed to consuming entertainment than we are to cultivating or creating something. We eat out more and cook less. We are less likely to pick up an instrument or learn a new craft. We play more games on our phone than we do with our families and friends. Reading has shifted away from deep concentration required by books in favor of newsflashes and commentaries we digest as bite-sized chunks of information while scrolling on social media.
- Political polarization has increased, in part due to an over-focus on national politics to the neglect of the community closest to us and the places we could actually make the most difference. By catastrophizing whatever happens at the national level, the fever of D.C. anxiety spreads to the whole country, leaving us restless and suspicious.
The list could go on: the deaths of despair, the opioid crisis, our loss of social solidarity and moral bearings, the evidence of lingering racial disparities, and a weary sense of meaningless across the country. That’s the “old normal.” It’s no wonder studies show a decline in overall happiness among Americans in recent decades, especially among younger Americans who have never known life to be any different and yet who sense that settling for being “lonely together” is not a worthy aspiration.
Building a New Normal
The question we should ask, then, is not when will we get back to normal but should we want to go back to normal? And the follow-up question: What should the new normal be?
What if this crisis is a divine disruption that allows us to rethink ourselves, to rethink our lives, to reconsider our habits?
What if this crisis is a divine opportunity to reflect on what matters most and to order our lives accordingly?
What if we now have the opportunity to make different decisions—to prayerfully discern how to create and cultivate a new and better normal on the other side of this crisis?
What if we now have the chance to reset our expectations, to refocus our attention on what matters most, and to recommit to the people we’re called to love and serve?
What if this season of total reliance on technology for spreading communication helps us see the limits of technology for building and sustaining community?
What if this period of forced isolation can help us see the end result of radical individualism’s trajectory, so that in the end we come out of our enclaves and homes with a stronger commitment to our communities, our churches, and our country?
Let’s not go back to normal. Let’s come away from this challenge with a new vision of what normal could be.