“I just want things to go back to normal.”
How often have you heard this refrain, or uttered it yourself when you’ve just wanted to put a pause on having new information or issues to respond to? I’ve been thinking about our relationship with normal. It’s like a thick, strong, orienting rope that runs through a life and culture, and where we are in relation to it is always up for evaluation. We talk about physical health in terms of normal. Behavior, psychological functioning, intelligence, too. And then there’s the social norms that dictate so much of how our school years and work and social lives go. Oh, and then there’s what many pay attention to as parents when kids are going through developmental milestones. Music, weather, animal behavior, family functioning are all up for grabs in the context of normal comparisons. Really, is there any part of life that is not subject to an almost immediate assessment of how it does or does not relate to normal?
Such a bland word that elicits a broad range of reactions from people packs quite a punch and I think it’s worth looking into a little bit.
From Merriam-Webster, normal means: “conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern : characterized by that which is considered usual, typical, or routine; according with, constituting, or not deviating from a norm, rule, procedure, or principle; approximating the statistical average or norm occurring naturally; generally free from physical or mental impairment or dysfunction : exhibiting or marked by healthy or sound functioning; not exhibiting defect or irregularity; within a range considered safe, healthy, or optimal.”
Like any concept, it’s the case that normal is not all one thing. It is not all good, and it’s not all bad. What’s good about normal? Why do we need it and rely on it so much? Seems to me like the opposite of normal is chaos, and chaos is, taken in extreme form, the primordial ooze from which all things began. It’s unpredictable, unstable, volatile and confused. It’s the seat of creation and true creativity. It erupts and changes things. It can be exciting. It can be terrifying. It’s necessary and feared.
Chaos knocks things into a new trajectory, but then guess what? An ordering principal takes over and helps the effects of chaos fall into a pattern. Patterns are stable and predictable. They can be known and understood, unlike their birth mother, Chaos. This must happen. I suppose that normal lives in patterns and normal dies in chaos. Chaos and Normal dance and work together to keep things moving. They are both necessary.
In life, people can deviate from the mean of normal in either direction. Further away from this mean is when we start to experience some things that are different from what everyone hanging out in the middle are experiencing. Bowing at the altar of normal can stifle the emergence of any new or unexpected material in an evolving system. This leads to the death or oppression of anything that is novel, creative, and life giving. Yet, diving full-bore into the waters of chaos and staying there for too long can mean that nothing is able to materialize into creative expression. It takes discipline to make creative energy bear fruit, and discipline does not live in chaos.
You can see the tension here. This is some dynamic stuff.
But here’s the rub as I see it: We do a miserable job as a culture allowing ourselves and others to be changed by what happens to us. Let’s take the pandemic. Rest assured, the amount of times I’ve longed for things to go back to normal cannot be counted. But even with less restrictions and people getting back to life as it was before, it’s not “back to normal”. We are changed and we will never be, as a whole, like we were before. The pandemic was a long-term, slow motion perturbation to our system which created chaos and confusion. We are still experiencing the natural inclination of a system finding its new orbit around this new reality, yet I see more and more a distancing from viewing it this way. I am longing for a greater dialogue about how we are changed and what that means not from the point of view that we have to get back to where we were, but more that we need to understand more fully where we are.
Where are we? I’m not the same. Are you?
I think the urge to get back to normal when the landscape that existed before doesn’t exist anymore causes tremendous pain and anxiety. We can’t go back to something that doesn’t exist anymore. But we can try to more fully understand where we are.
This is true after someone we love dies.
This is true after having a baby.
This is true after falling in love or breaking up.
This true when childrens’ parents separate.
This is true after losing a job or relocating to a new place for a job.
This is true after receiving a life changing diagnosis.
This is true after war, natural disasters, or exposure to and experience of violence.
This is true after experiencing a spiritual awakening.
Can we let ourselves be changed without judging it, hiding it, or stunting it? Can we let ourselves just be with what is true and talk about it all, and let others talk without pulling the “normal” card out of our back pocket? Life systems naturally organize themselves into new, mostly stable patterns. We can trust that this will happen, so we can relax and be more gentle on ourselves and each other and not force the issue. It’s okay if your best friend seems different now and doesn’t want to do the same things they did before. Be curious about it instead of judging it. It’s okay if you look different after grief. Look at yourself and be curious and loving and notice the hard earned scars of living a life that is filled with so many things. It’s okay if something big or little shifts in your psyche and you find a new and unexpected road to walk down. Check it out and see what’s there. It became visible because something changed.
Take the pressure of “getting back to normal” off yourself because, that normal? It’s gone. There’s a new normal to explore and it’s got a whole lot of new terrain for us to get to know.
That’s interesting, isn’t it?