“When will things return to normal?”
I can’t count all the times I thought this, said this, or heard this spoken aloud by someone else in the past six months. There’s a viral quality to this question, and its equally ubiquitous variant (“new” normal) that is no less wide-spread than the coronavirus itself. The question is even more contagious than COVID 19 because it’s even more indiscriminate than the infection. The infection rate is high because everyone’s perception of what is typical has been upended, one way or another. Whatever normal was is now in the past, and most of us want to know how and when the return to it—or something like it—will happen.
I recently read an article with the headline, “There Won’t Be a Clear End to the Pandemic.” The article argued that it’s highly unlikely that the end of the season will be as clear-cut as the beginning. Rather, the author writes, “The sublime post-pandemic period so many are longing for will likely not arrive all at once, like a clock striking midnight on New Year’s Eve.” What we’re finding in the pandemic reality is that the questions of “when” is a pesky question to answer.
Certainly, this indeterminacy is unsettling. It does have consequences. I’ve found myself muttering “When will things return to normal?” under my breath as I sit in my basement home office, longing for a place to do my work with a few miles of pavement between where I sleep and where I office. I’ve caught myself thinking this query in the grocery store as I wonder, “When will this feel easy and safe again?” I discovered myself snarling “When can we get back together and sing?” as I face one more week of planning worship as I desperately cry out, in the words of the Psalmist, “How long?”
But, I suspect the Psalmist wasn’t simply irked that he was having to work in the same 2,600+ sq./ft house where his children were doing online high school. (I don’t say this to minimize the stress of the moment. The struggle is real. And mental health statistics are bearing this out.)
I say this, rather, to name that my disruption, my “abnormal,” has had its impact heavily mitigated by my relative affluence and privilege. I say this to point out that when I long for a “return to normal (or new normal),” I’m frequently focusing on restoring the rights and privileges I had in my pre-pandemic existence. In other words, I’m viewing a “return to normal” as a return to a sort of idyllic state when my planning, patterns, and power worked to my benefit.
“Normal” has always been power-laden language. When you begin to really consider what it means for something to be normal, standard, usual, or typical, the question is immediately begged: Who is doing the measuring and who created the standard of measurement in the first place? The truth is that what I define as a normal state of affairs is a far cry from what others have experienced as normal. And, although the return to “how things used to be” might sound great to my ears, there are others for whom a return to “how things used to be” is in no way a pleasant thought.
The other day I had an epiphany about all this while reading scripture. I was studying (of all things) the four horsemen in Revelation, and it hit me that pandemics have been around for a long, long time. So, have natural disasters, economic downturns, famine, violent warfare, and political polarization. In fact, in one way of thinking these are facets of “normal” human existence. These horsemen are always riding, so to speak.
In this sense what we’re experiencing couldn’t be more normal. Indeed, for many in the contemporary world these facets of “normal” human existence are ubiquitous. What has changed for me is that at the moment, not even my planning, patterns, power, and affluence can hide this reality from me. In good apocalyptic fashion (apocalypse means unveiling), I am seeing this facet of normal human existence with a clarity that is new to me.
It’s no coincidence that while I’ve been complaining about my officing situation, in my suburban air-conditioned home, American Blacks have been organizing and protesting for their lives, while dying in disproportionately higher numbers from COVID 19. They get that a return to normal is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s no surprise that creation activists in the Western United States are making noise about climate change while forests burn out of control. They understand that a return to normal will continue to be potentially deadly for the planet.
What I’ve begun to consider is that normalcy is vastly overrated. When we romanticize “normalcy” we tend to gloss over problems hidden within our own memories of what is standard or typical. Our rose-colored glasses do not only tint reality; they also serve as blinders against those for whom normalcy was far from an idyllic, rosy reality. A return to normal doesn’t actually address the brokenness and injustice of the world. Instead, it imputes normalcy a value and significance that is more illusory than real. A return to normalcy (or new normalcy) largely benefits only those people for whom human past states of affairs have been “good,” while glossing over those for whom past states of affairs are “hells.”
It is easy to lose sight that what is called for in scripture is not a return to normal, but the creation of whole new world coming into being: a whole new world where “every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain” (Isaiah 40); a whole new world where there are no longer those for whom normalcy is a gift and others for whom it is a curse; a whole new world where the power is not wielded for the benefit of a few, but is given for the benefit of all.
I suspect this was what the author of Psalm 13 was crying out for when he wrote, “How long?”
From a Christian point of view normalcy is vastly overrated. And we should name it as such. God does not promise to return us to normalcy, but to create the ultimate rupture of it, to call into being the abnormality of the reign of God. This is not return so much as new creation, and this abnormal reign is that for which we cry out. When Christians pray, “Your kingdom come,” we are praying for the abnormal to come in its fullness.
“When will things return to normal?” Let us pray that the answer is never.