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What's Wrong with a "Return to Normal"?

Exploring our uneasiness with change and uncertainty.

Key points

  • The word "normal" is a convenient word that is a feeble attempt to put our troubled minds and spirits at ease.
  • Most human beings are uncomfortable with change. And our uncertainty about the future is highly discomfiting.
  • We have yet to fully appreciate and absorb the most ancient teachings about finding peace in the present and in ourselves.
What's next?
Source: Zhuravlevab/Depositphotos

Since the pandemic began, and especially with increasing frequency, I’m sure you’ve heard or thought: “What happens when we return to normal?”

As more people are vaccinated, as life opens up, and, troublingly, as COVID infection rates continue to rise, I’m left to wonder what will happen in the coming months and years, and what, exactly, does “return to normal” mean?

The phrase itself is problematic.

Let’s start with the word ‘return’. ‘To return’ connotes coming back to a place you once left. But ‘return to normal’ refers to coming back to a moment in time, and that’s where things start to fall apart. Returning, in time, is something that happens only in a memory, a story, a dream, or a movie, but not in daily life. We Iive in a continuously unfolding present in which our every action, every thought is occurring here and now. What’s happened is gone, never to return. Let’s ditch returning to anything that was.

Next, let’s examine 'normal'. 'Normal' is a concept that has both a history and a particular set of associations.

(Before I continue, permit me full disclosure: as an educator and psychologist for the last 50 years, I wish the word and the concept of ‘normal’ had never seen the light of day. I have sadly observed and been referred more people—children, adolescents, and adults—who have been beaten up and damaged by what’s considered ‘normal.’ But more about that in another post.)

As an adjective, ‘normal’ goes back to 1704 when it referred to the geometric proportion of the right angle. In current usage, Webster defines ‘normal’ as “conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern; characterized by that which is considered usual, typical, or routine.”

What people mean when they want to “return to normal,” is that they want life to be as they knew it before the virus rampaged around the globe, and they want life to be predictable. Without having to read too much between the lines they’re actually saying:

  1. they’re uncomfortable with change
  2. they don’t like uncertainty.

Having an anathema to change and wanting to be free of uncertainty sounds rather like a sci-fi fantasy of homeostatic life on a distant star—let’s call it ‘Summa Stabilitate.’ Here on earth, it isn’t quite like that. Our lives are defined by constant change (whether we perceive it or not, and whether we like it or not) and no one can truly, fully reliably, predict what’s going to happen in the next moment, let alone next month or year. Western science wants us to believe that which is observable and measurable can be predicted, and ‘normal’—becomes simply a convenient word that is, I think, a feeble attempt to put our otherwise troubled minds and spirits at ease.

If this pandemic has taught us anything it’s that:

  1. we are not controlling life
  2. we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.

Next time you hear or think “I wish we could return to normal,” I suggest you pause and ask, “What was so great about the past?” And better, “Why am I have such difficulty accepting change and uncertainty?”

Centuries ago, the meditation masters in the Far East had it right: accept life on life’s terms, stay in the present, and serve the greater good.

Someday, maybe, we’ll really hear them and we’ll let go.


Mooney, Jonathan (August 16, 2019). “How Exactly Did We Come Up With What Counts As ‘Normal’?: A Brief History of the Pseudoscience Behind the Myth of the 'Average.' "…

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