A Place Called Normal: Why Not Returning to It Is Good

A desire to return to "normal" is understandable, but here's why we shouldn't.

Posted Jun 29, 2020

Following a personal or global crisis, people have a fervent wish to “return to normal”—the life they had before all of this happened. We desire, and romanticize, the normal lives we had before nodal events. We engage in fantasies about how our lives were so great, even perfect, and we long for the sanctuary of normalcy.  

We struggle with cognitive dissonance, and privilege: “But it’s summer! We simply must meet up with our friends without being muffled and muzzled by masks. How can we drink with a mask on? I feel fine; I don’t need a mask.” Such arguments are commonplace in the U.S. The egocentrism and thoughtlessness displayed in such words is both flabbergasting and predictable, but also more understandable when one considers how uncomfortable cognitive dissonance is.

Very basic defense mechanisms kick in to provide relief from the tension created by opposing ideas duking it out in our skulls. We like to keep things simple in there, and "summertime is fun time" and "there's a global pandemic" don't get along. We seek to create Hollywood endings; we long for closure. One way to achieve these ends is through denial, which is not just a river in Egypt.

Roger Bradshaw/Unsplash
At the signpost up ahead...
Source: Roger Bradshaw/Unsplash

Our lives, our livelihoods, and our relationships with close friends and family members have been impacted by a global pandemic. A lot of uncertainty comes with COVID-19 because we don’t know what we don’t know about it. There is some evidence that people can get it more than once. There are variations of it floating around. And while folks hope a vaccine will swiftly be made available, that’s most likely a year or more away.  

So our hope, desire, and fantasy collide with our anxiety, dread, and grief, forming complex emotions difficult to identify and process. Grief? Yes, people grieve for a lot of different reasons. We grieve when we lose a job, a relationship ends, or we lose our autonomy when we become ill. We grieve when we experience major changes in our social lives, too.

Here’s a newsflash: We’re not returning to normal, and that’s OK.

COVID-19 illuminates our tendency to embrace nostalgia, the longing to go back, ever back, to a simpler time where things were easier for some, but not everyone. A time when we could be unconscious and carefree about so many things. That’s white privilege, in a nutshell.

Not returning to normal is not a tragedy, because normal was problematic in so many ways. Normal is one species ensuring the extinction of millions of other species due to wanton, reckless abuse of our shared, global home. Normal is explicit and implicit white supremacy. Normal is black and brown bodies being viewed as killable or even as objects that are already dead (I recommend Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth for your summer reading list).  

Obi Onyeador/Unsplash
What's "normal" mean to you?
Source: Obi Onyeador/Unsplash

Getting back to normal is going back to summer 2019. That’s when Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist and resident of Aurora, Colorado, who had broken no law, carried no weapon, and posed no threat, was stopped, tackled, and slammed to the ground, injected with a sedative, became unresponsive, suffered cardiac arrest, and died as he was removed from life support three days later. Normal is where officers can stop you for “being suspicious” or “fitting the description” while you walk or drive in black skin.

Was Elijah McClain a “big black man”?  No, he was thin, standing 5 foot 7 inches. His crime was, he looked unusual. He wore a mask, owing to a blood condition making him sensitive to cold, and he waved his arms as he walked down the street. That’s what gave the officers on the scene “the right” to take actions that precipitated his death. It's heartbreaking and definitely not OK, but back there in Normal, USA, it was “just one of those tragic things that happen.” And the officers involved are still on the force. 

While some folks here in Summer 2020 remain wistful, missing beaches and sipping booze at their favorite bar and those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, many other folks have other reasons to grieve. They cry tears of rage because normal means the threat of death any day, every day, for wearing a mask and flapping one’s arms while walking down the street. For walking at night, wearing a hoodie and carrying Skittles and an Arizona Tea. For being 12 and playing with a toy gun in a public park. For “looking suspicious.” For running away. Normal’s not a place we can or should return to, ever.