Back to Normal

During these months of Pandemic, how many times have you heard it said, or said it yourself, “when things get back to normal, I’m going to…”?  What is it about “normal” that makes us want to review the past?

Why not look forward to normal?  Must we go “back to the future” with Marty McFly?  Maybe we’re being called to adapt to a “new normal.”   New normal reflects changing societal standards for what’s normal.

One thing about changing norms is they’re not predictable, easy to adapt to, nor comfortable.  Another thing that’s for sure is, change makes us swear that “it’s never been this bad in the history of the world.”  Change makes us think these are “the worst of times, and these things have never been seen before.”

Is it “normal,” that we want?  Or, is it an old routine, or familiarity?  What is normal, and can it be achieved?

The word, “normal,” comes from the Latin, normalis, which means right-angled; and from norma, which is a carpenter’s square.  I think we’d love our lives to be a nice, tidy square, a military-perfect, all squared- away 5×5, with secure, predictable edges and known boundaries.

If we underpin our ideas of what normal society or normal behavior should be, based on the carpenter’s square, we might end up a little too rigid for reality.  Given the rapid change inherent in 21st century culture, perhaps we’re better off practicing our flexibility, unlike what the carpenter’s square dictates.

The carpenter’s normal material of choice, wood, is rigid, straight, and intended to meet the criteria of the bubble in the level that tells you if you’re plum.  It’s not in the nature of wood used by the carpenter, to naturally bend around corners, flex, or adjust, without inordinate coaxing.

The carpenter’s square is, ironically a triangular, metal measuring device with either three straight sides, or incomplete with two sides, an L-shape, that are impermeable to curves in the material it’s intended to measure.  The edge being measured must be precise; it can’t be sorta, kinda, maybe lined up with its partner-edge.

So, as to the carpenter’s view of normal and right, there’s only one way that’s standard and consistent across time and place.  There is no range of right.  But in society there is a vast range of normal.

Even in medicine, there’s a range of normal.  At my age, one has had blood work done a time or two.  If you review the results, each aspect of your blood that is tested presents a range of normal to adjudicate your own.  For example, the range of normal for total cholesterol is, something under 200.  The range of normal blood pressure is less than 140/90, etc.

Considering the range of normal, we have to accept that there is variability in what we consider normal.  We also have to factor in a bit of individuality as to what we consider normal.  “That’s normal for her.”  “This is normal for you.”

So, again, what is normal, anyway?  The definitions vary according to specialized language, like medical, psychological, social, or chemical.  But a thread that they all have in common is: socially standard and culturally accepted, usual, typical, expected, average, or healthy. 

I guess we’re considered both healthy and normal if we’re free from this disorder or that, or some illness or other.  Noted psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, figured we are mentally healthy if we retain the ability to love and to work.

Because “normal” is a subjective perception, it’s easier and more convenient for most people to describe what is not normal rather than what is normal.  Most people believe abnormal reactions to societal or behavior norms share a few similar characteristics: a violation of typical norms, maladaptive to the general flow of society, a rarity in the context of daily life, and something that causes extreme distress apart from the usual expected stress reaction by most people.

I realize that most of us are referring to practical issues when lamenting getting “back to normal.”  Generally, when feeling frustrated with the Pandemic new normal, we’d like to return to being able to find the products in stores that we used to take for granted, and were readily available.  We’re not used to seeing whole shelves empty, or stocked with unfamiliar, inferior products.

We’re not familiar with wearing masks, always remembering to sanitize our hands before, after or during our shopping or errands; and we’re unfamiliar with getting our temperature taken upon entering every medical or pseudo medical establishment we enter, or for some folks, their place of employment.

And, we all feel the social restrictions and relative isolation that is the new normal, even if we’re introverts and don’t require quite so much saturated social contact as our opposite compatriot, party-animals.  Not knowing if it’s appropriate to give a hug, a handshake, or even step that measure closer to someone, is unnerving and unusually stressful.

My point however is that these things, given that it has been six months already in the making, have become the new normal.  They say it takes three days of consistent change, to end or start a habit.  Even if some of us are a tad slow in the uptake, e.g. half way into the store and, “oh, I forgot my mask,” we’re adapting.

We’re getting used to trying alternative products when our old faves are no longer available.  Some of us have even grown to like the new, weird product better than the old one.  We’ve even exercised our creative juices making new things work in our old daily routine, kicking and screaming the whole way.

In other words, we’ve grown so accustomed to the new normal that going “back to normal” wouldn’t feel right anymore, it’s not standard, typical, or expected now.  Presto, we’ve become flexible, even the most rigid of us.  And it’s only taken six months.

We’ll never look at hand sanitizer the same.  We’ll never again expect to use a public water fountain.  Waiting rooms will maybe, forever, feel spacious rather than overly peopled.

So, “back to normal?”  Maybe we’re secretly wishing for “forward to normal.”

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