Searching for the New Normal

The new normal.

It’s a phrase we’ve heard a lot over the last several months, ever since “normal” completely disappeared.

All the things we took for granted–hugging friends, coffee dates, going to the movies and concerts, shopping anywhere we want–suddenly stopped. We learned to live with anxiety over crowds and mild cold or allergy symptoms, often expecting the worst. Parents were suddenly in charge of making sure their kids got their homework done and teachers mourned the loss of end of the year rituals.

But it hasn’t all been bad.

Americans especially are experiencing a disorienting shift in everything that they’ve always known. I’ve heard it said that COVID-19 didn’t break the system; it showed us what was already broken. I’ve seen that truth over and over again in my social media feed and in the lives of loved ones.

COVID-19 has revealed a lot about us and some of that revelation has been incredibly uncomfortable. But it has also given us an opportunity for change and growth that much of our society desperately needed, even if people weren’t ready for it.

I’m beginning to wonder if one of the reasons some people are struggling and insisting on a return to “normal” is because they didn’t allow themselves the space to grieve the loss of normal before accepting that loss and moving on to see it as a way to grow. We need to allow ourselves to grieve that loss. We need to give people the grace and space to grieve the things that have disappeared, some of them permanently. And then we need to start looking for the places where we see potential for a better future moving forward.

Where do I see space for positive change?

An understanding of personal space

When we went to buy our new truck, I saw signs informing customers that the dealership was a “Handshake free zone.” A simple act of human touch, which has been an important element of connection and dealmaking, has suddenly been tossed to the wayside.

We are created to crave human touch and for many of us, the lack of hugs and connection from people outside of our immediate family has been difficult, leading to an increase in depression for many. But we are also a society that takes this basic act for granted as an expected social courtesy. For those uncomfortable with human touch, especially with those they do not know well, this American nicety causes a great deal of anxiety and during a standard cold and flu season, it can be the causes of significant community spread.

We will return to a day when handshakes are once again relatively safe and acceptable, but I hope that we will have gained enough social awareness that we will be OK with people refusing an outstretched hand, insisting on a less intimate act of connection. Consent isn’t just about sex; it is about having the freedom to say that it is my body and I prefer to not be touched. This cultural shift may finally give us a forum for having honest discussions about consent in all aspects of our lives.

man and woman near table
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Awareness of who really matters in my life

I love social media. I love connecting with high school and college friends and keeping in touch with former students and seeing what my extended family around the country is doing in their daily life.

But it also has a dark side where we get pulled into toxic relationships and arguments with people who we have never met. We see sides of people who we have loved and respected for years and start to consider whether we still want to maintain those relationships, either in person or online.

One of the things this introvert has discovered over the last couple of months is who really matters in my life. My husband and my kids are at the top of that list. My sisters and siblings-in-law and parents and parents-in-law are next. I know who my close friends are and who really wants to keep in touch. And unfortunately, due to the ugliness of our political and social landscape, I’ve learned which relationships are toxic enough to finally cut them loose.

That’s not to say that there isn’t space for many others in my life, but it has helped to shine a bright light on the social media facade that many of us are hiding behind. I hope to continue to do better.

backlit dawn foggy friendship
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Streamlined retail and services

I already didn’t love shopping and preferred making my purchases online, but that wasn’t available all of the time for everything. Now curbside ordering, which was already becoming increasingly available before we were hit by a pandemic, has changed many of our lives.

I love being able to order on an app, drive up to the restaurant or store, and announce that I am ready for whatever I have ordered. It saves me time while still allowing me to avoid sending all of my money to Amazon.

Now we just have to make sure that the laws are changed to ensure that essential workers like servers, cooks, and grocery store clerks are fairly compensated for their work and risk. I believe we’ve learned just how precarious that part of our economy was before things shut down and if we are ever going to see a full recovery, we need to make sure that those employees are able to take care of their own needs and health and the health of their families. Not doing so hurts all of us.

delighted baristas with portafilter and paper cup
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Home entertainment at the touch of a button

Our family was one of thousands that logged online in early April to watch Trolls: World Tour after we paid the $20 streaming fee. For at least half of what it would have taken our family to watch it in the theater, we were able to watch the new release from the comfort of our family room.

While we’ve gone to the drive-in once since the start of mitigation efforts, the reality is we’ve become accustomed to the comforts of watching movies in our own home. We purchased a popcorn cart to make movie theater grade popcorn and recently Jeff ordered a cheap projector and outdoor movie screen so that we could do a dive-in movie in our backyard.

While I enjoy the movie theater experience, I welcome the opportunity to watch new movies at home instead of taking the time and making the effort to watch it inside the theater. There are many movies that Jeff and I have passed on because of lack of babysitters at the right time and we’ve had to say no to the kids for new releases they were interested in because it didn’t fit into the sports/school/work schedule. I hope that streaming new releases continues to be an option.

person in black and white striped socks lying on bed
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Online meetings and workshops

When people started moving online, Zoom suddenly became the app of choice. My husband worked tirelessly to get his entire company online and communicating via his own favorite meeting apps. Because his online morning meetings (he already works remotely about 90% of the year) had become a norm, he willingly participated on a couple while we were on vacation, the Rocky Mountains serving as his picturesque backdrop.

People suddenly discovered that they didn’t need to meet in person. While many missed the personal interaction with peers, many more discovered that they could work things into their schedule and make the meetings more meaningful. While parents sometimes had to excuse their kids’ onscreen behavior, the realities of home became a little more accepted (but not nearly accepted enough).

Professional development for teachers exploded over the time all of us were forced to work from home and through the summer months. I’ve seen many conferences offered for free or minimal fees, conferences that would have been unobtainable for many a few months ago. People are networking with peers around the globe in new ways and learning in environments that we had passed off as being impossible before 2020.

We still have a lot to learn about this online work world, but what we are learning has so many possibilities.

people on a video call
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More online options for both teachers and students

No, online learning was not perfect. In fact, in much of the country it was far from perfect. But it also shone a light on the very real need for some families to have an online option during regular bouts of sickness, especially when children are experiencing serious health scares, such as cancer. COVID-19 is new and there are certain aspects of it that are scary, especially as we learn more. But there are many other illnesses that can endanger individuals with compromised immune systems during a regular school year.

And it’s not just illness that can disrupt a child’s learning. Job related moves in the middle of the year, family crises, natural disasters, and many other social issues makes it difficult for some children to have a consistent education from August through June. Teachers can also face the same issues in their work life as their personal lives spiral out of control.

COVID-19 helped to show us that online options are possible. It showed some of us (even those of us like myself who have issues with homeschooling) that maybe homeschooling parents had a point. An expansion of online options and services could help to improve education and offer opportunities for more consistency and support for those who need it.

person writing on notebook
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Greater awareness of public health

Not that long ago we were watching Spiderman: Far From Home and our eleven-year-old daughter noticed that there were several East Asian extras wearing masks in the airport. She knew the movie was made before COVID-19 took over her life so she asked why the people were wearing masks. I explained that many people in East Asian countries had discovered long ago that wearing masks gave them a certain amount of health protection while in public places. I told my daughter, “Basically, for the longest time the vast majority of the world thought this particular group of people were weird and paranoid. I guess we’ve learned that they were right all along.”

I’m embarrassed when I consider the number of times I have wandered around stores with a cough or the lingering symptoms of the flu, potentially infecting complete strangers. I think about the times I have talked to people at church when passing the peace and prayed that they didn’t ask to shake my hand. And I’ve thought about the times I’ve dragged myself through the day, teaching over 100 students and interacting with colleagues while nursing a whole pile of ailments. (Note: All teachers do this, which is why so many of us are concerned about the push to return to school in-person. We don’t have many days off and it is more work to be gone than to turn up feeling miserable. Keep that in mind as you criticize the plans that districts are making.)

I know that I am more aware of my health when I am around others and I hope that others will be too. I will certainly wear a mask more frequently when I have any kind of illness and I hope that others will have learned the same lesson as well.

crowd of protesters
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There is so much that we still don’t know and so much that we are going to be working through in the next or so, but there are silver linings to the dark COVID-19 cloud. We just need to start looking for it.

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