Stop Waiting for Things to Go ‘Back to Normal’
We’ve all heard it at some point this year, and have probably even said it: “When things go back to normal… ”
I found myself having such a thought this very morning as I took my sons for our daily walk. It’s understandable, of course. Life right now feels very strange. A pandemic has disrupted our lives. The country seems more polarized than ever. There’s little sign that the economy will rebound soon.
But any student of history knows that 2020 is hardly abnormal.
A hundred years ago, we had a pandemic — the Spanish flu — in the middle of a world war. We had the Great Depression after that. Then there was another flu pandemic in the ’50s. The late ’60s saw widespread protests and riots over Vietnam plus another flu pandemic, which killed some 100,000 people in the United States and over a million across the globe. The new millennium began with a terrorist attack that killed almost 3,000.
I challenge you to find a single “normal” decade in American history.
In fact, ancient traditions emphasized precisely this idea. The Stoics were fond of quoting the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “The only constant is change.” The Bible put it slightly differently: “That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been.”
Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations: “Whatever happens has always happened and always will and is happening at this very moment, everywhere. Just like this.”
The same argument is equally present in modern culture. “Time is a flat circle,” Rustin Cohle says in the first season of True Detective. “Everything we have done or will do we will do over and over and over again forever.”
And so it was that another generation found out about Nietzche’s idea of “eternal recurrence.” Did Nietzsche read Marcus? Did True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto read Nietzsche? Or Marcus? Or Ecclesiastes? Possibly. But it’s more likely that the realization simply happens when you’re paying attention.
One of the reasons to study history is that it gives you perspective. Distance has the effect of sanding down the edges and smoothing the transitions between things. When you read about the Great Influenza, when you immerse yourself in the characters of Shakespeare, when you visit a Civil War battlefield or an ancient castle, you gain a better understanding of the threads tying past to present.
With some perspective comes the realization that within the full scope of history, even recent history, nothing about this moment is unusual. Sure, you’d rather not be working from your kitchen table. You’d love to be traveling freely. Maybe you wish anyone could have been president other than Donald Trump. But who is to say having or not having these things is “normal?”
History is violent. History is hard. History is confusing and overwhelming. History didn’t care about the people who had to live through it. History is like this because history is just a recording of life, and life is like that.
But does that mean we can’t find peace or happiness within this chaos? That because there is no such thing as “normal” we should be anxious and depressed?
Of course not.
I remember once reading a book about the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann — the adventurer who found the lost city of Troy. In the 1860s, he immigrated to America and worked his way across the country on a variety of jobs. It was incredible to notice that this guy had lived through the Civil War, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, and it never even appeared in his diaries or changed his plans. He had found his own personal normal inside the craziness of world events. He’d simply gone on with his life.
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera writes, “No matter how brutal life becomes, peace always reigns in the cemetery. Even in wartime, in Hitler’s time, in Stalin’s time, through all occupations… against the backdrop of blue hills, they were as beautiful as a lullaby.”
That’s what I came to realize on my walk this morning. Yeah, this time is weird. It’s maybe not what I’d want if I had a choice. But I don’t. Why should I pine for it to be over or different? What matters is right now. What matters is the quiet hour my sons and I had together on that road. What mattered was the sunrise coming up behind us. What matters is that the last eight months have been eight months of being alive — and I chose to live them.