Back to “Normal”?

What Shall We Consider Normal?

When I hear politicians say “we must get back to normal,” I can barely contain my laughter — or my tears. Good reader, would you suggest that what we were experiencing as a nation, as a world, in 2019 was “normal?” If so, we may need to have a little chat about faith, science, reason and being a society of constitutional law. We would need to talk about the meaning of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This question about normalcy is the second of three questions we are considering in this time of pandemic. Here they are again: 1) What livelihoods will we love or treasure? 2) What shall we consider to be normal? 3) What shall we truly love and treasure in the future?

Blizzard, Long Winter or New Mini Ice Age?

In early March I began to see newsletters and opinion pieces that offered a metaphor regarding the changes the COVID-19 pandemic would bring. By now, dozens have used these images. Here is how it is framed: Is this pandemic going to be more like a blizzard, a long winter or a new mini ice age? In other words, How long will it last? How bad will it get? How much will we be changed?

Award winning journalist Laurie Garrett, a highly respected scientist and author of The Coming Plague has been warning of the possibility of a world pandemic for more than three decades. Garrett has emerged as someone who can offer us clues as to what may be ahead. In an interview with Frank Bruni in the New York Times on May 2, 2020 Garrett was asked: So, is “back to normal,” a phrase that so many people cling to, a fantasy?

Her answer: “This is history right in front of us,” Garrett said. “Did we go ‘back to normal’ after 9/11? No. We created a whole new normal. We scrutinized the United States. We turned into an anti-terror state. And it affected everything. We couldn’t go into a building without showing ID and walking through a metal detector, and couldn’t get on airplanes the same way ever again. That’s what’s going to happen with this.”

When asked in a CNN interview on May 7th if this situation is worse than she had predicted and feared, Garrett’s response was clear. She warned that things will not be the same and that five years from now we would still be dealing with the changes across all of our society brought by this pandemic. She noted that in every other viral outbreak over recent years, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) was a scientific center of good information and strategic thinking. However, now they have been reduced in scope, their guidelines are being set aside and this will only lead to a wider spread of the virus and deeper damage to our society and other societies around the world.

So… what shall we consider normal? Sadly, I believe that even with a change at the top of our government, the damage has been done and over the next year will continue with a result that…. well, at least a long winter of discontent is ahead, or, I hate to write this, but we may be entering another mild ice age like our world experienced from roughly 1300 to 1900 AD. As one writer has put it: For 600 years the earth was colder than average. This affected farming practices, house designs, and pushed Europeans to search for warmer areas and more fertile lands to farm, such as in North America. This was a multi-generational event that shaped the history of the world. People lived their entire lives in this ice age (Jeff Clark, “Blizzards, Winters and Ice Ages,”Rural Matters Institute, April 14, 2020).

Is Normal Our Best?

My sixteen year old grandson and I recently talked about societal norms in our weekly zoom chat. (“A weekly zoom chat with a 16 year old?” you say. Okay, I guess this is a new normal — at least for a while.) In our conversation, I rehearsed the sociological categories of social norms: folkways, mores, taboos and laws. He politely listened and then with appropriate doubt to the sufficiency of these categories, observed, “But none of those things can measure what is truly ‘normal,’ right? Don’t we need to also think about what things are ethical, I mean like moral?” Of course… such a smart grandson I have!

In the mid-1980s, I faced some powerful questions about norms and ethics. It was during the HIV-AIDS epidemic. I was pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. Suddenly there were many young men in that congregation and community who were getting very sick. They were dying from this strange new disease. First a few, then dozens. Our congregation had welcomed many gay and lesbian persons into membership. Actually, it may be better said that many LGBTQ folks were generous enough to welcome us. We were connected, the phony barriers and bigotries of religious tradition and being closeted were set aside for a new normal of common humanity. It was a marvelous time as I grew in understanding and faith. I learned many things about my own ignorance and unrecognized biases; and, it was a painful time as well when many of my superiors in the denomination were upset that we were breaking with what was their “normal.”

In the midst of this, a phone call came from the father of one of the young men who had been worshiping with us. He started by introducing himself as the young man’s father and then said, “I am a pastor in Ohio and I want you to know that I don’t agree with your theology or my son’s choices.” There was a long pause… I was expecting a theological harangue. Still, I could tell this might be different. Even over the phone from hundreds of miles away I knew the man was holding back tears. With a breaking voice this father went on. “I guess part of me thinks your church offers too much grace, but another part of me is so grateful you have found each other. I am glad he is connected even if it is not normal.”

As a pastor, I was grateful that that congregation had decided it would be normal to live in terms of too much grace… grace for all. John Wesley, Methodism’s founder often pointed to Psalm 145:9 which reads, “The Lord is good to all and his compassion is over all he has made” (NRSV), or from another source it is translated “God is good to one and all; everything he does is suffused with grace” (The Message).

Surely, my denomination is still very broken over how we align our ethics and our norms. I often ponder what John Wesley would think of our quarrels these days. For me, at least, I make the choice to come down on the side of Too Much Grace — for me and for all.

I have been warned by my psychologist and psychoanalyst friends to take care when speaking of any thing as “normal.” One of them was bold enough to say, “Well, I may be normal but you look pretty sketchy to me!” I replied, “this is what keeps folks like you employed.” Anyone who has read E.B. White’s delightful short story “The Second Tree From the Corner” will appreciate that, like beauty, normal is in the eye of the beholder.

If a healthy way forward, beyond this pandemic is to be discovered, it will require honesty about the scientific data, more good research, testing and tracking… and perhaps a vaccine. It will require more, I believe. It will require that we see that God’s compassion extends over all and to all.

Or, we can pretend that we can “go back” to a fantasy world, where science is diminished, bigotries are encouraged as normal, and God’s care for all is ignored.

Such a move backwards from the fact that we are all connected one to another and to creation is a possibility. Let’s choose another option. Wendell Berry wrote: “Only by restoring broken connections can we be healed. Connection is health.” (Berry, Wendell, Essays: 1969 to 1990). (See also https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/philipamerson.com/6682)

So choose your metaphor: blizzard, long winter or ice age? What will be a compass and a guide as we seek to better align the normal with the ethical? I fear we are in a long winter at least; probably a mild ice age. John Wesley offered this overarching way of proceeding: “Do no harm, Do Good, Stay in Love with God.” I will look, in these ways, to restoring broken connections — to getting to a new normal or a “daily harmony” as one therapist friend suggests — and to living with others in terms of our common humanity and the sufficiency of God’s grace as we journey together.

Even if we could go “back to normal,” I would work and pray that we could do better than that.