Facing a New Year and a New Normal

Ideas and Issues

January 1, 2021

            Pearl River     Normally in our family we lobby and cajole everyone to try to assess the year and make some goals for the coming year.         How do we do this in 2021, when so much of 2020 was so different than expected, and so much of 2021 is fragile and unknown?

Various observers from politicians to doctors, from neighbors and friends to pundits and random strangers, encourage us all to do this and that in order “to return to normal.” You know, the way things were before. Trust me. I want to line up for that parade. I’m having trouble getting there. All spring, I told my colleagues in Europe, India, Africa, and Central America, hey, I’ll see you in the fall. Then all fall I told them maybe December, and I priced flights to Dhakka and Nairobi. Accustomed to visiting with our organizers and leaders in Canada three or four times a year, we finally abandoned all hope and met via Zoom, a sorry substitute. Now, I say to all, maybe this spring, even while knowing that the vaccine will not get to most of us until June at the earliest.

I’m reminded of Katrina-time in New Orleans, fifteen years ago, when all of us wondered when we would be home, and then we wondered what would “home” be like. The phrase “new normal” came to define our lives and the city. I’m increasingly convinced that there’s no going back to the way things were. It’s all about finding out what the new normal will be in the future for all of us.

I ran into this passage doing my vacation reading.         I’m here along the marsh and bayou reading, Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time, by Ben Ehrenreich, but I stumbled on this passage that seemed to speak to exactly this moment where we are all standing on the bridge between past and future, where the historic pandemic is our collective trauma.         He writes,

Trauma stops time. That’s what it does. Catastrophe breaks all cycles. Whatever rhythm had once been attained collapses. This is as true of car wrecks and heartbreak as it is of genocidal wars. If you manage to survive, time starts over. It has to. But it resets. A gulf separates you from what came before. That past belongs to someone else. Time begins now with the disaster. You begin with the disaster. What came before is irrecoverable—catastrophe has cut it off—so time starts afresh at that traumatic moment and proceeds . . . into what? We don’t know. If we knew once, or thought we did, we don’t anymore. The future we thought was promised us belongs also to the past. Time proceeds into the unknown. An arrow shot into the void. Or a scar, inching like a worm through the night.

I hear him clearly, and perhaps you do as well. We already hear the phrase “before time,” referring to the pre-pandemic world.       Will that be so? Who knows, but some things have to change. There is bound to be a new normal.

Looking at 2021, be careful. Measure goals and objectives against an unknown future, rather than a certain past.       Focus on being adaptable and receptive to change. Be agile enough to recognize the subtle differences in the time ahead in order to plan and act accordingly. Sure, make big plans and ambitious goals, but temper them with the understanding that right now, everything is temporary and unformed, and must be molded day by day as we move forward.

I bet that’s 2021, and will act accordingly.