What Will Our New Normal Be?
Posted on October 4, 2020
If in March someone had said it would be October before I wrote another column, I’d have guessed that I’d been in an accident or suffered one of the worst cases of writer’s block in history.
A pandemic never would have occurred to me.
It’s good to be writing for you again. It was fun reprising some old columns while new ones were suspended, and it was great to hear from readers who said they enjoyed them, but now it’s time to get back to work. The suspension isn’t entirely over – new and old columns will alternate for a while – but it’s a start.
What a different world it is from the relatively innocent one that existed when the pandemic began. My wife and I were in Mexico when news broke of what was yet to be declared a pandemic. Fearing that travel between countries would be prohibited, we thought our biggest worry would be getting back home.
Once that happened, we thought everything would be okay. We’d be safely home in a country with the resources needed to deal with whatever was coming. And what was coming didn’t seem to be all that serious. The president assured us it would all be over by April.
The reality, of course, was that life as we’d known it ceased to exist. Businesses we thought would always be here closed for good. The homeless shelter where my wife and I volunteered told us to stop. No more volunteering, no columns to write. One gig after another for the band I play in was canceled or postponed. A previously busy life became a challenge to fill the hours.
I re-screened a door, built a planter box, did some painting. My wife cleaned drawers, closets and cupboards, made cookies for the mail carrier and trash haulers. We set personal records for numbers of books read.
My home office is now an online learning center for my grandson. The desk where I previously worked is strewn with school books, tablets, pencils and markers.
The pandemic has brought out the best and the worst in people.
Some donated their stimulus checks to workers who had lost their jobs.
People made and donated face masks, prepared and delivered meals to those who otherwise would have gone hungry.
Moving demonstrations of support for medical workers warmed hearts at hospitals throughout the country.
Entertainers did free, online performances to lift our spirits. Good-hearted citizens in every state and virtually every county have been responsible for myriad acts of random kindness.
Simultaneous with these acts of selflessness were acts of despicable behavior:
People hoarding toilet paper, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes.
People not only refusing to social distance or wear masks but assaulting those who urged them to do so. A man wiping his nose on the sleeve of a store employee who asked him to wear a mask. Another man breaking the arm of a store employee who asked him to leave the store for not wearing one.
Protestors burning masks, demonstrating against precautions meant to protect us all.
Is this who we are? Is this the country we loved and thought we knew?
We’ve always thought of ourselves as a civilized society. Are we only one epidemic, one stroke of fate, away from being less civilized than we thought? Who’d have thought six months ago that we’d see people stealing toilet paper from other people’s grocery carts and spitting on people who ask them to wear masks?
Medical professionals tasked with caring for the victims have to wear masks and face shields continuously through long, grueling shifts. And wearing a mask to pick up a few things at the grocery store is too much to ask of the rest of us?
In seven months, we’ve lost almost three times as many Americans as were killed in the Vietnam War.
Who’d have thought seven months ago that we’d be worrying about the security of our elections and even the possibility of a civil war?
Here’s hoping we’re better than that. I for one think and hope we are. And every so often, something happens that sustains that hope.
I was in a checkout line at a grocery store a few weeks ago when a small, seemingly insignificant incident served as a reminder of the way things were before we became so divided that we have trouble even speaking to one another.
Everyone in the store that day was wearing a mask except for a family in the checkout line behind me, a couple and their small daughter. We didn’t glare at each other or exchange angry words. Quite the opposite, in fact. The man was wearing a T-shirt that made me laugh.
“You can’t scare me,” it said. “I have two daughters.”
I told the man I liked his shirt.
“Thanks,” he said. “It makes people laugh. Especially people with daughters.”
“I have two daughters myself. They turned out great. Yours probably will, too.”
For all I knew, he could have been one of the protestors who burned masks at city hall. But for that fleeting, welcome moment of connection, we were on the same page, enjoying a laugh together about something we had in common. It might not seem like it during this turbulent time, but there are far more things that unite us as Americans than divide us.
America has long been known as a beacon to the world for its democratic ideals. A force for good and a counterweight to the evils of authoritarianism. We are living history now, and it isn’t clear what kind of country this will be once the history is recorded. What will the new normal be? Will we follow the path of divisiveness and hatred or that of civility and respect for one another and the principles made this country great?
Will our democracy survive?
What path will we choose in November?
Here’s hoping it’s our better angels, not our worst, that get us through this.