The story has often been told. Perhaps you heard it as a child. After the Franco-American forces defeated the British at Yorktown the British band played, “The World Turned Upside Down,” an acknowledgment that the world had indeed changed. Britain was going to lose its colony. The American Revolution was going to succeed.*
We, who have survived the pandemic, also live in a world that has been turned upside down. We can feel it in our gut. Something foundational has shifted. Our old timeline is lost. This holds true as much for those who want to return to “normal” as quickly as possible, forgetting the virus existed, as it does for those who believe that it isn’t the right time yet, because the virus is still killing almost 500 people a day in the USA.
How are we to understand this seismic shift? Here’s one way.
Our personal worlds depend in large measure on the continuity provided by our habits. We feel comfortable in old habits. When things are running relatively smoothly we hardly pay attention to them. Virtually invisible, they are what we do. We navigate the world in relative ease.
If a problem arises that an old habit can’t resolve or address, we feel uneasy, things aren’t quite right. Things need to be set straight. We encounter minor challenges of this type daily. The door that I opened yesterday, without any thought, by simply turning the doorknob, won’t move. A problem. My old habit has failed me because the outside world isn’t responding as expected. If I can fix the door, then my old habit will continue to work. A return to normal.
But what if multiple habits fail us at once? We aren’t talking about a specific problem then, like a door that won’t open, but a world that is out of joint, leaving us adrift, insecure. And what if the cause of the shakeup isn’t a human enemy that can be defeated or with whom we can negotiate, but a trivial, barely living thing, a relentless shape-shifter that eludes our eradication efforts?
It is difficult enough for any of us to grapple with multiple challenges to our habits, for example, when we move from one part of the country to another. Now consider what happens if virtually everyone simultaneously is made to feel that the world isn’t working as it should, the familiar becoming unfamiliar, not only for themselves but for everyone.
None of us have ever experienced anything quite like this, not in our lifetimes, not even the last survivors of the WWII. The country as a whole had to change its habits during WWII, but the enemy was clear and human, and we weren’t openly sparring about whether the enemy is really dangerous and how to defeat it, at least not in a way comparable to what we have seen recently.
Making matters infinitely worse, our inhuman enemy struck when we were already deeply divided over right and wrong, rights and morality, red and blue, all reminiscent of the great divide into grey and blue, the Civil War. We’ve all seen it. We have been at war with each other as much as we have been at war with Covid. (If the virus could laugh about the damage it’s wreaked, it would undoubtedly be rolling in the aisles if it learned how much more we have done to ourselves in its wake.)
Odds are the virus will keep mutating. Habits will be challenged, again. But even if they aren’t, our distrust has gone too far, a distrust that metastasized during the pandemic. Nearly half of us believe that the other half wouldn’t assist them in a time of need. Many believe that the other half actively wishes that they would leave the country or simply disappear into the ether.
There is no going back to normal after something like this. A collective trauma of this magnitude, riven with conflict, will not be forgotten. A post-Covid world will include memories of this world. The wound will remain.
So please let’s stop play acting. Let’s stop pretending that the kids going back to school, unmasked, will make us feel normal. Or going back to the office. Or going to the mall to shop in-person. Or the passage of a few thin pieces of legislation by Congress. Or electing our favorite politicians. Or electing more red or blue ones. Or cheaper gas prices. Or reducing inflation. Or….etc. None of these will make things feel normal (whatever else they may or may not accomplish).
As we have heard repeated far too many times, the first step to recovery is to admit you have a problem. We have multiple ones. We all know this. So let’s stop listening to happy talk from politicians and business leaders, friends and neighbors. Happy talk about getting back to normal only obscures the work that will be necessary to save this country, or the planet, if we wish to save it, if we believe it can be saved. The “back to normal” sentiment will continue to distort our judgment about what needs to be done. It needs to disappear, as a first step toward new programs that can make a real difference in people’s lives, for example, universal healthcare.
“A World Turned Upside Down.” It’s the new normal, the anti-normal. Say it loud, say it proud. And let’s move on.
* The story may be apocryphal, but I’m going with the legend here. See “The World Turned Upside Down,” Wikipedia.
Graphic via Bibliothèque nationale de France, Sem (Georges Goursat), artist.