Give us the old normal

·6 min read

"Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick,” wrote Susan Sontag in her classic 1978 essay “Illness as Metaphor.”

Read in the era of the coronavirus pandemic, Sontag’s words have an impact they might not have during more universally healthful periods. But they also have an unintended dual meaning. As Sontag saw it, the kingdoms existed in mutual exclusivity for most: People got sick and went from living in the kingdom of the well to the kingdom of the sick, and maybe went back again. But as COVID restrictions are lifted across the country, the kingdom of the sick also represents a tangible thing: Many people want to make certain coronavirus restrictions or changes of habit permanent. That is to say: They have established permanent residence in the kingdom of the sick.

Proponents of this new normal may be genuinely worried about the spread of other flu-like illnesses in a globalized world. Some never wanted a return to the old normal. Some seem to have developed a heightened sense of suspicion and distrust of their fellows. For others, their material conditions during lockdown were even slightly improved. And for what appears to be a not-insignificant swath, permanent changes infuse the past year-plus of sacrifices and suffering with some sense of meaning, either spiritual in nature or because it’s easier to accept the devastation that way.

As we near the end of the pandemic, we also must start to ask some hard questions: With vaccines widely available and herd immunity no longer a chimera, must we continue to spend our waking hours obsessed with, if not the coronavirus itself, then the precariousness of our own health more generally? Can we at least put away our memento mori?

Was not the purpose of the last year and a half of mitigation measures — many of them legitimate, some of them dubious — the eventual resumption of full-on, full-out, unapologetic normalcy?

“Heck, I may wear a mask for every flu season now,” an epidemiologist told the New York Times in May. “Sure has been nice not to be sick for over a year.” The acceptance of mask-wearing not merely as a short-term response to a crisis but a long-term safety precaution is surely predictable among those in the field of epidemiology, but surveys show that some percentage of the general public is wary of the threat of normalcy, too. According to the results of a survey conducted in late May by the Harris Poll, 54% claim there are “barriers” impeding their resumption of on-site work, with more than half of those (57%) preferring to stay home for fear of contracting the virus.

It should go without saying that we should not fault anyone for seeking to steer clear of a deadly virus, but to hang on to certain safety measures, after the CDC gives you permission to ditch them, bespeaks something different than perfectly legitimate self-interest.

In a well-ordered, well-adjusted, and otherwise well-functioning society, life is given meaning through the very things that many sacrificed during the pandemic: congregational life at a place of worship, family get-togethers and reunions, large celebrations over the holidays, and attending school with a teacher at the front of the classroom (rather than in a window on Zoom). There are more ordinary sources of pleasure that can’t be overlooked, either: going shopping, eating out, attending a concert, taking a bike ride or hike. We shouldn’t be Pollyannaish about the pre-pandemic world — problems ranging from political division to police brutality were with us then, too — but was it not better when there were still things that allowed escape from the big, bad world? We’ve lost this during the pandemic since, by definition, to do something fun while masked and socially distanced is to dampen its, well, fun-ness. The masking and distancing tell us that, no, we shouldn’t be having fun.

“Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots,” George W. Bush said in comments meant to bolster the then-traumatized airline industry after 9/11. “Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”

Some might remember that these remarks were uncharitably, though not unamusingly, excerpted in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 as an example of Bush’s supposed mixed messaging during the War on Terror. But we can now see that they were nothing of the sort. To the contrary, Bush’s pleas were welcome assurances to weary citizens: Normalcy, not measured in units or degrees, would survive even the darkest of times.

For some, though, such pre-pandemic pleasures simply can’t compete with the sheer drama of the pandemic, a sign, perhaps, of just how remote wartime military service is to most of us. To don a mask and to stand 6 feet apart from others is, for many, the nearest equivalent to being part of a grand effort to defeat a common enemy, even if that enemy is invisible. There is genuine excitement in being on a wartime footing, particularly if we imagine ourselves to be doing something good. But, by definition, it must be transitory.

For most real soldiers, the immense relief at having made it through a war will surely outweigh anxiety over the potential for dullness on the other side. Are those who celebrate the end to mandatory masking really so different from the sailor who exultantly kissed the nurse in Alfred Eisenstaedt’s immortal photograph V-J Day in Times Square? Back then, sailors and their nurses were glad to be done with the war, and the postwar baby boom surely signaled a near-universal desire to go back to normal. Women on the home front did not continue to plant victory gardens or make airplanes; instead, they proceeded to raise families, embark on careers, and like Ike.

We ought to honor the example of that generation as we exit our own moment of crisis. To wish to stay masked, distanced, or perpetually logged onto Zoom is akin to wanting to keep fighting in the Pacific after the Allies secured victory. Of course, some fighting men didn’t want to go home, either, but that was known as going AWOL. Others remained in theater out of necessity, and our nurses, doctors, emergency room workers, and others will do so as well.

Modern life has shown us that people will become fiendishly invested in just about anything — not just war, but movie stars and health food and members of the British royal family. “Don’t you think you’ve all gone loony?” Kurt Vonnegut said in a lonely expression of bewilderment at the reaction to the death of Princess Diana in 1997.

Ironically, a full return to normalcy may be most beneficial to those who can’t quite set aside the strange habits necessitated by a once-in-a-century global pandemic: It’s a reminder that life’s richness does not come from “staying safe,” after things have been deemed safe, but from the lives we used to have.

Peter Tonguette writes for many publications, including the Wall Street Journal, National Review, and the American Conservative.

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Tags: Coronavirus, Vaccination

Original Author: Peter Tonguette

Original Location: Give us the old normal

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