There’s No Going Back to ‘Normal’

Once we accept, and grieve, that our old way of life is gone, we can build a better future.

(Gregory Halpern / Magnum)

Updated at 3:10 p.m. on August 31, 2020.

More than three months have passed since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic. Initially, shock and denial gave way to coping with humor: There were a plethora of jokes on social media about introverts thriving and extroverts languishing under these dystopian conditions. There was wistful reminiscence of “the last time” we hugged a friend or sat down to eat at a restaurant, and planning for what we’d do when things went back to normal. I, like many Americans, thought that the coronavirus would quickly run its course, that after a month or so things would return to normal. Of course, that assumes that there is a “normal” that awaits us someday.

Yet as the days turn to weeks and the weeks turn to months, the novelty of staying home has worn off. The partisan wave of anti-lockdown protests that sprang up all over the country showed the desire for normalcy at its extreme, but even those who are responsibly limiting contact with others are feeling the frustration. Students are growing weary of online instruction and long to see their teachers and classmates in person. Many of those who were gainfully employed before the pandemic are now unemployed and anxious as bills mount. Essential workers are risking exposure to the virus when they clock in. In the quest to return to normal, many states have reopened despite cautions given by scientific experts who warn of a second wave of outbreaks, which is now on the horizon, due to the premature reopening of states.

It is a hard truth to swallow but: There won’t be a return to “normal.” I would argue that much about our former life was actually abnormal—its frenetic pace, its inequalities, and its injustices.

While we were quarantined in our homes, police invaded the home of Breonna Taylor, an EMT and essential worker, and shot her eight times.* A couple of months later, the pandemic still raging on, another police officer killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd’s and Taylor’s final breaths fanned the flames of the Black Lives Matter movement. Protesters nationwide and around the globe are risking their life to demand an end to police violence, because they have become maladjusted to black death.

In this movement, I see signs that parts of society are beginning to look more to the future and less to reclaiming an old way of life. In thinking about the tension between the past, the present, and the future, I have come to believe that the only way to move forward is to grieve the life we once knew, and to shift our mindsets to radical acceptance of our present reality in order to create a new normal that is better than our pre-pandemic life.

The term radical acceptance was coined by the psychologist Marsha Linehan. “Radical acceptance is an act of the total person that allows [acceptance] of ‘this moment,’ or of ‘this reality’ in this moment,” as she and her co-authors wrote in a chapter of their book Mindfulness and Acceptance. “It is without discrimination. In other words, one does not choose parts of reality to accept and parts to reject.”

I’m a public theologian who frequently speaks at conferences, universities, and churches. In talking with a friend recently about my work, I found myself painstakingly catching my words and rearranging them from present to past tense. The past tense has become a constant companion in the present moment, as every facet of my life has changed due to the pandemic. Mass gatherings such as conferences—my primary source of income—are foreclosed until social-distancing measures are lifted. Some scientists project that may not happen until 2022. That’s my reality.

I have formed a new ritual: Every day, I take to my laptop with my phone in hand, say a prayer, and call unemployment and log on to the website simultaneously, hoping to finally get through and join the 38 million unemployed Americans who have applied for benefits since March. Thus far, I’ve been unsuccessful. The fear that I may have to live like this for a year or more has sent me into a tailspin of profound uncertainty and self-doubt, which causes me to question my value. Like many, I have been socialized in the crucible of capitalism, which binds our worth to our production.

Yet my Christian faith teaches me that I am not what I produce. I am valuable because I am a human being endowed by God with intrinsic dignity and worth. I have found solace in that truth. My faith teaches me that my value is not contingent on my circumstances. Radical acceptance—which can be practiced regardless of one’s faith or worldview—is a complementary concept. It teaches me to release what I cannot control so that I can focus on what I can change.

In dialectical behavioral therapy, radical acceptance is often used to help people come to terms with circumstances they can’t change. It requires us to give up the elusive idea that we are in control and instead accept reality as it is. Linehan and her co-authors write: “Another way of thinking about it is that radical acceptance is radical truth. In other words, acceptance is experiencing something without the haze of what one wants and does not want it to be.” So without the haze, here is the reality we must accept: We are in the midst of a pandemic. Several states require that face masks be worn in public. We are in a recession. We have been in our homes and social distancing for more than two months, and this will continue intermittently until a vaccine or an effective treatment is available. According to the infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci, “You don’t make the timeline; the virus makes the timeline.”

Thirty-eight million Americans are unemployed, and that number is expected to climb. America has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, and the virus is likely to spread further due to the reopening of state and local economies, as well as the Black Lives Matter protests (though public-health officials have endorsed them). We cannot bury our departed loved ones in the traditional ways we are accustomed to, and many cannot be at the bedside of their loved ones to say final goodbyes. Prolonged quarantine is affecting our collective mental health, and those who live alone are experiencing acute isolation. On top of all of this, black people are forced to process yet more black deaths at the hands of police. Presently, the toll on our mental health is unquantifiable, but the tears we cry—and the tears we cannot bring ourselves to cry—are the calculus. This is our reality.

Radical acceptance of this reality is not to be confused with approval of it. Linehan explains it thusly: “Radical acceptance doesn’t mean you don’t try to change things ... You can’t change anything if you don’t accept it, because if you don’t accept it, you’ll try to change something else that you think is reality.”

Additionally, radical acceptance is not a call to stoicism. An array of emotions (anger, fear, anxiety, grief, etc.) may arise within you in response to reality. Suppressing these emotions can be tempting, but allowing yourself to feel whatever you feel without judgment is also a kind of radical acceptance. And I have found that radical acceptance can be freeing—accepting what you cannot change enables you to focus on what you can. I see a sense of that freedom in these protests; indeed, if radical acceptance is radical truth, as Linehan says, then white supremacy and police brutality are the truths we must see to change reality. Letting ourselves feel the anger and grief that come with those truths will free us.

Striving to return to an old “normal” would ensure that the mechanisms of oppression keep turning. We are not going back to normal; we are pushing toward a new normal—one that is more sustainable and equitable than the one we left behind, one in which everyone might flourish. However, the new normal is contingent upon our willingness to learn “the practice of letting go of gone things,” as the poet Upile Chisala eloquently put it. We will not be the same when this pandemic and this revolution end. How can we be, when more than 100,000 people in the United States have perished from COVID-19 thus far? When so many black women and men have been reduced to hashtags? The collective grief is exhausting and disorienting, but grieve we must. This is the work our souls require.

Though we can’t go back, there’s nothing wrong with grieving what was. Even as we work to accept it, we can’t help but lament what is. Let’s give our tears to dreams deferred and decimated by this pandemic so that we can be numbered among those working toward a new normal.

* This article previously misstated that Breonna Taylor was lying in bed when she was shot.

Related Podcast

Listen to Ekemini Uwan talk about this story on Social Distance, The Atlantic’s podcast about life in the pandemic:

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