It’s all just what you’re used to.
Have you ever lost power before and you keep flipping the light switches anyway?
It’s a learned behavior, one we’ve picked up from thousands of successful experiences with turning lights on and off. We didn’t evolve to hit light switches, it’s just a habit we’ve developed through a lifetime of indoor living.
In 2009, there was an epic ice storm in New England that resulted in lengthy power outages. I was living in a rural New Hampshire town where we went 12 days with no electricity. Guess what? Within a few days, I stopped reaching for the light switches.
In fact, I got so used to lighting lanterns and using flashlights that when the power came back on, it took a little while for me to adjust to using electric lights again. The bright, electric bulbs seemed so harsh that I continued to cook and read by lanterns for several more days.
Life is always changing. There isn’t a ‘normal’ version of life that we can always count on returning to. It’s just that we get so used to things being a certain way that it feels like we won’t be whole until those conditions exist again.
When I was in preschool, I used to call my best friend on a rotary phone with a long spiral cord that hung on the wall in my dad’s office. By high school, I dialed her number on a cordless phone and sat outside on the steps so my family wouldn’t eavesdrop on our calls. In college I had a 1–800 prepaid calling card that I used to talk to her. Then I called her on my cellphone and now we usually connect by FaceTime.
Will I ever call her on a rotary phone again? Probably not, even though that felt normal for several years. But I’ve gotten used to connecting with her in a bunch of different ways. Since our friendship has lasted for more than 30 years, I’ll probably keep connecting with her in new ways that will feel weird at first, until they eventually become the new normal.
We keep talking about ‘returning to normal’ as if there’s a big UNDO button to the global pandemic that has affected every crack and crevice of our lives.
But since time only moves in one direction, we can never go back to the lives we led in January and February of this year. Instead, we’ll have to get used to new habits and trends, brought about by a contagious and mysterious virus.
At first, it was pretty strange to wake up in the morning and not rush to get my kids to school so I could make it to work on time. But after just a few weeks, it feels pretty normal to eat breakfast together before we all head to our desks to work from home for a few hours before taking a break to walk our dog around the block together.
In fact, it’s started to feel pretty normal.
But these few weeks are no more normal than the 2009 ice storm or the weeks after the 2016 election or the months after 9/11. As humans, we’re sensitive to change, and often sentimental about the way things ‘used to be.’
But instead of holding the fantasy notion that September or October will bring us back to the life we used to know, we need to focus on the fact that lives are always changing, virus or not. Improved sanitation techniques are a good change. Diversifying the ways that teachers can reach their students is a good thing. Learning how to cook a few new recipes is a good thing.
This is not to trivialize the aching atrocities of this pandemic. People are enduring terrible losses, stresses and trauma that will affect them forever. For these people, we need to forget about returning to normal. We need to focus on the future and making it one that we can live with.
So what if there’s hand sanitizer stationed at the entrance to every public building? So what if you can’t go into work when you’re sick anymore? So what if you’re grocery store isn’t 100% stocked 100% of the time?
A year from now, you’ll be used to it. In fact, it will seem normal.
But don’t get too comfortable.
Remember, normal is just what you’re used to at the moment.