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#27: What is Normal Anyway?

#27: What is Normal Anyway?

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Hey all you cool cats and kittens, welcome to another Muthafuggin’ Monday email, the only weekly newsletter that solves all its emotional problems through excessive baking and alcohol. Each week, I throw three interesting ideas your way that hopefully make you a slightly less awful human being. This week, the newsletter is presented as three pressing questions and three somewhat evasive answers. The questions are: 1) “Will things ever return to normal?” 2) “Do crises bring people together?” and 3) “Are we going to be better off for this?” 

Let’s get into it. 

1. “Will things ever return to normal?” …depends on what “normal” is  When something thwarts our expectations, we tend to react in one of two ways: anger and/or sadness. 

What determines that anger or sadness is whether we believe our loss was within somebody’s control or not. If we believe it was preventable or controllable, then we get angry. If we believe it was unpreventable, then we get sad. For instance, if I’m dead set on watching Bob Ross reruns this morning, and I find my wife hogging the TV, chances are I will get pissed off at her. After all, she’s responsible for my ruined expectations. But let’s say I find out that The Joy of Painting was inexplicably cancelled everywhere on earth yesterday, then I will become deeply, deeply sad.  

These two human responses, anger and sadness, are coalescing into their own little camps in response to the pandemic. All of our hopes and dreams for 2020 have been shat upon, irreversibly ruined. Some people see everything closing down, the economy getting wrecked, livelihoods destroyed, and they think it’s an irrational overreaction. They see the disruption in their own lives as preventable and unnecessary. And they are fucking pissed

Meanwhile, others have resigned themselves to the fact that social distancing and quarantining are necessary side effects of a pandemic. They believe that there’s nothing more any of us could do, the damage has been done. They give in. And they get sad. And mopey. And write long weepy articles about staying sane at home. Like this one

But both of these reactions, while completely different on the surface, are rooted in the same experience: the destruction of one’s hopes. The angry people are pissed because they expected their lives to go one way but the stupid fucking media/politicians/scientists/whoever made it go another. The sad people are sad because they expected their lives to go one way but now this horrible, horrible thing has happened, and there’s nothing anyone can do!

We all define what “normal” is supposed to be for ourselves. Then we become attached to that vision. “I’m gonna work hard and buy a bike and hang out with my girlfriend and start a donut delivery business.” We marry that vision of normalcy. We take it for granted. And inevitably, we become incredibly upset when that normalcy is taken away from us. 

But here’s an idea: What if this disruption is normal? 

Think about it: pandemics have occurred throughout all of human history. For hundreds of years, people have responded by social distancing, cancelling events, closing businesses, and yes, even cancelling church services. Schools and public spaces were closed in Asia in 2009 and 2001 and in North America in 1957 and 1918. Isaac Newton famously came up with his theories about gravitation and optics while quarantining at his mother’s house during 1666. The word “quarantine” itself comes from the Italian word “quaranta” which was invented in the 14th century as a response to the black plague. 

Similarly, economic and political crises are the norm for human history, not the exception. And more often than not, they are caused by human fear, stupidity, and irrationality. These things happen every 20-30 years almost like clockwork in most parts of the world. Going back through history, you can hardly go more than ten years without some major, world-altering event that disrupted tens of millions of lives and often had catastrophic implications. 

What’s more, the human reactions to these crises are also quite normal. Social distancing has historically produced protests and political backlash from those whose livelihoods become threatened. Economic crises have invited intense government intervention, generating widespread inequality and political outrage. Even the complaints that everyone is overreacting—nothing to see here, see, hardly anyone even died—are not only common, but practically universal. 

This isn’t the “new” normal. This is just normal. Incredibly normal. As are our responses to it. We are maddeningly unoriginal in our experience right now. 

But as long as our expectations are confined to our tiny individual bubbles of experience, and our focus only looks a couple years into our past or future, then we’ll feel perpetually sad and/or angry at having been robbed of our imaginary “normal.” 

2. “Do crises bring us together?” …depends on who “us” is – In my book, Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope, I explained how our group identities are largely defined by the threats that unite us. If your country is attacked by some invader, people put down their internal divisions and rally together behind their nation. If your family is attacked by an outsider, you put down your internal squabbles and stand together as one. Historically, the periods of greatest solidarity in the United States have come when we’ve had clear external enemies to focus on, rather than each other. 

In that sense, you would expect a crisis to bring people together. And, in some ways, we are coming together. There seems to be universal support for healthcare workers, a concern for the elderly, a mutual sharing of information between governments and political parties. 

But this solidarity is fragile and has splintered in many directions. Unsurprisingly, many have adopted the crisis to suit their personal political causes. Leaders are aiming to capitalize on authority and attention. Proponents of science are using this as a means to promote science, while skeptics of science are using it to promote nutty fucking conspiracy theories. 

So, yes, typically crises do unite groups of people. It just depends on how you define the group. The problem is that COVID-19 is not targeting a specific, identifiable group. It targets anybody and everybody. 

If every “us” needs a “them” to unite them, coronavirus is a shitty “them” to rally against. It is indiscriminate, non-ideological, and invisible. It can afflict anyone at any time. You can be old and unhealthy and survive, or young and healthy and die. You can protect yourself and get sick, or you can say fuck it and go cough on people at the beach and remain healthy. 

It’s a systemic risk. Therefore, there seems no rhyme or reason to what happens to us as individuals. And as a result, it enables our in-group biases and prejudices, rather than overcoming them. 

3. “Are we going to be better for this?” …depends on what “better” is – Like a lot of us, a lot of thought leaders are looking for silver linings to this experience. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has said that he believes this will help people be more emotionally resilient and improve mental health. 

The venture capitalist Marc Andreesen recently wrote an impassioned essay that this should inspire us to get back to building the future of atoms rather than bits, to focus on technology that reshapes the world rather than simply our newsfeeds. It seems likely that more people will work from home in the coming years and if you’re into not wearing pants, then that’s unequivocally a good thing. 

But, does the world always get better because of a crisis? Individually, it usually does. Much of my work is based on the idea that it’s only through struggle that we’re able to grow. And I think the most important mindset for each of us, individually, is to make sure we come out the other side better off in some way. 

But on a societal level? It’s less clear. Yes, things get better… usually. But is that because of crises or despite them? And, if so, how long? Sometimes it can take years, decades, even generations. 

Has slavery made us a better civilization? Clearly not. We’re still suffering the fallout from it. Did the Soviet Union create a better civilization for Russians? You could easily argue it set them back 100 years. Meanwhile, things like the Great Depression and the American Revolution definitely produced better results, even if it took many years or decades for them to appear. 

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that the moral arc of history is long but it bends towards justice. This is true about human progress in general. The problem is that, in some cases, the arc is so long it outstrips many of our lifetimes. It is impossible to know how this moment will affect history, and while that is discomforting right now, it will also be useful to remember when things feel as though they are at their worst.

Until next week,