Rethinking Everything

There’s a certain comfort in thinking about what we’ll all do when things get back to normal.

I find myself retreating to that line of thinking, at times, as it allows me to perceive the moment as an interstitial: something I’m doing now which I can enjoy as an oddity, because at some point it will give way to the familiar rhythms and folkways of the usual.

There’s a very good chance, though, that the definition of “normal” will have changed by the time this global pandemic recedes, like a beach newly revealed by a waning tide, an abundance of ocean-borne knickknacks, rubble, and treasures deposited by the water, while mountains of sand, shells, and other familiar environmental elements are pulled out to sea.

A transitional, liminal state between different normals, rather than a mere pause in routine.

I’ve been trying to focus on the potential benefits of this nearly inevitable change, as—alongside the many horrors of what we’re going through right now—we’ve also been provided with an opportunity to reassess the way we’ve been doing things for quite some time, and to make changes based on what we’ve learned in the interim.

Large-scale experiments are being conducted whether we asked for them or not, and what we learn from these experiments could help shape a new perception of what’s normal.

We’ve seen, for instance, how clean our air can become, even at the densest centers of our most populous cities. And while it would almost certainly be undesirable to maintain a complete shut-down of commerce, and near-complete isolation of residents, it’s conceivable that we could use what we’ve learned to make adjustments to where we allow cars, how mass-transit is deployed, and what industrial infrastructure is prudent to have, where.

We’re being forced to experiment with remote-work and remote-education technologies before we would have otherwise done so at this scale, and we may come out the other side of this pandemic more prepared to utilize such tools to increase access to resources, expand the scope, scale, and diversity of the employment pool, and increase our range of connections so that those who are lonely are less so, and those who have something to share with the world are more empowered to share.

There are a great many people going through the arduous, at times quite painful and difficult process of questioning their perception of the things, from their suppositions about economics to their long-held political ideologies to their understandings about how our governments and societies operate—and how they should operate.

Many of us are realizing just how dependent we are on each other for our physical and mental well-being. We’re more clearly seeing the threads that connect country to country, city to city, and person to person, appreciating the benefits of those threads while also wondering how we might reinforce our independent nodes, so that our pockets of humanity don’t wither when transmission along those threads needs to be temporarily slowed or ceased for the benefit of those on both ends.

There are milestone moments throughout our lives, during which we pause to rethink everything. We’ve accumulated enough knowledge and experience to come to new conclusions based on what we’ve learned, and importantly, due to some kind of unavoidable change in our rituals and routines, we finally have the time to convert theory into practice—to act upon what we’ve learned in those preceding years.

There are fewer such moments for societies, and many of them are fairly traumatic; wars, famines, plagues.

Just as it would be a shame to allow one’s 20s to pass without ever rethinking one’s earlier assertions and assumptions about life, it would be a missed opportunity to allow this moment to pass—a moment in which so much is already disrupted and broken—without considering how we might rebuild better, based on what we’ve learned in recent decades.

This essay was originally published in my newsletter.

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