When I was a teen, I used to wear a jean jacket covered in buttons with a centerpiece pin that asked, “Why be normal?”
At the time, it was a rallying cry for authority-questioning people like me. It reflected a time of life when possibilities seemed endless and challenging the status quo, a natural choice.
Today it’s an appropriate existential question, as we’re barraged by speculation about the post-pandemic “normal.”.
This brings up that old feeling in me that wonders why we cling to an idea of normal as a haven anyways. Many things that have become normalized in America, like institutionalized racism and gun violence, tear society apart, not build it up.
“Normal” is overrated, so we must start thinking about our word choices and our true desires.
Understanding what’s “normal”
Truth be told, labeling something as “normal” isn’t so simple. First off, a norm is a statistical average, where most (but not all) follow a pattern. Secondly, the word itself comes from the Latin for a carpenter’s square, norma, which tradespeople used to determine a perfect right angle — a concrete ideal. That may work for building furniture, but not in holding up more aspirational ideals that support the structure of a healthy, harmonious society.
And then there’s the functional view of normal from evolutionary science that supports the survival of the fittest. Again, it works for some, but not for all. Given all the ways that normalcy is defined, it’s no wonder that it’s going to be so hard to return to “normal.”
The new normal, in other words, changes what was wrong but keeps what was right with the old normal. But if the old normal was wrong, then why did we call it normal? Similarly, if the new normal is different from the old one, how can we pretend we’re still dealing with “normal?”
The “knew” normal
Since nothing is truly typical, and change is the only constant, it’s time to get real about what we mean by “normal.” Essentially, it’s shorthand for nostalgia — a yearning to return to a time when things felt safe, predictable, and familiar.
This is something that we Gen Xers can appreciate. Being nostalgic isn’t all bad; it’s generally considered a positive adaptive tool. While there’s no harm in having the feels over the past, the truth is there was probably nothing “normal” about it.
And that’s just fine because that’s the human condition. We will persist in wanting to get back to normal, and at times it will feel like we’ve gotten into a comfortable rhythm again. And if we’re smart, and a bit lucky, this time around we’ll learn how to normalize things that uplift life, not destroy it.