Temporary insanity

“How are you adjusting to the new normal?” This is the question I keep running into, and at every encounter, it sends a wave of alarm coursing through me. I will admit to something of a personal aversion to the phrase. When my father died, it’s what everyone kept telling me I’d find: “the new normal.” Every time someone said it, I wanted to tell them I didn’t want it. I didn’t want to know what the world was like without my father, but by necessity, in the nearly five years since his death, I have come to learn. I have, as it were, “adjusted” to it, but it has never been, nor do I ever expect it to be, “normal.”

So it is with the current state of our world. In Portland, it’s almost spring. The sun is out, the weather is mild, and all of this in March. Ordinarily, people would be driving me crazy with their outdoor antics—eating outside, playing outside, doing everything outside like a pack of dogs that’s spent all winter indoors. But it is, with the exception of the chirping and cawing of the birds and the occasional bark of a dog, deathly silent. There is no one on the road, and I can count the number of people I saw on my run today on one hand. This is not normal. I cannot express how crucial it is that we not continue to call it that.

There is a virus coming for us. Perhaps some of us have already been infected with it, and if not, becoming infected with it is now our greatest collective fear. And so, we lock our doors and hide ourselves away, instantly forgetting that we are, in fact, still alive, though I would not call what we are currently doing “living.” Everything I love in my city is closed—my church, my yoga studio, my favorite restaurants. Even Powell’s, which is the closest thing my literary soul knows to Mecca, has shut down. I live alone, but I cannot invite a friend over because I am not supposed to come within six feet of another human, and my apartment is very small. I understand that we are trying to delay the rate of infection. I understand that we are trying to protect the most vulnerable. But what I do not understand is why no one is going outside.

One of the surest ways to break someone is to deprive them of their reality. I learned that from a trained assassin on a TV show. When I heard her say this, I immediately understood it to be true. I thought back on all the times I had experienced a trauma, and what each one had in common was that it altered my reality—a person, a job, a state of being, a security that was no longer there. One day, I was living one life, and the next day, it was gone, and I had been charged with finding—here it comes again—a new normal. But anyone who has endured trauma knows this is not the right way to phrase it. Because nothing you want to do in such a condition is “normal.” You want to stay inside. You want to draw the blinds and pull the covers over your head. You want to stock your pantry and never leave the house because maybe, just maybe, if you stay where you are, then more bad things won’t find you.

But it doesn’t work that way. Because as bad as things may be out there, they are even worse in here—here, where you are alone with your thoughts, is where the nameless threats begin to grow. Here, where you stop doing things you ordinarily do because you have to change the way you do them, is where paralysis begins to take over. The greatest enemy is not trauma or even the possibility of trauma—it’s fear, and fear invades like nothing else. Its rate of growth is more rapid than any virus, its ability to manipulate reality stronger than any drug. And if you let it, it will seep beneath your doors and rise up through the floorboards, and it will tell you that adjusting to this “new normal” is how you will survive it—never suggesting that what you need is to do more than just survive.

We are not so free as we were two weeks ago, it is true. We are not so amply provisioned. Our primary sources of joy and community and entertainment and, in several cases, employment are gone. The impulse to buckle is understandable, and it is an impulse I know well. When my father died, there were many times when I was late to work because I could not peel myself up off the floor where I lay crying. There were many times when I contemplated not going to work at all. So, too, when I was out of a job or when I was left by a man I loved—when I found a lump in one of my breasts or when I could not bring myself to keep praying for something I had been praying to be released from for years—each of these times, in each of these broken realities, I found myself living in a world in which I did not want to be living.

And here is what I learned: we have to keep going. Not by trying to convince ourselves that what is not okay can suddenly become okay if we just say it loud and long enough. But by saying that everything is not okay, and we are not okay, and by choosing to keep living our lives regardless—by going for a run when we can’t go to the gym, by calling a friend when we can’t go out to dinner, by figuring out how to cook that weird vegetable Fred Meyer has so much of, when they don’t have much else. No, this is not ideal, and it is most emphatically not normal. It’s weird and scary and immensely uncertain, none of which are easy realities to be faced with, and certainly not at a global scale. But even if all we can gather of true normalcy are bits and fragments, we have to hold onto them. Because if we don’t—if we don’t find ways to continue to be who we are—this new reality will break us.

Viktor E. Frankl wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning, about the years he spent as a Nazi prisoner in a concentration camp. The most interesting part of that book, to me, is this: the people who psychologically survived their imprisonment were the ones who held onto a small but concrete hope. “When this is over, I will bake bread again,” said a baker. “When this is over, I will make clothes again,” said a sewer. For they did not know what kind of world they would return to—if their shops would still be there, if their families would still be there, if even their towns would still be there. In most cases, it was none of the above. But the ability to do some small human thing—to bake, to sew, to garden, to write, to sing—remained, and it was the hope of doing these things again that sustained them, through a time when they could do next to nothing.

We have no idea what kind of world we will be living in, once things return to “normal.” It may be that the reality we knew a month ago is a reality we will never see again. While we are in nowhere near the same unimaginable condition as the prisoners in Frankl’s book, the small hopes they held onto are the same hopes that we can embrace, and in most cases, can carry out even now. We can bake. We can sew. We can garden and write and sing. We can leave our houses and walk around our neighborhoods and enjoy these sunny days that are so rare for us, as Portlanders have been, until now, so irritatingly fond of reminding me. We may have to do these things in isolation. We may have to do them with less than ideal tools, in less than ideal home offices. So be it. We do not have to call it normal, for it isn’t. We can call it temporary insanity, and every small human thing we choose to do is how we will outlast it.