LET’S GET BACK TO ‘NORMAL’
By JIM NICHOLS
The newspaper, radio, and television headlines speak about returning to normal when this pandemic wanes. It is worth asking what this means. What is the definition of “normal”?
One of the curious aspects of the early Genesis stories is that God tells Adam to “name” all the other creatures. A reasonable explanation is to understand this was to address the relationship between humans and other animals (presumably plants too). Humans were to be caretakers; they were to exercise “control” over the other creatures and were to act in God’s behalf. If they had a name, they were somehow under control.
When someone is ill, one of the first aspects of the diagnosis is to “name” the illness. What type of cancer is it? What bacterium or virus is causing this infection? How many bones were broken in the accident? Being able to name the illness logically does not make it disappear. It may prepare the way for treatments, but I suggest the act of “naming” is in itself important for humans because if we can name something, we have some illusion of control.
The quarantine from COVID-19 has taken away our control of many aspects of our lives. Because of the virus’ infectious nature, our movement and contacts are restricted. Our choices of travel and community do not exist in the same way. Furthermore, this does not all seem to be the direct fault of the virus itself; various levels of government, responding to the pandemic, have limited our control.
“Getting back to normal,” largely means regaining control in our lives. It means returning to life as we knew it before. The reverie of the “good old days” is a persistent human misconception. In our more contemplative moments, we realize those old days were not completely that good. I suggest that pulling from this pandemic offers opportunities to evaluate those “old days” (two months ago) and institute some needed corrections.
Frankly, it is easy for me to sit here in my air-conditioned office, anticipating a good lunch, and have an opportunity to read, think, and write. When I leave here with my male gender and my white skin, I will be able to enter virtually any situation with some degree of confidence. I am in the minority. Most people in the world, and in the United States, do not share my view of normal. Normal for them is gender and racial inequality. Normal for them is being subject to deficient educational opportunities and a legal system that seems anything but just. Normal for them is being subjected to people with power exaggerating, slanting, and lying to keep them in their place.
Compared to most others, I have a fair amount of control in my life. However, even that is an illusion.
Enter now the difficult concept of suffering. A fundamental aspect of suffering is that it features a loss of control. Especially for a follower of God, however, a strong positive to suffering is that it causes us to understand that we, ourselves, are in control of virtually nothing. I need to give up on that illusion of personal control. I am tempted here to address a platitude of God, rather than me, being in control. On the other hand, I am not sure that God deals with “control” as much as “all things working for good” even though they involve suffering. This is an area of difficult faith for me (and probably you), but it is fundamental to believing in God’s grace.
There are certainly things in my world that I miss and hope they return. I miss baseball, sitting in restaurants, hugs from friends and family. If that is “normal,” I am for it. If normal means prejudice, depletion of resources, normalized greed, and school shootings, I would prefer to stay abnormal. If “back to normal,” means making everything primarily an economic concern, I will stay abnormal.
A search of a Bible concordance reveals only three uses of the word “normal,” all of them trivial in context. For instance, the sea was a normal depth. I believe God’s view is one of expectation rather than normality. God’s expectations include patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Perhaps at the end of this pandemic these qualities will look more common.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain