OPINION/ Normal is Broken: And Maybe it Should Stay That Way

by Sarah Stuteville

There’s nothing like a crisis to make you reexamine “normal.” Suddenly, mundane daily realities you’ve long taken for granted—playgrounds, paychecks, crowded restaurants, chattering classrooms—feel like luxuries of a distant past. And it’s easy to long for a magic switch that could take us back to a time of familiar problems and the deep grooves of routine. It’s hard to consider this rolling nightmare of a pandemic as an opportunity, but the emerging therapist in me is compelled to try. Or maybe even go a step further and suggest that this terrible present could usher in a better future.

After clocking almost two years in my clinical mental health graduate program, a couple of themes have emerged bright and clear. We humans are meaning-making machines. It is our greatest adaptive trait, and it’s how we survive the inevitable crises of life. But we are also programmed to seek equilibrium—the siren song of the familiar—even when it’s bad for us.

The powerful and seductive slogan that has emerged in the past month is “We are all in this together.” And there are beautiful examples of this every day: neighbors buying each other groceries, restaurants feeding the needy, medical professionals risking their lives for strangers, even people putting up teddy bears in their windows to help entertain bored and stressed out kids (like mine) on their daily walks. But of course, we aren’t all in this together, because this crisis didn’t happen in an equity vacuum. The populations who were most vulnerable to any threat two months ago—people experiencing homelessness, working-class and poor people, communities of color—are also most vulnerable to this pandemic. And if we don’t deeply reexamine what we mean by a “return to normal” they will continue to suffer disproportionately from all the inevitable hardship yet to come.

It doesn’t surprise me that individual people and communities are generous and decent in a crisis. I’ve witnessed that many times over and around the world. Whether in New York after the 9-11 attacks, in refugee camps in Syria or even on the streets of Seattle during a snowstorm.  But what is surprising—and here lies the opportunity—are shifts in our systemic responses to this crisis.

A week ago, King County started moving people experiencing homelessness to hotel rooms. Yesterday, the country’s top health officials started using “crisis” to describe the massive racial inequities in health care in this country. Today, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey pledged a billion dollars in pandemic aid. Across the nation, rent is being waived, interest on loan payments frozen, food banks funded and workplaces forced to acknowledge the incredible—and historically feminine—burden of working while caring for children (Hi, it’s called “the second shift” and it’s basically been my entire life for the past four years).

And all of this should have—and could have—happened long before we were in a crisis. Imagine how differently we might be experiencing this pandemic if it had.

There are more subtle, but just as systemically challenging shifts in our lives as well. We’re deeply valuing time spent outside and the experience of nature as a balm for our anxious souls. We’re spending more time with our families. We’re beginning to ask questions about the inflated value put on being “productive” and wondering about the security of an economy completely dependent on consumption. I personally am marveling at what it feels like to live without the constant dogged sense of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) that has driven me to a stream of events and into countless relationships that I now realize meant nothing to me at all.

So, when we talk about “returning to normal” let’s be mindful of what we mean. As Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy writes in her recent essay, The Pandemic is a Portal, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

We have not hit the bottom of this crisis yet. There are weeks of illness and death to come. There are months of continued isolation and closed schools ahead. There are likely years of economic hardship to endure. But there will be a day when this crisis is behind us, and I hope we can say we didn’t waste it. That we were confronted with hard lessons and we learned from them. That we emerged from broken systems to build new ones that took care of all of us in good times and bad. That we honored those who died by living better ourselves.

Sarah Stuteville is a writer, memoirist, educator, and non-profit media consultant currently pursuing a Masters in Mental Health Counseling at Seattle University.  She taught journalism and media production at the University of Washington. Feminism, journalism, motherhood, relationships, and mental health are subjects of Sarah’s writings.  Sarah has reported from over a dozen countries in the Middle East, East Africa, South Asia, and the former Soviet Union. She wrote a social justice issue column for the Seattle Times. Her memoir writing has been published in Mutha where her piece “No One Is Watching” was one of the most read on the site all year.  Her piece “Windstorm” won “Honorable Mention” in the Hunger Mountain Nonfiction Writing Contest; “A Girl’s History of Consent” was a finalist in the New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Awards. She also helped to co-found The Seattle Globalist, a non-profit journalism organization that trains diverse media makers.