The New Abnormal: On Flourishing in a Pandemic

We live in apparently unprecedented times. If common parlance speaks truly, humanity is encountering uncertainty as never before. A pandemic ravages the globe. Schools close. Quarantines, stay-at-home orders, and lockdowns begin. The economy is shut down, subsequently crashing. Armchair virologists crack open their laptops, taking to Facebook to report the results of their research to the general public. Zoom’s quarterly revenue increases to over $600 million more than the revenue for the same quarter in 2018. Suicide rates skyrocket. Borders are closed. New York City becomes a death trap. Mask mandates and social distancing guidelines are instituted and enforced. 

The situation in which we find ourselves can easily be felt as one that has fundamentally altered human interaction. In most public places, it’s taken for granted that everyone present will be wearing a face covering. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that today I could receive an email that would send me into quarantine for at least fourteen days. Events are cancelled or changed to look dramatically different. Classes move online at a moment’s notice, if they’re not already online. We’ve been thrown off. The pandemic seems to have attacked community itself, throwing into jeopardy such essential human activities as cooking for one another, meeting face-to-face, singing, hugging, laughing. We’re tempted to view our time as a categorically different kind of time from others—indeed, as an inherently worse one. 

The Second World War could be conceived as a time similar to the present. This comparison risks equating disease with war and fighting a pandemic with fighting a human enemy, neither of which I think are totally fair. But there are some elements of that time which may aid us as we consider our own. In a 1939 essay titled “Learning in Wartime,” C. S. Lewis articulates how to rightly conceive of the war and its effect on human life and flourishing, saying: “The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.” 

We would do well to listen to Lewis’s reflection here. Lewis would say that the pandemic has not fundamentally altered the human condition. It has aggravated it, to be sure. We have been forcibly awakened to the uncomfortable reality of human frailty, sin, and death. Even in unassuming emails and advertisements, we’re constantly reminded of the uncertainty of our times, as if other times are at all certain. We speak of the unprecedented-ness of the pandemic as if plague is anything but precedented. But if anything here is unprecedented, it is the relative peace, prosperity, and health that we have enjoyed in the West for the past half-century or so. Those goods are always contingent, never certain. The pandemic has not created this reality; it has only exposed it.

It’s easy to find ourselves saying things like I wish it could just go back to normal or If we just embrace the new normal, we can go back to normal. But what exactly do we mean by “normal” in the first place? What good are we striving towards in the new normal? Or is normal something to strive for at all? Lewis addresses these questions as well, saying, 

Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life.’ Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of cries, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. 

The sentiment expressed in a desire to return to normal is problematic, not because it is an illegitimate emotional response to the times—it certainly is legitimate—but because, after a closer evaluation, we will find that life was never really normal, anyway. 

I think we all have experienced a sense of loss in recent months. And there’s justifiable grief that responds to this sense of loss. But it is worth reflecting on what we make of this sense. At the end of spring semester 2020, finishing school online, we missed our friends at school. We missed the tight-knit community we have here, the sharing of loads, the late-night writing sessions. Perhaps we even missed Saga. But there was a deeper sense of loss, more than the usual missing of one’s friends over a summer break. Those of us who were close to graduating seniors—and to a greater degree, those of us who were ourselves graduating—felt a deep incompleteness about the end of the school year. So many goodbyes left unsaid. So many “last things” left undone. Being on campus for commencement in July was an experience of having too little time to say too much to too many people. 

One response to this sense of loss could be bitterness. It’s easy enough to justify, at least as an initial reaction. But I propose another way. If Lewis is right that times such as these merely aggravate our condition, allowing us to see what was already going on with greater clarity, perhaps we can learn something from this sense of loss. The incompleteness of our hurried goodbyes in July—and of our less intentional, more casual goodbyes in March—seems strangely appropriate. For even in the best of times, we never quite manage to say all that we would like to. There’s always an element left unsaid, missed opportunities that we regret, conversations that we never got to have. Our words are often incapable of bearing the weight we assign to them. This is nothing new. The unfinishedness of last school year exposed the reality that, until our death, nothing worth doing is ever really finished. 

For indeed, we live our lives with death crouching at the door, never too far off. In all the disorientation and confusion of our times, we are reminded of this fact: life ends in death. My parents will die, I will die, everyone I know and love will one day die. I say this not to make light of death, and not to depress the reader. I simply say it because I fear that with all the blessings of modern medicine we may sometimes forget the sheer contingency of our life. It’s too precious a thing to waste. And at the same time, we ought not to cling to it, either. For Christians have a hope—hope that speaks beyond this world, to a time and place that is unprecedented, at least to us. (Though we will recognize even that time and place not as one opposed to our own, but as a redemption and an ennobling of it—we will see face to face what we now only glimpse as in a mirror, darkly.)

Every moment is not the same. Different pressures and circumstances present themselves to us each day. Sometimes these pressures are greater than at other times. When everything is stripped away, what still stands? How can we respond when we are able to join Job in saying that the Lord has taken away, and how can we remember to say that He has given, too? For His mercy is new every morning. Every moment presents itself to us as an opportunity to choose virtue, or not. The circumstances governing the moment may determine, even drastically change, what the virtuous action looks like. The question is not how to get back to normal, but how to act in prudence, in the midst of all these factors. The pandemic will end one day, but sickness, uncertainty, and death will continue until the Lord is all in all. Until that day, we must do the best we can to move forward with courage on the paths to which we are called. For we are always free to choose that much. No tyranny, no virus, no evil, no principalities and powers can take that freedom away. This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Dominic is a senior studying music and English.

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