Molly’s Musings #6  January 2009

Getting Back to Normal

For many years I have noticed that reporters often talk about “getting back to normal” only a few days after major disasters (with the possible exception of 9/11).  They seem to want to reassure us that, even though something disruptive and tragic has occurred, we will quickly get back to normal, and things will go on as before.  They seem to imply that nothing will be changed as a result of the disaster; we will simply pick up the pieces and reassemble our lives.  They imply that we are immune to real change—maybe even immune to learning, or transformation.

What is this “normal” that comes so highly valued? It seems to be socially determined; what would be normal for someone living in New York City might seem quite aberrant to a rural Midwesterner.  On the other hand, these two people would also have a lot in common in their sense of normalcy, because they are both Americans living in the 21st century, and exposed to many of the same values through television, films, and the Internet. Yet even the standard American sense of normalcy (if there is such a thing) constantly changes, so that behaviors we might have considered strange or weird a few years ago are quite acceptable today.  I see this in the increasing dominance of the global financial markets that have wreaked so much havoc on our global economies: predatory dealings that two decades ago would have been seen as dishonest and unethical are now considered normal business practices.

I want to propose a longer view of normalcy:  perhaps “ normal” should refer to patterns of behavior that survive over a long period of time.  “Survive” is an important word here, in an evolutionary sense.  What patterns of behavior (individual, social, cultural) enable survival, and which do not?  Could we call the former “normal” and the latter “abnormal”?

The problem is that people in our global Industrial Growth Society think in very short time frames, too short to accurately evaluate the success of a behavior, if success means what survives.  In our society, getting back to normal means the normalcy established over the past year or two, or even less.  Fads become determinants of normalcy.  New technologies go from new inventions to absolute necessities within a very few years, and the users forget they ever managed without them.

I propose it is absurd to call our current petroleum-based socioeconomic system “normal” when it is only a little over 150 years old!  In the grand scale of human evolution, that’s a mere blink of an eye.  Our descendents may well look back upon western culture of the 20th and early 21st centuries as an aberrant diversion from “normal” human life.

Is it normal for humans to destroy their own life support systems, foul their air and water, squander their resources for short-term profit?  Is it normal for humans to value greed over all other character traits? Yet profit is the sole driving force for most corporations today, and exploitation of workers and environment is a conscious policy to create those profits. Although many people aspire to generosity and loving relationships, we are all conditioned by our socioeconomic system to spend a great deal of our time and energy making money and planning for our financial futures.  We assume this is normal behavior for humans because that’s what we see all around us.  But maybe it is not normal at all.

Our current global economic meltdown could lead us eventually to return to what has been truly normal for human beings over the millennia we have been on Earth.  “Getting back to normal” could mean returning to a more balanced, harmonious, relational way of life.  It could mean the re-emergence of community—local community, with interlocking networks of mutual care and responsibility.  It could mean people spending more of their time in direct relationship with their environment: growing, storing, and preparing food; walking and riding bikes (and horses) in the neighborhood and on the land; making their own clothes and tools; repairing their homes; caring for children, elders, and the sick; and helping one another with all these tasks and more. It could mean more time for play and celebration, art and music—especially the homegrown, spontaneous varieties.  It could mean long deep conversations about issues of common concern.  It could mean less rush and less complication, leading to a slower-paced, simpler life style.  Instead of lives run by artificial and arbitrary schedules, we may rediscover how to live more in tune with the normal, natural rhythms of light and dark, of the cycles of the moon and the changing seasons.  As we gradually let go of the excesses of the Industrial Growth Society, we may come to appreciate how rich and fulfilling “normal” human life can be.