I’ve always been kind of obsessed with the word “normal.” And these days it’s coming up much more frequently, because people are talking about how the normal has disappeared. In the wake of COVID-19, what many people once considered “normal” is now gone. And it’s creating panic. People are hoarding toilet paper. Grocery store shelves are bare when it comes to bread. Many people are working from home, and many people aren’t working. Those that are still going into work — the grocery store clerks, the doctors, the nurses, the manufacturers, the conveyors of public transport — they’re proving to be the backbone of our society that they always have been, despite poor levels of pay and near invisibility, even as they are at the forefront of the workforce.
This isn’t a normal time, and because of that, we have to acknowledge, and it has to be OK, that not everything is perfect in the way that we interact with one another. It has to be okay that things are not otherwise what you want them to be because this isn’t the way that anyone wants them to be. The ways we are gathering are different now that we cannot be together in physical space, and the challenges that creates can be overcome, but we all need to be flexible in how we define that word and the terms we set. I read an article that detailed all the different kinds of annoying coworkers you interact with on Zoom, and while I could tell it was meant to be humorous, I ended up thinking it was a bit mean spirited. Meeting in online spaces means that these webcams are giving us a literal window into people’s lives, and I don’t think we should be shaming people for the way that they live and choose to present themselves because it doesn’t align with our idea of “normal.”
The online world is a way to remain engaged with one another until we can be physically together again, and for many who are isolating and quarantined in their homes, that online link is a lifeline. As John Green said in his video “together.” that word comes from the verb “to gather.” We need to be gathering in the ways that we can right now, and take advantage of the resources that we have available to us.
This situation is changing on a daily basis. We don’t know what the future is going to look like, and that feeling — what Hank Green has advocated for calling “wuthering” — can be crushing. And it’s mounting every day, as more and more prominent people are diagnosed, like the president of Harvard and the heir to the British throne. Some places are much better positioned to respond to this crisis than others, and the fact of the matter is that many people are in very vulnerable situations right now. It’s all very well to say that we can work from home and that we can connect online — and those are things that we absolutely should do when we can — but the issue is that not everyone has the safety nets needed to make it through situations like this. Not everyone has access to shelter, to housing, to the internet, to an online community.
And for those of us who are in online communities, or in communities that are transitioning into the virtual world, we have to consider that it’s not just about what the technology is and whether we have access to it, but how we use it, what we use it for, and how we can maximize its potential. Because COVID-19 and the rippling effects of its spread is one of those cultural tipping points that tests communities and entire nations, and the outcome of how we respond to it will last far longer than the crisis itself. Many people are wondering, how long will this “new normal” last? Well, we certainly can’t go back to the way things were before. And honestly? The “old normal” wasn’t that great to begin with, or we would have been far more prepared to deal with this crisis.
In times like this, we have to be flexible, we have to ask for help, and we have to find ways to sustain ourselves and our communities. Remember, my friends, the weapon we have is love.
Note: I currently work as an Administrative Assistant at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Many thoughts in this post were inspired by sentiments shared by Dean David C. Schmittlein, who was a panelist on an MIT Sloan town hall last week.