history repeating

Never the Same Normal Twice

photo shows the word "normal" highlighted in the dictionary

At the start of 2020, few people could have guessed the whiplash and lasting impact the novel coronavirus has caused. The pandemic has affected each of us in different ways, some minor and some profound.

“The return to normalcy” has been a stated goal for many individuals, leaders, and communities. And different people have different perspectives on the types of costs they are willing to pay in the interest of the return to normalcy.

But what is normal?

Some of you are reading these words on the screen of a cell phone. A few decades ago, this moment would’ve sounded absurd. Our website is available online: 50 years ago, the internet was still firmly in the realm of science fiction. Heck, a century ago, the notion of an electronic programmable computer itself was beyond imagination.

Many things that we take for granted in our lives, it turns out, are hardly “normal” at all: in the big scheme, our everyday circumstances would be new and alien to those who came before us. The routines of our daily lives, the things that feel so comfortable and natural to us, are often a product of a specific time and place in human history.

The oldest among us—just at the edge of living memory—were born in a world that would have found many of our habits and rituals unrecognizable.

Other things, however, they would recognize in an instant. Survivors of the 1918 influenza epidemic would have been keenly familiar with wearing face masks in public and witnessing the ongoing debate about their usefulness and appropriateness. Stories about overcrowded hospitals and overworked doctors and discussions about “flattening the curve” would not have been new (or surprising) to them.

It turns out that not only is our “normal” actually abnormal, but our “abnormal” is more normal than we might think.

Someday, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, we will be able to close the chapter on this pandemic and our lives will return to normal.

… Which is to say, they will be different, new, and unprecedented. Just like always.


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The More Things Change

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“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote those words in 1849, which we know by the translation “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

We are reminded of this epigram when we hear about the wide and sweeping changes that are supposedly with us forever now, in the aftermath of the pandemic. You do not need to go very far to find predictions that our daily lives will be changed forever. No more large-venue events like sports or concerts, restaurant dining becoming a rarity, central offices a thing of the past, airline travel shriveling.

The truth is, we humans are social beings. The biggest pandemic of modern times, the 1918 influenza, killed 50 million people worldwide, more than any war in history. Then as now, infection could mean death. And it was followed by the Roaring Twenties, notable for its gatherings and parties. Two or four years from now, we are likely to be attending as many group events as we were seven, fourteen or twenty-one years ago.

A home office teammate moved to a beautiful, larger living space shortly before concern about the coronavirus became widespread. I posed the question: was it possible to work from home? Their answer was, it was possible, but not desireable. The interaction with colleagues, the ease of finding the right expertise to help with a question, shared meals, the serendipitous exposure to unexpected ideas: those positives are hard to replicate working from home.

We humans are adaptable. We can do this lockdown thing, stay in touch with video calls, work from home effectively, get by without restaurant dining and parties and conferences. In other words, make the best of it. But we also tend to believe that current conditions will persist, and sometimes have trouble picturing a change.

Yes, there will be changes. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Our humanity is not going away. We crave connection. We believe the enduring features of human nature will manifest themselves as soon as they are able.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.