The Fragility of Normal

We all want to go back to normal. We cry about it and complain: “Enough is enough. We want our lives back.” This need to “go back to normal” is always with us, although maybe on a different scale post-pandemic. But even before Covid, there were always things that disturbed our perception of normal: new teachers, new housing, new jobs, new routines, stores and restaurants closing, cars that break down, challenging illnesses, new bus routes. Towards the end of our vacations, we come to realize that, although adventures are fun, it is good to be home where things are as we expect them to be. This want of predictability, for having our expectations met, is at the crux of a deep-seated need for normalcy. We have a limited capacity for taking in and processing information — we have limited short-term memories. When there is a flood of unfamiliar data, we get overwhelmed. We end up not having enough cognitive and emotional capacity to handle the new stuff on top of all the other things we have to do. Sudden change makes life feel overwhelming.

Anchoring Errors

This brings me to anchoring errors, which are basically little cognitive traps our minds make for us by anchoring a definitive version of an experience and then judging every similar one against that. When my mother-in-law arrived in San Francisco in the late 1950s, she found that Dungeness crabs — a local seafood delight — were three crabs for a dollar which translates to about 15 cents per pound. Every time she heard the current market rate for these crabs, she couldn’t help but compare the price to what she used to pay in the good old days. She wanted to return to a normal where cracked crab was cheap enough to be served for free as bar snacks.

We all love normalcy, to never have to think about shortages of toilet paper, paper towels, eggs, or baby formula; or having to wait six months for the new fridge to arrive and replace the broken one; or having to wait seven months for an appointment with a doctor, or to go out to dinner without checking the local pandemic stats. Weren’t things better before? Simpler? I remember them being better back when things were normal, when we didn’t feel dread before reading the news. Perhaps we remember the past through rose-colored glasses and it has always been generally the same with different details.

There is a well-discovered wisdom about the flow of time: as we age, the years zoom by faster but days take longer to live through. Perhaps this is the real reason we pine for the good old days — we don’t remember much but the sheer joy of living as kids (if we are lucky). Sure, there was lots of drudgery, but the summers lasted forever. Normalcy was so predictable, so easy and effortless. We took things for granted; we took them as they were.

Childhood memories are anchored with strong emotions. Adult memories are too, but they are less vivid and more fleeting (for some). It is one of the reasons we remember the past with so much more detail. Adulthood whizzes by but childhood stretches occupy our minds with proportionally more memories than the later years. The way things were when we were young become the reference point for normal.

The Veneer of Normal

May You Live in Interesting Times
Generation after generation grew up through normality shattering events — things happened out in the world that changed their lives forever. Perhaps people read war stories or apocalyptic novels to understand the coping mechanisms of those who survived unspeakable horrors. It puts our personal horrors in perspective and perhaps makes them a bit more manageable. That’s why we relate to the ancient curse: “May you live in interesting times.” If the world is interesting, it takes more of our brain power to cope with it and leaves less resources for what we might want to do. It’s hard to create art when life is complicated or out of control. Creativity requires space. The tired and sleep-deprived, the ill and those in pain, the overworked and over-worried don’t have much room in their lives for personal expression. It’s something nice to have, but survival takes precedence.

The events outside of our control — political upheavals, world-wide health emergencies, natural disasters, illnesses and accidents — show how fragile our normality really is. It’s just a thin veneer of the known and predictable floating on top of an abyss of potentiality. Life can change in an instant; we have to continually search out the new normal, the new unstable equilibrium. In physics, unstable equilibrium is the point in space where an object can remain at rest as long as it doesn’t receive a slight external push. A rock on a small mountain ledge, precariously balanced, will stay in that position until something dislodges it and sends it tumbling down the mountain. A small force makes a big change. Conversely, a rock, undisturbed, at the lowest point of a ravine will stay there unless another force intervenes, perhaps carrying it higher up the slope. It feels like we evolved to believe that our unstable equilibrium of life really is rock solid at the bottom of the potential well. The reality, though, is that any small perturbation sends us searching for a normal that may be long gone.

A Thought on Writing

As I’ve mentioned in my previous newsletters, I end up reading novels about the World Wars once a year or so. My family was heavily impacted by WWI and WWII, scattering members all over the globe when not killing them outright. It’s a multigenerational trauma, and my family is one of the many millions who experienced it. I’m in the middle of reading a good novel, The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn, that chronicles a British family as the children grow up to go fight the Nazis. The phrase “the fragility of normal” comes from this book. One of the characters has that thought triggered by the abrupt changes World War II brings into her home. I don’t yet know who will survive and who will die in this story. But, as always, reading about resilience to change in fiction helps buffer some of my own responses to unexpected changes in my own life. Reality is fragile. What’s normal today might not be so tomorrow. Enjoy the day and, when possible, make your new normal even better than your old one!