I apologize for my dereliction. It's been two months since I've posted anything, partly because I spend all my time at the computer now, teaching virtually, and I want to do something else with my free time. Partly it's because I have a severe frozen shoulder. But mostly, I suspect, I haven't written because of a dearth of conversation, of cross-pollinating ideas, disagreements, and epiphanies. Last night I actually sat by a bonfire and talked to several people, and today I find I have something to say.
You can listen to this post read by Michael Dowd here: https://soundcloud.com/michael-dowd-grace-limits/sets/damaris-zehner
Everyone is wondering what life will be like in the next few years, including me. Some people – annoying people – are insisting that we should get used to the masks and accept that they’ll be what the well-dressed person is wearing these days. Social distancing, protective barriers, half-empty businesses and schools: these will be the New Normal, they say, forced on us by this unprecedented pandemic.
They only say that because they can’t remember the old normal.
Our old normal, since homo sapiens evolved form and consciousness, was life lived in tenuous balance with all the forces of nature that limited our numbers and our impulses toward hubris. Our species lived with disease, predation, and scarcity. New diseases swept population clusters and either became endemic or burned themselves out. Everyone lived with the knowledge that a chill, a dog bite, a small wound, or a chance encounter with a stranger could lead to death. This attitude is clear in literature from anytime before 1940 or so: Louisa May Alcott’s Beth, Jane Austin’s Marianne, Owen Wister’s Virginian, L. M. Montgomery’s Gilbert and Ruby – you can think of dozens of other examples if you like older books. These people fought serious, long-term sickness, and either won, like Marianne, the Virginian, and Gilbert, or died, like Beth and Ruby.
Death was familiar, but it was still tragic, of course; and yet people had friends, fell in love, created art, and served their communities. They were certainly more fearful of death from disease than we were until this spring. We can read about the seemingly ridiculous fuss they would make about a cold turning into inflammation of the lungs, for example. But they needed to face the daily possibility of serious illness, and fussing was one thing they could do to feel as if they had some power over a dangerous world.
These earlier generations were also more patient in dealing with disease than we’ve been. We’re used to feeling bad for a day, taking some medicine, and going straight back to work – employers expect that and will even fire you if you take much longer. But people before the advent of modern medicine knew that days, weeks, or even months would be necessary for recuperation. They knew that careful nursing – which meant family members bathing foreheads, spooning soup, and changing chamber pots for weeks on end – made the difference between survival and death. Not everything they did was helpful, of course, but they accepted that sick people needed a long investment if they were going to live.
That was what life had always been like. However, in the last sixty years, we forgot this hard truth. Each generation was able to ignore more of the previously common scourges: smallpox, then rabies, then tetanus, bacterial infections, polio, and childhood diseases. Public health in conjunction with medical research whittled down tuberculosis, leprosy, cholera, and typhoid, at least in more developed areas. Serious (though unwarrantedly optimistic) researchers began to talk about eliminating death altogether.
Virtually all of us alive now in developed countries partake of this insouciance about disease, or at least we did until a few months ago. The watershed between the time before and after modern medicine was clear to me as a child in the 1960s. I was fascinated by stories from before the “conquest” of disease: My grandmother, born in the late 1890s, almost died of a urinary tract infection that kept her hospitalized for weeks. My mother, born in the 1920s, showed me a scar near her jaw and told me about enduring ear infections before the invention of penicillin and the subsequent operations to scrape down her mastoid bone. She talked about whooping cough sweeping the neighborhood and how unaffected children were sent to neighbors to quarantine. But then came antibiotics and an ever-increasing arsenal of vaccines, and Boomers and their children and grandchildren thought they were done with those experiences forever. They assumed that living virtually disease-free was “normal.”
It isn’t. Disease is not abnormal. Even this pandemic is not abnormal. The conditions of life right now are, in fact, normal and have been since the pre-Cambrian era.
Like our ancestors, we now have to be aware of our mortality. Some of us are reacting to the reminder the pandemic has given us by holing up in a panic; others brashly dare any virus to mess with a red-blooded American; still others just try to be sensible and keep working. I suspect these were the same reactions you’d see in fourteenth-century Europe as the plague raged, or in eighteenth-century France, when, according to modern research, virtually every person in the aristocracy had tuberculosis. So in that sense we are normal.
But we have technologies that earlier generations didn’t, that enable us to hide temporarily from the reality of the normal life I’ve described – at least well-off people do. These people can now work from home because the internet and webcams and video calls are commonplace, and many of us are spending all day in our cobbled-together home offices doing just that. I am; I’m teaching all my college classes virtually for the foreseeable future. Many of us can order food to be delivered, because businesses have telephones and vehicles – a luxury not enjoyed during the Black Death, for instance. Doctor’s visits, therapy sessions, music lessons, even Yom Kippur observances are done through screens. And newspapers have op-eds every few days wondering if this is the New Normal.
I don’t think so. I think the New Normal will be the same as the Old Normal: a struggle for balance on a planet where organisms keep each other in check. This time spent at home, or out with masks social distancing and avoiding indoor venues, is just an odd holding pattern and can’t last. People say that they’re waiting for a vaccine before they start interacting with people, and yes, I’m sure one will be developed soon. But from what I’ve seen, the vaccine isn’t likely to be 100% effective and may only offer as much protection as face masks do, given the mutability of the virus. So what are we really waiting for?
We’re waiting for things to go back to what we thought was “normal.” And we are willing to gamble our economy, our culture, even our contact with fellow human beings just to try to maintain our sixty-year illusion of invulnerability. I wonder if the results of our actions – the unemployment, economic failures, compromised education, isolation, and depression – are worth it. Or would we be better off if we just accepted the harsh planetary forces reining in our hubris and went back to work? Neither outcome is entirely happy – but which is more human?