As I look back over the (almost) eight decades of my life, I realise that I have experienced a personal “new normal” many times, starting with the end of WWII. Nobody in 1945 thought the world was going to return to “pre-war normal”, but the general attitude was optimistic even among the defeated. In fact, the German Federal Republic was celebrating its Wirtschaftswunder less than fifteen years after being totally devastated.
I was too little to know what pre-war England had been like, but post-war it was already a very different place from what I had known in my first few years of life. Certainly my parents and grandparents had to adapt to the “Welfare State” and all its utopian promises of a brave new world as the economical and political jigsaw tried to fit itself together.
In my own microcosm, I had to find a “new normal” when I went away to university, far from the old familiar people and ways, but I was young and versatile. That versatility stood me in good stead when I discovered another kind of normal in 1960’s France, and even more so in 1960’s Germany: very different worlds from the one I had left behind on my island.
Returning to England at the end of that decade, I was startled by the changes the swinging sixties had wrought in my homeland – an unexpected adjustment. Then Geneva in the seventies was also yet another “newfoundland”. Scarcely had I accustomed myself to this way of life, when my path took another twist and I landed on a different cultural planet in eastern Switzerland, where my “normal” was viewed as extremely eccentric.
It’s not only culture shock and the geography that changed, though: over the past forty years, the whole world has lost its old “normal” mainly due to the rapid advance of technology. We have been constantly acclimatising to “new normal” year by year. 2020 has just seen a more rapid acceleration.
In the last few months I have frequently heard people wondering, “How would we have coped with COVID-19 if it had happened ten, twenty years ago?” that is, before virtually everyone had smart phones and laptops, and social media with all its apps was not yet sufficiently developed to allow us to work from home and still remain in contact with each other. It would have been a whole lot more difficult. My age gives me an advantage over the Millennials in that I am metaphorically on higher ground with a wider perspective.
We haven’t had enough time yet to form new habits and if things “re-open” too soon we will try to return to old ways that are no longer viable. That is particularly hard for those whose survival depends on their need to function in this strange new environment. Some are more adaptable than others, some get frustrated more easily, some are more “woke”, some are more tolerant, some are sad or angry bigots. Some are idealistic, some cynical.
I am optimistic notwithstanding. We have an opportunity to reshape our society, to use our awareness in a positive way to improve our own circumstances and the circumstances of the less fortunate. Possibly for the first time in modern history, we are all in the same boat wherever we are in the world. Are we, as “normal” human beings with all our inherent faults and virtues, capable of the altruism needed to seize this opportunity to escape from identity politics and start belonging instead of “othering”?
One thing that I do remember from my very earliest youth is that on the whole people stuck together and helped one another. We can’t wind the clock back, but our evolutionary programming surely means that instinctively we recognise that cooperation is essential to survival.