A Tale of Two Normals: Life and Business Under Quarantine

To be honest, I’ve had a hard time writing these past couple of weeks.

Yes, I had to deal with a sinus infection, and yes, our hot water heater died last week, and yes, it’s tricky when the two breadwinners, a college student, and a high schooler are all trying to “work from home” in our house where, for the most part, it used to be just me.

And yes, the world has suddenly turned upside-down, in a way that makes the relative value of the Charmin toilet paper in our closet seem higher than all of the tech stocks in my meager retirement portfolio combined.

And yes, people and families and businesses and entire governments are struggling.

And of course, people are getting sick. And dying. All over the world. The sheer tragedy of it is enough to distract anybody with even an ounce of empathy. Especially if you spend too much time following the news. Which I try not to.

But I don’t think any of this is what’s made it hard for me to write.

Today, during a casual conversation with two fellow students in an online seminar, both of whom are business owners, it finally dawned on me what it is I’ve been wrestling with …

How much, to quote my new friends, “The situation sucks.”

Compared to the enormity of what we’re faced with right now, that may seem a trite way to put things. But it’s important to understand that what’s being expressed here isn’t simply a description of the state of the world or of people’s health or even the economy.

The situation that sucks is that we’re all being asked to be two things at once. Both terrified and optimistic. Cautious yet creative. Fearful yet resourceful. Prudent yet productive.

We should be hyper-vigilant about where we take our bodies, and how close we are to other people, and how clean our hands are. Yet also be wide open to connecting in a variety of digital and virtual ways, both personally and professionally, as well as to new ideas about how to do business.

When communicating with others, we don’t want to be too negative and bring everybody else down. And yet, we also don’t want to be too positive either, or people might perceive us as callous.

Really, deep down, we just want to be allowed to BE whatever we need to be in order to get through this thing. Some days, I want nothing more than to plant myself in front of the TV and binge watch sci-fi shows until the world goes back to “normal” again.

But there are bills to pay and people to take care of and “smiles to go before I weep.” (Credit to author Jerry Spinelli for getting to this clever turn of phrase before I did.)

In many ways, the world is basically on hold … yet impossibly still moving lightning fast at the same time.

It’s like being on one of those moving sidewalks at the airport, which make it impossible to stand motionless. Or being in a plane itself, I suppose. Motionless, maybe even sleeping, yet moving through the world at tremendous speeds.

So what I think is hard for people, or at least for me, is juggling these two states of being at once. Grieving the sudden and inexplicable loss of the Old Normal, while at the same time trying to embrace the possibilities and opportunities presented by the New Normal.

Can you imagine adopting an adorable new puppy on the exact same day that the dog you loved for 15 years gets hit by a car and dies? I can’t. There’s a reason why people tend to put months or even years between two events like these. It takes time to adjust from one normal to another.

In the opening to the classic novel that was the inspiration for the title of this article, Dickens writes, “It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. We had everything before us, we had nothing before us.”

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, it’s spring already. The days are getting warmer and longer. Everything in my yard is gearing up to grow and bloom. Which will be a joy to see.

And yet, it’s hard to imagine that a month from now, as I’m smiling out on all this new growth on a sunlit day, I won’t still be harboring the despair of winter deep inside me.

After all, it’s likely we’ll be feeling the effects of this coronavirus into the summer, in some form or another. Yes, it will all seem more normal then than it does now. We humans are nothing if nothing adaptable. But it won’t seem quite normal enough, I suspect.

In the meantime, we all need to go on reconciling these two competing normals, old and new, until they eventually blend into an even newer one that we can’t quite imagine yet.

For families, even after the smoke has cleared, this may mean holding onto new traditions started during these strange times. Like playing board games more often or hopping on group video chats with parents and siblings every Thursday.

For businesses, it may mean revisiting formerly entrenched policies about employees working from home, or perhaps continuing to explore digital revenue opportunities they never would have considered until they were forced to.

For individuals, it may mean starting entirely new careers using skills they’ve learned either out of necessity or as a way to pass the time while “underemployed” during quarantine.

For myself, what I’ve recognized today is that sometimes, it helps to be unafraid to admit to yourself and to others that the situation sucks. That maybe the best you’re going to be able to manage is moving from one day to the next, figuring it out as you go along.

Which is okay. Sometimes we write the story. And sometimes the story writes itself.

To paraphrase Dickens, even in the worst of times, it can still be the best of times. And we shouldn’t have to feel guilty about that. But we also shouldn’t have to act to the world as if we’re at our best when we’re really not.

Ultimately, there is no handbook for times like these. But I do have to believe there’s room in our world, in our brains, and in our hearts for more than one kind of normal.