We’ve heard it.
We’ve said it.
When things go back to normal.
I found myself thinking that this very morning as I took my sons for our morning walk. How much longer is it going to go on like this?
It’s understandable of course. This all feels very strange. A pandemic that has disrupted our lives. Everything seems so polarized. The election is still being contested. This is not how stuff usually is, right?
But of course, that’s not true at all. Any student of history knows that 2020 is hardly abnormal.
A hundred years ago we had a pandemic much worse than this one…in the middle of a world war. We had a great depression after that. There was a pandemic in the ‘50s. In ‘68, not only were there massive civil rights protests and riots, but there was also a flu pandemic that killed some 100,000 people in the U.S. and over a million across the globe. In fact, I defy you to find me a single “normal” decade in American history.
The last two decades have hardly been peaceful and simple. They began with a contested election and legal challenges. They were followed by a terrorist attack that left 3,000 dead. Then we had a financial crisis on par with the Depression. Now here we are, simultaneously facing a pandemic, a nationwide protest movement, and an economic crisis.
The Stoics were fond of quoting Heraclitus: the only constant is change.
It’s true, but the funny thing is that even change seems to rhyme with itself, if not outright repeat.
As the Bible tells us, “The thing that hath been,” we read in one part, “it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun… That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past.”
Did Marcus Aurelius read Ecclesiates? Or did he discover for himself that, “Whatever happens has always happened and always will, and is happening at this very moment, everywhere. Just like this.”
“Time is a flat circle,” Rustin Cohle says in the first season of True Detective. “Everything we have done or will do we will do over and over and over again forever.” And so it was that another generation found out about Nietzche’s idea of “eternal recurrence.” Did Nietzsche read Marcus? Did Nic Pizzolatto read Nietzsche? Or Marcus? Or Ecclesiastes?
Or is this realization just something you can’t help but pick up if you’re paying attention?
It’s interesting to observe that Marcus’s reign was not really that different from the reign of Vespasian. It was filled with people doing the same things: eating, drinking, fighting, dying, worrying, and craving. Can you imagine if, during the crises he faced, he chose to “just wait for things to go back to normal” instead of doing, well, anything?
Everything that happens is normal. There is nothing unusual about any of this.
Life is life. The only surprise is that we’re surprised.
Sure, you’d rather not be working from home. You’d love to be traveling freely. Maybe you would like anyone to have been president rather than Donald Trump. But who is to say having or not having these things is “normal?”
And you can’t just wait them out.
Because what you’re waiting to end…is life. It’s now. It’s the present moment.
One of the reasons to study history is that it gives you perspective. Distance has the effect of sanding down the edges and smoothing the transitions between things. When you read about the Great Influenza, when you immerse yourself in the characters of Shakespeare, when you visit a Civil War battlefield or an ancient castle, you gain a better understanding of how similar the past was to the present. How the more things change, the more they stay the same—how our petty plans and projections have very little impact on the tides of time. There’s nothing to take personally.
It just is.
History is violent. History is hard. History is confusing and overwhelming. History didn’t care about the people who had to live through it. History is like this because history is just a recording of life, and life is like that.
But does that mean we can’t have peace or happiness within this chaos? That because there is no such thing as “normal” we should be anxious and depressed?
On the contrary!
I remember once reading a book about the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann—the adventurer who found the lost city of Troy. In the 1860s, he immigrated to America and worked his way across the country on a variety of jobs. It was incredible to notice that this guy had lived through the Civil War, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, and it never even appeared in his diaries or changed his plans. He had found his own personal normal inside the craziness of world events. He’d simply gone on with his life.
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera writes, “No matter how brutal life becomes, peace always reigns in the cemetery. Even in wartime, in Hitler’s time, in Stalin’s time, through all occupations… against the backdrop of blue hills, they were as beautiful as a lullaby.”
That’s what I came to realize on my walk this morning. Yeah, this time is weird. It’s maybe not what I’d want, if I had a choice. But I don’t have a choice, because this is just life.
Why should I pine for it to be over or different? What matters is right now. What matters is the quiet hour we had together on that road. What mattered was the sunrise coming up behind us. What matters is that the last eight months have been eight months of being alive—and I chose to live them.
How much longer will it be like this? How much longer until the next change?
No one can say. Nobody knows anything for certain except that change will eventually come.
If people could manage to find happiness and purpose and stillness amidst war, under the rule of tyrants, through plagues far worse than this one, what excuse do we have?
None. This is normal.
This is life.
Accept it and love it.