By San San Lee
“I want things to be normal again and just go back to the way they were.” That’s how I felt as the coronavirus spread and cases of death rose, followed by stay at home orders, business closures, job losses and changes to our lives. As things have begun to reopen and resumption of “normal” life begins, I’ve been reflecting. I keep on coming back to the same question – what does “normal” mean? What does “going back” mean, especially given what has happened?
As a lawyer specializing in hotel transactions, by early February, following the footsteps of China and parts of Europe, my clients were dealing with cancellations, and my workload started to diminish until it came to a screeching halt. Everyone hoped that the effects of the coronavirus would be contained and temporary, confined to a small region and high-risk population. In retrospect, that was not the case. Watching the industry, I saw it coming and knew it would be bad. Nevertheless, the pace and speed at which things changed were daunting and excruciating as I watched familiar things in my life disappear.
Many hoped that the return to the “normal” would be like a light switch. The stay at home orders would be lifted, and miraculously, things go back to the way they were. The pandemic would be a distant memory. Yet, as local and state governments discuss the plans of re-opening, they are conditioned with restrictions, not only to ensure public safety, but also to safeguard the health of employees and consumers. The road to normalcy will be a gradual grind, as we get accustomed to doing “old normal” things in “new normal” ways.
Yet, as I reflect on return to “normalcy,” I question whether I will ever be able to go back to the way we were.
Adjusting to the existence of a pandemic, we’ve all had to dramatically adjust our day-to-day lives. I am no exception. I lived in my own bubble. I had my work, my clients, my friends, my favorite coffee places, my personal training sessions, hikes with my husband on the weekends, and our favorite restaurants. For me, it was a way of life that took years to build and a lot of effort to secure. And, my life was “just so” – we had a routine and that gave us certainty and security – we both felt we had found “home.”
Three months ago, it would have never occurred to us that our routine would be disrupted in any significant way, let alone be in jeopardy. After all, we lived through the 2008 and 2009 financial crisis and the Great Recession that followed – and, our life remained intact. During the initial days of the pandemic, as I obsessively watched the news, I kept on hearing pundits comparing the two. Deep down, I knew it was different. Back then, it was the economy, but not our health. This time, we are threatened by a virus for which we have very little information, and it is eating away at everything we hold dear, including lives.
There were lots of bad days initially, but the worst was accepting that the life I had built (really, my bubble) was so fragile. I was no longer able to do those familiar things. The things we enjoyed and that defined our lives just evaporated. I felt lost and became unsure of who I was and what I stood for – I had let those external things define who I was and be a barometer of my certainty and security. Having those things made me feel more whole. To top it off, the uncertainty and the unknown surrounding the virus, and therefore, our health, made things unbearable. I felt suspended in the loss of my life as I knew it and the unknown of the future.
But even during the worst days, I had to survive. I had to wash my hands, find face coverings, engage in social distancing, stand in grocery lines, cook meals, find toilet paper and cleaning solutions, go out for walks, clean my house, and water my plants – not to mention deal with client issues that came up. With the “stay at home” order, my priorities changed, and I was doing things I had not done in years. I could no longer rely on anyone else to do it for me. I was just trying to keep us fed, safe, and healthy, but it was exhausting. With the lurking virus and the fear of catching it, every outing was stressful, and I was obsessively watching cable news to obtain as much information about the virus as I could. While difficult at first, these stressful and exhausting things became less so as I got used to doing them.
I was changing – not just what I did from day-to-day, but internally. Over days and weeks, I got used to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic and the future. I still craved certainty, but I could no longer rely on the pre-pandemic certainty. It was no longer there. I knew also that as quickly as those things were taken away – looking to regain them would be a fool’s errand. I had to look for certainty elsewhere. But, where?
Through it all, one thing is clear: certainty is elusive because most things are outside of our control.
I realized that the only certainty I have is within me. That is all I can control. When I feel the need for certainty now, I find comfort in knowing that I can adjust by shifting my priorities. I don’t need the things I once thought I did, and doing things for myself is okay. I also discovered that having to improvise is a way of life. Most of all, I found certainty in my marriage, as my husband and I became great collaborators during this pandemic. We agreed that we would only take risks that we could both accept.
So, from where I am now, I can’t imagine going back to the way we were – living in my bubble and relying on it for certainty and security. Now that I know how fragile our “home” was, we just can’t go back and be as we were. I don’t know how things will turn out or what will happen, but I know that it’s not in the cards for me to look for certainty and security in a house of cards.