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Something other than "business as usual" or "the new normal" ?

Updated: Jun 5

By: Lindsay Stolkey


It’s been about two months since the Stay at Home Order began in Philly in response to COVID-19. I remember sharing with friends that I can do this, but if we’re still in this same boat a few months from now, I’ll have to re-assess. I had a feeling where this would lead and was skeptical of the messages.


I’m trying to be optimistic and creative, but I’m also concerned about the direction our society is going in. We’re feeling the global solidarity and interconnectedness of our problem, which is somewhat of a positive unifying experience that increases our sense of social responsibility. But on the other side of that, we’re looking for and implementing global solutions, those that can be mass produced, medicalized, and that rely heavily on control ← this is where much of my discomfort comes in. That, and the general shift away from human-ness and toward virtual ways of interacting and consuming.


My message in this essay is not about how to prevent the spread or impact of COVID-19. It’s to say that this break in our normal patterns is an opportune moment to make choices about what we value and what principles guide us.


Although, changes to how we do things could make us more adaptable to viruses and collective crises in the future. I’ve listened to medical professionals who share that this problem has been misdiagnosed, the risk misunderstood, and many of the responses and treatments harmful. I’ll include some links for your consideration. So furthermore, to move toward a new path, it may do us well to reconsider our information and to be less certain of ourselves and the institutions we rely on. I wrote on this thought in another essay: Is control going to get us where we want to go?


I want to start with a few positive things in this COVID-19 culture shift we’re in, with the caveat that these are not the experiences of everyone. I’m pulling them out because in shifts of culture, or in movements, small can turn out to be big. Then I’ll share my negatives, and then revisit this idea that we have an opportunity to create a healthier future.


These are shifts I hope will stick:

  • Slowing down, less busy-ness

  • Appreciation for people employed in low-modest-wage jobs that we depend on

  • Reflecting on “what really matters”

  • Flexibility with work, lighter hours -- more time for recreation, self-care, family… things that can make life more enjoyable and healthy

  • DIY replacing consumerism / commodification -- grow your own food, get crafty, be resourceful

  • Care for the well-being of others -- our consumption patterns affect other people. Mutual aid and solidarity, doing this with little to no bureaucratic process or approval.

  • Systems / structures / programs quickly shifting to meet needs -- adaptability

  • Valuing life, valuing all lives (let’s come back to this)

  • Okay, and I just can’t leave out… adopting and fostering dogs! 🐶

All of this, I hope we can hang onto through the shuffle of transition.


Here are behaviors and mentalities prominent through this collective COVID-19 response, which I hope can soon be left behind:

  • Lack of physical touch

  • Lack of play for children (and for adults too- live music, dance)

  • Families disconnected, particularly seniors, people dying without their families there to comfort them

  • The hyper-masculine and sometimes violent language to inspire and motivate -- war, battle, hero, enemy

  • Computer / phone screens as an acceptable way for all forms of interaction and gathering -- general move toward being like robots, and being served by robots (p.s. Why the Facebook avatars??)

  • Inability to see facial gestures in public, difficulty to make a friendly connection

  • The consolidated, distant, corporate power behind virtual ways of consumption and interaction

  • Excessive censorship-- by authorities and by individuals

  • The certainty people have that what they know is right and everyone else must be wrong, ignorant, intentionally disruptive, or just insane

  • Intense fear, anxiety, panic

  • A healthcare system and societal system of values that places the prolonging of life above the quality of life, or even above the importance of a peaceful death

  • An emphasis in health on protection and control over building up healthy bodies, mental well-being, and a clean environment (here’s an alternative medical take)

  • Intensified divides, labeling, judgement between people of opposing viewpoints

  • The black / white, good / bad nature of solutions, the need for one-size-fits all

  • Emphasis on data and numbers as a guide, in ways that don’t provide a complete picture (here’s an alternative medical take)

  • Expectation to do as told amidst uncertainty and incomplete research

The norm for the past two months might not be so concerning if it was temporary. But infrastructures are being rebuilt, what’s socially acceptable is shifting, and there’s a lot of money and power behind all of this. Things aren’t going to jump back to how they were. These shifts were already in motion. For instance, the move toward virtual reality and away from outdoor play, or toward medicalization and away from holistic well-being has just quickened rapidly. If the larger context of this is interesting to you, you might want to dig into it through Charles Eisenstein.


It’s good that we don’t go back to how things were because they weren’t so good for a large proportion of people-- in terms of economic security, mental and physical health, and so on. However, we need to be proactive and thoughtful about where we are going instead.


“The new normal” and “business as usual” are not our only options.


What does it mean to value life? Does it mean to protect it from death at all costs? Does it mean to enjoy living? My dear grandmother, Nanny, is in a senior living facility surrounded by people she met in the last six months, with no visits allowed from her family. She is unhappily waiting to die. I know this is complicated, but this is where we’ve landed.


My possibility for the future doesn’t grow out of isolation and control. If we neglect the mentality of fighting the germ “enemy” and instead adopt an intent to make ourselves healthy (see more: concept of germ theory versus terrain theory), then we can find some balance in preventing disease and enjoying life. These two may be mutually beneficial. I’ll begin there in creating a possibility for the future.


So let’s take that good stuff people have found space for, like growing their own food, caring for each other, slowing down…


And add onto it.


We have choices to make. But what do we value? Data (accurate / representative or not) can’t determine what we value.


Shea Howell said this nicely in the Boggs Center Living for Change News last week,

Science can teach us many things and help us understand our world. But it does not tell us what we value, what we need to protect, whose lives matter, and what choices will nurture the creativity of our children. The questions we face now cannot be answered by facts. They must be answered in the context of the values and visions we embrace for our future.”


And,

“This is the moment to do the kind of radical reconstruction of our relationships that is essential to protect our people and our earth. It is a reconstruction that has to be rooted in the values that best reflect what we know makes life meaningful, productive, and joyful. We are learning that the decisions about what matters to us, are best made close to home.”


SO, how do we do this? For me it’s helpful to think about different parts of life and to loosely re-imagine them, and in ways that myself and members of my community could have control over. So for instance take health, food, care of children, care of elders, or education… There are options that are not the norm, but that may be more “meaningful, productive, and joyful,” while making us more resilient.


A few things that come to mind for me (none of which are original, people have been doing these things for a long time):

  • cooperative un-schooling between families or through small community schools, children problem-solving to meet community needs,

  • food cooperatives and buying clubs,

  • more ancient herbal wisdom, shared by local women,

  • intergenerational co-housing and cooperative living communities,

  • libraries of things,

  • spiritual gathering circles,

  • more general needs met within communities allowing greater space from the grind of employment and a permanent burden to debt (a universal basic income generated from “the 1%,” and abundance of mutual aid funds would help with this too).

That’s just me making a list by myself. But what if in our neighborhoods we did this through a collaborative group process? If we had a framework for community-scale approaches and could find ways of making them accessible for everyone? And if we committed to seeing them through? Where would that lead?


What if our goal was to become more human, not less? To make life worth living? Grace Lee Boggs, Detroit activist said,

“To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical / spiritual leap and become more ‘human’ human beings. In order to change / transform the world, they must change / transform themselves.”


I think this call for human-ness is a good place to end.

Art by Ricardo Levins Morales


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