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The New Norm Is Not The Old Norm With A Different Hat On

John SwintonBlog, Church, COVID-19, John Swinton, Mental Illness, Resources, Spiritual Practices, Theology

I’ve been thinking about the so-called “new norm” that people think will be happening when we finally get to grips with COVID-19. It’s complicated, but you get the sense that people want to get back to the way things were—as if the way things were was somehow okay. I am not so sure about that. 

In my opinion, the “old norm” wasn’t that great. I remember that early on in the pandemic, Australian journalist John Pilger reminded us of what the “old norm” was really like:

“A pandemic has been declared, but not for the 24,600 who die every day from unnecessary starvation, and not for 3,000 children who die every day from preventable malaria, and not for the 10,000 people who die every day because they are denied publicly-funded healthcare, and not for the hundreds of Venezuelans and Iranians who die every day because America’s blockade denies them life-saving medicines, and not for the hundreds of mostly children bombed or starved to death every day in Yemen, in a war supplied and kept going, profitably, by America and Britain. Before you panic, consider them.”

We might look back longingly for brighter days, but were they actually that much brighter? Maybe for some, but not for many of us. Let me offer four movements that we might want to think about as we prepare ourselves for the new norm, whenever that arrives:

  1. From passion to resurrection
  2. From scarcity to abundance
  3. From lockdown to sabbath
  4. From social distancing to loving trust

1. From passion to resurrection: Developing a post-COVID imagination

Think for a moment about the story in the Gospels of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. People were really excited! It was a time of great expectation. “The Messiah has come!” (“Yes, he’s riding on a donkey which is a bit odd, but let’s put that to one side for a moment …”) Then came the passion and the chaos of the cross. Everything seemed to be falling apart. All of the people’s hopes, dreams, and expectations that were embodied in Jesus seemed to come crashing down. There was nothing but grief, sadness, lostness, pain, suffering, and fear. 

People inevitably feel deeply vulnerable in a time when their hopes and certainties are crushed and their control over the world is stripped from them. But then came the resurrection. Jesus overcomes death, and in so doing offers us new life: A new norm. This new norm is not a return to the victorious hopes of Palm Sunday. The crucifixion had shown us the reality of pain and suffering and the lengths that God will go to help us to find God’s love. The new norm that was heralded by the resurrection was different from the old norm. It was a call to go into the world and proclaim the gospel in the midst of pain, suffering, and lostness. It was a revelation that the might of God is revealed in vulnerability and suffering love. The new norm was that people recognized their inter-connectivity and were called to live under the wing of God, who is love: to care for the sick; to live life with and for others; to seek after wisdom, gentleness, peace, love and joy; to overcome the old gods of greed, individualism, and false idols; to live together as one Body. The new norm of course included pain and suffering, but not without hope. 

The COVID crisis is not a good thing. It is horrible, painful, fearful. We have to name it as such. Nevertheless, if perfect love does drive out fear and if Jesus truly is risen, then perhaps the new norm that will emerge when the virus is defeated will help lead us to a place where we can see life more clearly, and love God and one another more fully. The old norm may have been an illusion that we would be unwise to chase after. The new norm has to be built on stronger foundations.

2. From scarcity to abundance: Cultivating awareness of others 

One of the things that made me laugh (kind of) was the controversy early in the pandemic around hoarding toilet paper! People didn’t seem to know why, but they definitely knew that it was important! And pretty soon, the supermarket shelves were emptying as people began to hoard not just toilet paper but everything! Apparently, it didn’t matter that there was enough food in the country to feed everyone three times over. Apparently, it didn’t matter that by hoarding food we were jeopardizing the most vulnerable within our society. As long as I and my family have all we need everything is fine … apparently!  

In some ways it was funny. In other ways it most certainly was not. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann notes that in the Old Testament the people of Israel developed a similar “scarcity mentality.” Pharaoh introduced the principle of scarcity into the world economy. They always lived in fear that they wouldn’t have enough, and even when they did have enough, they lived in fear of losing it. 

Brueggemann also notes that for many of us money and possessions have become a kind of narcotic: “We hardly notice our own prosperity or the poverty of so many others. The great contradiction is that we have more and more money and less and less generosity—less and less public money for the needy, less charity for the neighbour.” And yet the gospel calls us to love a God who gives abundantly. We are called to be generous people who steward both love and possessions with grace, peace, and generosity. The virus has revealed something of ourselves that is not so good. If we carry that into the new norm, then we will be in even more trouble than we already are. It’s time for change.

3. From lockdown to sabbath: Embodying the habits of generosity

So how can we change? How do we begin to develop the habits of generosity that will prevent us from rejecting vulnerable people when we feel threatened? Well, think about this: Lockdown for many of us has been a bit boring and monotonous. How do we fill our days when the structure of our lives seems to have become so loose and disorganized? 

One way we might think about it is in terms of sabbath. When Pharaoh decided to oppress the people of Israel by burdening them with more and more work, God responded in a very unusual way. He said, “Take a Sabbath! Take time and remember who I am.” In the midst of the horribleness of their lives, the people of Israel were asked to recognize that the God of hope and redemption hadn’t forgotten about them and was with them now and always. God was asking the people of Israel to develop the habits of worship and the habits of generosity.

What might it look like if we were to think of lockdown as an opportunity to practice sabbath? Almost all of us, perhaps for the first time ever, have a lot more time on our hands. What do we do with it? Do we bake or count our rolls of toilet paper? Or do we decide to give some of that time to God—to practice sabbath so that when the new norm finally emerges we will be ready and able not just to replicate the bad habits of the old norm, but to really be open to the new things that God is doing and the possibility that God might be doing them through us! Sabbath is a time of remembrance. So maybe we should practice remembering God?

4. From social distancing to loving trust: Investing in long-term relationships

Finally, it might be worth thinking about the “social distancing” that we have been asked to do. We really don’t know the long-term psychological and social consequences of social distancing. What will happen if we continue to implicitly or explicitly assume that everyone, including our family and friends, are potential threats to our wellbeing? Social distancing is clearly necessary to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. But how easy will it be for us to stop doing it? Social distancing could be used as another name for stigma—something that many of us are all too familiar with.

Think about it this way: There is a difference between social distancing and physical distancing. Physical distancing is a medical term which is intended to stop us being infected by the virus. But social distancing is a relational term. We really don’t want to get into the habit of social distancing even if physical distancing might be necessary! The other day I spoke to an elderly woman—Amanda—about the situation regarding social isolation, social distancing, and the like (she was in her doorway, and I was walking past, doing my one hour of daily exercise). She just laughed and said, “I have been in isolation for the past ten years! People have become experts at distancing themselves from me. But now with the coming of the virus, suddenly everyone wants to help me. It’s odd, really.” I felt a bit bad as I was probably one of the social distancers she was commenting on. She lived but a few hundred yards away from my house, and it took a pandemic for me to notice her. It is worrying that people can be amongst us and can be so vulnerable to being lonely, isolated, friendless—to not being noticed. The real tragedy was that Amanda had gotten used to being lonely. She was genuinely surprised when people started to pay attention to her.

Loneliness is one of the most painful experiences for human beings to go through. God creates human beings and tells us very clearly that we are made for community, that our natural state is to be in relationship: to belong. We belong to God, we belong to creation, we belong to one another. In order to feel that we belong, people need to affirm us, to notice us, and to offer the gifts of time and friendship. To belong is to be loved. 

Amanda has had very little experience of receiving the fruits of the practices of belonging, but now when things are so radically changed, suddenly people want to find out about her. That is potentially a beautiful thing, but only if it continues. There must be nothing worse than finding company in the midst of a crisis, only for it to disappear again when things get back to “normal.” The revived sense of community that has emerged during this time of COVID might just be a gift that we should not lose as we move towards healthier times. Love your neighbour. 

Questions to shape our new norm:

Are there other “pandemics,” crises, or acute instances of human suffering that were neglected under the old norm? What might it look like to hold these in remembrance?

What might it look like to live out of the resurrection?

Where are there opportunities for generosity moving forward?

How have you practiced remembering God recently? Is there an invitation to enlarge this practice?

How can you love your neighbor during this season of physical distancing?

How might you continue to cultivate a revived sense of community?

John Swinton is a Sanctuary Ambassador and the Chair in Divinity and Religious Studies at the School of Divinity, History, and Philosophy, University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Previously he worked for sixteen years as a registered mental health nurse, and spent several years as a hospital chaplain and community mental health chaplain. He is particularly interested in mental health issues both as they relate to the spiritual dimensions of care offered by religious communities as well as the spiritual care offered by established “secular” mental health services. He has published widely in the fields of disability theology, spirituality and health, and qualitative research and mental health. His book Dementia: Living in the memories of God won the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Ramsey Prize for excellence in theological writing in 2016. He is founder of the Centre for Spirituality, Health and Disability, where academics, researchers, practitioners, and educators collaborate in the development of innovative projects researching the theology of disability and the relationship between spirituality, health and healing, and contemporary healthcare practices. John is an ordained minister of Church of Scotland.