Humans are creatures of habit and we know that habits, once formed, are difficult to change. Especially bad habits. This is true not just of individuals, but also of societies.
We have recent evidence of the force of habit: How much social shaming did it take to keep us home? How many times did we drift together before we learned to maintain six feet of distance? How long before we overcame the unfamiliar awkwardness of wearing a mask? These are challenges to habit that some part of us still resists even as we comply. Hence the common lament, “When will all this end? When can we go back to being normal?”
But what is normal, really, and why do we crave to return to it? The old normal wasn’t a very happy place. It didn’t hold much joy for anyone, and it was far from an equitable experience for all. It was normal that people in Beijing and Delhi could hardly breathe, that Americans worked multiple jobs to cobble together a living, that many ventured on uncertain journeys fleeing violence and poverty.
We now have a unique opportunity to resist the tug of old habits and begin to envision a new normal. This is not just an individual challenge, but a societal struggle that needs our efforts combined to succeed. If we slide back to old ways without grabbing this chance for change, we will simply recreate the same world again very quickly: a vicious cycle with the same problems, and the quick fix of temporary solutions.
In this sudden hiatus as vast numbers of people are confined to home and limiting their consumption, mountain ranges once shrouded in pollution are newly visible. The beauty of what has been long hidden surprises us. Dolphins are once again playing in the Ganges, for the first time in my lifetime. Nature has been sending messages urgently for a long time, but few of us were ready to pause and listen. It is now voicing stark questions, if we can hear them: What have you humans been doing all this time? Was it worthwhile? In the rare quiet of this moment, those questions become sharper: What do we change — individually and as a society — to create a new normal? What is really worth doing? What do we value? The answers come from recognizing what we value in our own humanity, and what is conducive to our well-being. In the old normal it was rare that relationships were rooted in the best of human nature rather than transactional and utilitarian motives.
We had family and friends around us, but we hardly took the time to reach out and have a genuine conversation. It took enforced self- isolation for us to slow down and give each other our full attention, or to pick up the phone and inquire sincerely about their well-being.
We spent hours commuting and hours filled with the busy-ness of work, but we seldom questioned why. Was our work fulfilling? Was it meaningful, or just survival? What would we hope for ideally in a new normal? And what of the work once considered menial, that we now recognize as essential? Can a new normal grant respect and dignity as well as decent wages to health care workers, to those who cook, clean, assemble, supply, deliver and otherwise keep our world turning?
It’s possible to imagine a new normal where many jobs will have vanished, replaced by machines and artificial intelligence. One way or another, humans will eventually have a lot more free time. For many of us, the closest we have come to experience such freedom is happening now in lockdown. Imagine these weeks stretching to many years, but without the fear and anxiety that clouds this time.
Our vision for a new normal should learn from how the old normal failed and from insights surfacing in this unique moment. A better normal will have the resilience to evolve when the next crisis hits. As Cardinal Newman said, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” And if it takes a crisis for us to come together and care for each other, then perhaps the universe is planning many more.
The Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi is President & CEO of The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His recent book, Running Toward Mystery: Adventures of an Unconventional Life, is available through Random House U.S.