A Brief Inquiry into Normalcy

I want to begin this post by recounting a conversation that, as I’ve looked back on the weeks and months since the COVID-19 pandemic brought schools, universities, and economies to a halt, I’m sure I had hundreds of times. Whether talking to family members, friends, roommates, peers, professors, or acquaintances, riffs on the following phrases almost inevitably emerged at some point in many of my conversations:

“I hope that all this will get fixed soon.”

“I can’t wait until we can get back to the way things were.”

“I just want things to be normal again!”

These remarks emerged in a plethora of contexts, ranging from BYU classes, dating, professional sports seasons, political elections, going out to restaurants, taking vacations, and even buying groceries. They persisted throughout the spring and summer, weaving their way into many, if not all, of my interactions, virtual or otherwise.

However, with our collective return to campus these past weeks, some of us have, I’m sure, experienced small glimmers of “normal” life, flashes of things “getting back to the way they were.” I appreciate these glimmers and flashes; they are a testament to the hard work that many people across our university community have done to facilitate the resumption of school and work at BYU, and I hope that we all can continue to experience health and safety throughout the semester.

But something about these phrases and their persistent utterance also bothers me. And this isn’t simply because things aren’t actually “normal,” despite the flashes of grateful nostalgia I’ve felt throughout the past week. Classes are being held through Zoom or in socially distanced classrooms, professors and students are adjusting to remote learning, and research groups, student clubs, and faculty organizations are all adapting events, conferences, and activities to meet appropriate social distancing criteria. Though we’ve returned to campus, things are not “normal” by any stretch of the imagination, nor do they seem to be on a path towards becoming or remaining “normal.”

Yet I wonder whether the desire for things to “go back to normal” might be a problem in its own right. I wonder whether it is prudent of us, as individuals, communities, even entire societies, to yearn for “normalcy” at this particular moment in time. Recent events have pushed the wider American public to interrogate centuries of racial “normalcy” that have locked African Americans into patterns of unequal and unjust scrutiny, suspicion, and brutality in policing, educational, and professional spheres. The COVID-19 pandemic has both raised new problems and reinforced longstanding ones regarding the poor public health and safety of impoverished or marginalized populations across the world. Even at BYU, we continue to face crucial conversations about what has been “normal” for students and employees from racial, sexual, and ethnic minorities to experience and endure while here.

These concerns surrounding the presence, absence, and efficacy of “normalcy” in my life and the world around me have led me to consider ways that the humanities influence the evolution of what normal even means. How might the study, creation, and cherishing of art and beauty enact positive change on what is or should be “normal” for us all in 2020? In her essay “Beautiful Changes,” Marilynne Robinson states that beauty is never normal to any person or group but “varies from one perceiver to the next, one decade to the next, and from culture to culture.”[i] Yet it is beauty’s infinite adaptability and resistance to static normalcy, according to Robinson, that grants us that sense of emotional and spiritual stability or, dare I say it, normalcy. “If existence,” she writes, “were designed to engraft us into the world, to charm and engage us, what could better be suited to accomplishing this than beauty, with its inexhaustible openness to variation, with its frangible and circumstantial rules and limits, which enable invention and tantalize perception?” In other words, engaging with beauty—whether through production, criticism, or simple appreciation—affords us the experience of normalcy via its continual deconstruction and reconstruction of what normal actually means.

Such discussion on beauty may seem, however, idealistic, naïve, or even indelicate when compared to the tragic and deplorable circumstances many now face. How can academic or interpersonal quibbles about beauty and normalcy ameliorate the struggles against racism, poverty, and injustice that so many people face today? Though my post on this blog is certainly inadequate in fully answering this question, I’ve found some inspiration within the poem “Life is Fine” by Langston Hughes.[ii]In the poem, Hughes writes from the perspective of a suicidal man who has suffered a devastating loss in his life. In the first section of the poem, the man throws himself into a river but decides to save himself from drowning at the last minute due to the coldness of the water. The speaker writes:

If that water hadn’t a-been so cold
I might’ve sunk and died
                 But it was
                 Cold in that water!
                 It was cold!

In the following section, the speaker again finds himself on the verge of committing suicide, standing upon the edge of a sixteen-story building. However, the speaker’s recognition of the height at which he stands causes him to abandon his desire to jump. He writes:

If it hadn’t a-been so high
I might’ve jumped and died
               But it was
               High up there!
               It was high!

In both cases, the speaker’s dangerous and near-fatal circumstances rekindle a desire for continued life, despite his tragic and pitiable state. At the end of the poem, the speaker declares:

Though you may hear me holler,
And you may see me cry—
I’ll be dogged, sweet baby,
If you gonna see me die.
               Life is fine!
              Fine as wine!
              Life is fine!

For me, Hughes’s poem calls for a “dogged” and determined pursuit of beauty and appreciation of humanity within any deplorable circumstances, situations, or systems that need changing. Hughes’s voice, both within this poem and in his other works, is particularly poignant for our present moment of racial reckoning. His championing of invisible men and women in America alongside all other authors, artists, athletes, and activists of color is one that I humbly and gratefully value in my life now. Taking up Hughes’s call for this dogged pursuit can enrich all of us even as we face the discomfort and difficulty of our time, for as Robinson later writes in her essay, “beauty” and normalcy “elude definition because [they] express the grace of God.”[iii] And I believe that this “elusive” yet beautiful grace is present in every and all the struggles our society is facing. Such grace is in the hospitals where COVID-19 patients have been and continue to be treated, in peaceful protests against racial injustice, and in the homes where many of us have been both quarantined and isolated from our usual pursuits. As we resume this semester and live out the remainder of this important year, I hope to keep pausing and personally reconsidering ways that I might turn toward change and compassion rather than getting things “back to normal.”

This post was written by Sam Jacob, Humanities Center Intern.

[i] Marilynne Robinson, “Beautiful Changes.” What Are We Doing Here? Essays. Picador, 2018, pp. 129.

[ii] Langston Hughes, “Life is Fine.” Selected Poems of Langston Hughes, Vintage Classics, 1996, pp. 121-122.

[iii] Robinson, pp. 129.

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