What an interesting word: Normal.
It debuted in English in the 1600s, derived from normalis, a Latin word meaning "made according to a carpenter’s square, forming a right angle."
That might seem odd, but not when you think of the importance of right angles in architecture and construction. "Normal" conveys a sense of stability and solidity, a quality of being "right." Normal is what stands.
It’s a popular word these days, uttered with yearning: I can’t wait to get back to normal.
Whether scarred by the coronavirus, shaken by the Capitol riot, frustrated by the endless pursuit for racial justice, or disgusted with our poisoned politics, people just want to get back to normal.
Because they understand implicitly that we’re a long way from normal. But:
When our nation’s capital is an armed fortress and the presidential inauguration will be held this week with virtually no public attendance ...
When all Americans now know beyond dispute that a segment of our society is willing to take up arms against our government on behalf of a delusion and a delusional leader ...
When members of Congress say they don’t trust other members when it comes to their safety, and when probes are underway of whether some lawmakers aided the rioters ...
When a virus is ravaging our country as nothing has in a hundred years, and when we see some people refuse to do the things we all know can protect us and them ...
When we watch with our own eyes a white police officer use his knee to snuff the life out of a Black man ...
It’s clear too many genies have been loosed from too many bottles to think we can return to normal. That’s gone. But that’s the normal we knew. We can find a different normal, and that’s OK. We do that all the time.
Remember when we scoffed at the idea of paying for television, saying we never would fork over hard-earned dollars for something that’s free? And now.
Remember how strange it felt to take off your shoes at an airport, and to have to show identification and undergo a search or scan before boarding a plane? And now.
Remember when the only school drills were those for fires? And now.
The point is that we get rocked, and we adjust, and we recover our equilibrium, but it’s a different equilibrium, a new equilibrium. We change the things we can change, and adapt to the things we can’t.
The pessimist in me sees worrisome signs, like the four-fifths of Americans in an Axios-Ipsos poll just a few days ago who say America is falling apart, and the record low levels of trust Americans have in government, business and the media. Do we have the will and the tools to forge our way back?
The optimist sees the 92% of Americans who want President-elect Joe Biden and Congress to work together to solve problems and the 63% who think they will, in a new Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service poll, and those respondents’ expectations that our divisions will lessen in the next year and our civility to one another will improve.
Despite what they have seen. Because of what they know. I’ll cast my lot with them, on a journey that will be long.
Experience changes us in ways both small and profound. And as we change, our normal changes. Because just as the ab-normal has sprung from among us, so the normal resides within us.
We’ll get to normal, sure enough, just not back to normal. Normal will be different, and it will be right, and that will be enough.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.