The 'New Normal' requires our empathy

A citizen's view

 


The expression “new normal” has increasingly felt like a meaningless phrase.

With each new shift in the experience of the novel coronavirus pandemic, what we thought we knew had to be relearned and what served as guidance or best practices often had to be re-scripted.

Normalcy suggests consistency and predictability, neither of which has been experienced since March 2020.

The result has been widespread fatigue and impatience, which might explain the rise in public outbursts and misbehavior as people attempt to reintegrate into public life.

And yet, things are beginning to feel different this time as the surge of infections caused by the omicron variant of the virus peaked and have steadily and rapidly declined across the United States.

Public health officials tell us that we may be moving closer to an endemic phase of this viral nightmare, which offers the promise that COVID-19 may no longer dominate our lives in the way that it has. Something does feel different. Masking in some settings is still common, but has consistently decreased. Larger gatherings of people are more commonplace. Experiences in recent weeks that in many ways resembled those of pre-pandemic times have me thinking about what it means to live in another “new normal,” one that I pray may usher in a safer and less-stressful time for all.

While St. Thomas Aquinas argues that the virtue of patience is not technically the “greatest” of the virtues, in the age of pandemic – and this liminal period of pandemic-toward-endemic – patience may be the most important virtue. People are tired, worn down, frightened and approaching reentry into social and public life with understandable trepidation. The hardship and suffering that this pandemic has wrought does not justify treating other people with disrespect, but the circumstances can help explain why so many people are less tolerant and exercise less restraint on personal bad behavior.

We need to consciously remember to be patient with others and ourselves as we continue to adjust to changing circumstances. Working on humility means owning my limitations and acknowledging the impacts of the last two years of challenge, loss and suffering, while also accepting that there are long-term consequences that will manifest in various ways. Empathy flows from both patience and humility. I believe that a lot of the disrespectful behavior we have been witnessing in public arises in part from a lack of empathy. Everyone is dealing with these challenging times differently.

We have to remember that we may not know others’ burden, sorrows or suffering, and so we should treat everybody with love and understanding. Something as simple as remembering that others are also going through hardships can make a major difference. This pandemic has made even the most trusting person suspicious of others, if only as potential vectors of COVID-19. This skepticism has combined with the conspiracy theories and nonsense of the disinformation age, resulting in widespread distrust of others in general and public authorities in particular.

But in order for us to move toward a better way of living and being in the world, we need to build back our sense of trust. If there is one thing that the pandemic has taught us, it is that we need to be more flexible. The luxury of sure plans and inflexible schedules is a thing of the past (if they ever existed). How are we adjusting to changing circumstances? These virtues and characteristics are not a panacea for all that we continue to face during these challenging times, but they may help us to navigate the uncertain road ahead in a manner reflecting our one human family.

Father Magnano co-pastors the Skagit Valley Catholic churches.

 

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