The Grace Period Is Over (Or Is it?)

For Post-Covid Life, We Need a More Reassuring Sense of What is Normal

David Zahl / 6.2.21

Just after it became clear that the pandemic was going to last a bit longer than three weeks, Amanda McMillen penned an article that’s stayed with me the entirety of COVID. “I Needed Grace Before Corona and I’ll Need it After, Too“.

With pleasant surprise she noted the sudden abundance of voices in the culture encouraging us to let ourselves off the hook during lockdown. You are not Shakespeare composing a masterpiece during quarantine, these voices told us, and you shouldn’t expect yourself to be. It’s okay to wear pajamas all day and order take-out.

The chorus of go-go-go was replaced, or momentarily augmented, by a new refrain of “take a breath — it’s enough to survive right now.”

Amanda then posed a vital question:

Am I also allowed to not read the classics and never make kombucha when this pandemic is over? Or is this a corona-only grace we’re talking about? Because I’m gonna not want to do anything productive after, too. That is my wonderfully virtuous nature, after all. Pre-, during, and post-pandemic, I will always be most gloriously me. And I have a sinking feeling it’ll be full steam ahead New-Years-Resolutions for our world as soon as it’s an appropriate time to bring it up.

Well, here we are in the waning days of the crisis, and I can feel “the old normal” creeping back. That word “normal” is telling. The pandemic, for all its trials and tribulations, succeeded in redrawing our map of normalcy. Behavior that would have been deemed strange or shameful beforehand became, for fifteen months or so, understandable and even expected. Fragility was re-positioned within the bounds of convention.

Feeling overwhelmed by the ever-changing demands of your always-on job? Makes total sense; we’re all feeling a bit that way right now. On the verge of tears for no reason other than not wanting to face reality? Well, so are ten other people I’ve spoken to in the last week. Lonelier than you feel you have any right to be? Join the club!

What I think Amanda was getting at in her piece, and what I would double-down on as restrictions evaporate, is that none of these states of mind were ever particularly abnormal, or should be considered such. Depression and paralysis and exhaustion are perfectly sane responses to the pace of modern life, regardless of what pathogens are floating around. The pandemic just gave us the opportunity, en masse, to incorporate them under the banner of acceptability, and what a relief that has been.

In the School of Life textbook, Alain de Botton observes that “our picture of acceptability is very often way out of line with what is actually true and widespread … We need a broader, more reassuring sense of what is common.”

Like Amanda, I don’t think de Botton wants to cast sad or self-defeating behaviors as beneficial. Just because something is widespread, or even universal(!), does not mean that it’s good or justified. He’s simply suggesting that far more people are suffering — acutely — at any given moment than would ever let on. That a great many of those troubles are self-inflicted does not diminish their sting.

The term we use on the site to describe what de Botton is advocating for is “Low Anthropology.” Please do not confuse this with the harmful notion that we aren’t capable of doing admirable and beautiful things.

A low anthropology begins instead with the reality that all of us are more finite, uncertain, conflicted, and shackled to self-interest than we feel the permission to admit publicly. We don’t feel this permission in part because the world operates according to a (more ostensibly flattering but ultimately despair-inducing) “High Anthropology” that implies that you are the only one afflicted by these constraints.

Of course, since the world is made up exclusively of our fellow humans, it may be part and parcel of our fallen nature to interpret our plight as singular and unique rather than collective and shared. You might say that where a high anthropology separates, a low anthropology unites. We are all in the same serviceable-yet-continually-malfunctioning boat.

Whatever the case, so entrenched is the everyone-else-has-it-together-but-me perception that it takes a global pandemic to alter it — and unleash the compassion that such a shift entails.

Beloved essayist Tim Kreider confessed a strong desire to surf this shift as long as humanly possible in a new column for the Atlantic, I’m Not Scared to Reenter Society. I’m Just Not Sure I Want To.

“For the last year,” a friend recently wrote to me, “a lot of us have been enjoying unaccustomed courtesy and understanding from the world.” When people asked how you were doing, no one expected you to say “Fine.” Instead, they asked, “How are you holding up?” and you’d answer, “Well, you know.”… You could admit that you’d accomplished nothing today, this week, all year. Having gotten through another day was a perfectly respectable achievement […]

That grace period is almost at an end; the dread specter of normality looms.

Quarantine has given us all time and solitude to think — a risk for any individual, and a threat to any status quo. People have gotten to have the experience — some of them for the first time in their life — of being left alone, a luxury usually unavailable even to the wealthy. Relieved of the deforming crush of financial fear, and of the world’s battering demands and expectations, people’s personalities have started to assume their true shape. And a lot of them don’t want to return to wasting their days in purgatorial commutes, to the fluorescent lights and dress codes and middle-school politics of the office … a lot of people went very far away over the course of this past year, deep into themselves, and not all of us are going to come all the way back.

Maybe this period of seeming dormancy, of hibernation, has actually been a phase of metamorphosis. Though, before caterpillars become butterflies, they first digest themselves, dissolving into an undifferentiated mush called “the pupal soup.” People are at different stages of this transformation — some still unformed, some already opulently emergent. Some of us may wither on exposure to the air. Escape from the chrysalis is always a struggle. Me, I am still deep in the mush phase, still watching TV on the couch, trying to finish just this one essay, awaiting, with vague faith in the forces that shape us, whatever imago is assembling within.

The pupal soup! What a wonderful euphemism for the schema of “sanctification” we find writ so largely in the Bible. Death-and-resurrection, decreasing-that-he-might-increase, whatever you want to call it, genuine spiritual growth is seldom linear. The new creation emerges from the digested remains of the old.

The way St. Paul puts it in the lectionary reading for this coming Sunday is “even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.” Paul extrapolates this promise directly from another disruption: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Daily life resumed on the other side of the Ascension, yet the frailties of those left behind were transformed from nagging defeats into foretastes of the redemption to come.

The wasting away of the past year has led to an increase in grace. The danger as we re-enter the old normal will be, in our collective trauma, to abandon the clemency gifted us by disruption. For the sake of control, we’ll be tempted to revert to the flattering ethos that drives us so reliably into isolation and despair. If early signs are any indication, I doubt we’ll be able to resist it fully.

If there’s a comforting word in the midst of our mass regression, it’s that, contrary to the headlines, our wasting away will continue, post-COVID — whether we like it or not. Which means so will the renewal that accompanies it.

The flight of the butterfly and the color in its wing do not depend on the caterpillar’s memory. Nor its willpower. Only on the miracle of forced disruption to which it, by its very nature, must succumb. Nothing could be more normal.

At least, I think so. It’s hard to remember everything you learn while binging documentaries on the couch for a solid year.