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Tuesday, March 17, 2020

In Other Words: It Is Always A Challenge To Adjust To Our New Normal

Paul Simon had a “Why me?” moment in You Can Call Me Al when he sang “Why am I soft in the middle and the rest of my life is so hard?” It’s a sentiment that we can relate to even though it doesn’t solve a thing. It’s a self-pitying statement.

Recent world events have created yet another new normal. In fact, a new normal is nothing new at all. We adjust to events and circumstances and we move on. That’s what we do. But it’s how we adjust and how we move on that matters. New normals are the results of challenges. And make no mistake, this is a scary challenge.

My father unexpectedly died on the first day of spring in 1982. He was fifty years old. He collapsed on the floor from a massive heart attack. By the time I arrived at the house, the life squad was working furiously to keep his heart beating, but by the time we arrived at the hospital, it was too late. He died. And just like that, we had a new normal.

Being the eldest, I was expected to lead the family through the grief, the legal aspects, and the arrangements. I admit, I didn’t want to, but I wasn’t going to let my father and family down. I did what I had to do.  When it was over I learned that I was capable of doing so much more than I ever thought. I grew, but there was a cost. I had to lose in order to grow.

I was teaching class the day the planes flew into the World Trade Center. We watched it unfold on TV. “What does this mean?” a student asked. I couldn’t say. We had a new normal.

The doctor ran some tests. He told me I had cancer. And just like that, we had another new normal. I had to face the challenge that I might die so I made all of my arrangements, signed papers, let people know what I wanted, what to expect, scheduled treatments, and dealt with insurance. I survived over two years of treatments. I grew, but there was a cost. It’s the new normal.

In the early 1980s I read Rabbi Harold Kushner’s popular book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He claims that we often ask the wrong questions when something bad happens to us. Instead of asking “Why me?” he encouraged his readers to ask “What should I learn from this?” or “What does this have to teach me?” This removes victimhood. We become students of our perceived misfortune. We become proactive. Yes, there is a disruption and one that we may not like and may even even resist, but that change in perspective is important. It helps us move forward - sometimes a little weaker, sometimes wiser, sometimes more resilient, sometimes fortunate, sometimes sadder. Each challenge adds a few more character lines to our faces, a few more gray hairs, or no hair at all. But each ding, each loss, each challenge is meant to teach us something. We suffer. We change. We endure.

Challenges reveal character. It does not build it. There’s a Zen saying “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” The teacher is, by the way, not always human and not always animate and is often ourselves.

Recent world events have created yet another new normal. There’s a deadly virus sweeping the globe and highly social people like me with compromised immune systems must be hyper-aware because we are vulnerable. I’m not asking “Why me?” Just as all of us should not be asking that. We should be asking, “What do we have to learn from this? What does this have to teach us?” We move forward when we ask those questions instead of being mired in the victimhood of “Why me?” We adjust and we move on. That’s what we do. But how we move on matters. We know we learned when we are placed in similar circumstances and our behavior changes.

Other national panics resulted in a new normal for us - polio, Spanish flu, mad cow disease, HIV/AIDS, swine flu, lead paint, Ebola, stock market crashes, the Dust Bowl, and the list goes on. We learned the value of personal hygiene from the plagues and other widespread diseases. We learned from every challenge - as we should.

There are only two things we can control - our actions and our reactions. Action reveals our character. The way we respond to this virus reveals us, it does not build us. It should reveal our better nature. And what if it doesn’t? Well, there will be other challenges.

Interesting enough, asking “Why me?” is part of classic storytelling. We have always looked to the sky for salvation, for something or someone to descend from above to save us. In Greek plays the deus ex machina would descend from above to set everything right and then ascend back until needed again. That might explain why some look to the sky longing for that UFO to land, dispense wisdom, set things right again, and then fly off. I’m thinking of the classic sci-fi movie The Day the Earth Stood Still.  Or they wait for the cavalry or superheroes. Superman swoops in to save the day. But the reality is that no such thing will occur.

Things happen because we make them happen - good and bad. And that’s the lesson we must learn - again. It is up to us.

I hope that we lead with our better nature with this new normal. We have much to learn.

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