I wonder if my ancestors felt this way. Checking my phone every morning makes me think of sticking a twitching nose out into a forbidding and chaotic world, not unlike the one our fuzzy little forebears encountered the day after a seven-mile-wide asteroid reduced the likes of T. rex and Triceratops to ash and desiccated bone. War, continuing racial injustice, poverty, transphobia. There’s no point in saying “bad news.” That’s simply what the news is, a fresh menu of tragedy against the background of a global pandemic, which we’ve grown so accustomed to that we hardly even mention its name now.
We’re supposed to be back to normal. Back to work. Back to going out for dinners and concerts. Back to not having masks fog up our glasses as we vainly try to maintain a 6-foot distance at the grocery store. And every morning, curled up in my underground den much like whiskery little mammals did 66 million years ago, I can’t help but think how the reality is anything but normal. It’s become a dirty word in this house. Normal? I don’t know them.
Life surely wasn’t normal before we started anxiously disinfecting every surface and huddling inside for a two-week, two-month, two-year period of isolation. And it’s not normal now. Normal is nothing but a distorted pane that smooths out everything that’s wrong just enough to maybe ignore the pains and horrors. Normal is a form of exhausted complacency that denies the reality of the moment. Thinking of my distant, insect-munching ancestors, I can’t help but imagine them looking at a world seared by heat and smothered with cold. What would have been “back to normal” for them?
We can’t recover what was lost, most of all time. There’s no going back. We can only make our choices going forward. Desperately trying to reclaim what might have otherwise been is not our only choice. We can adapt.
We can’t recover what was lost, most of all time. There’s no going back. We can only make our choices going forward.
Disaster isn’t an unusual part of life. My fixation on fossils has more than a little to do with my petrified perspective. The very delineations we make in geologic time—the Carboniferous, Permian, Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous, and on and on—were delineated because entire groups of organisms seemed to vanish between each temporal swath. We tell our planet’s time according to catastrophes that fundamentally changed the shape of life, often when many unique forms of life perished and those fortunate enough to survive began to change. Life on Earth didn’t attempt to return to what had just been lost, shunting itself into the same shapes time and again. Cataclysms created change. We wouldn’t be here if such consequences didn’t exist.
The survivors of 66 million years ago didn’t go back to precisely what they were doing the day before the huge rock slammed into the planet. Species that persisted—from plants to insects to mammals—started to interact in different ways, literally changing the world around them. Forests could grow thicker in the absence of the imposing dinosaurs, creating dense and multi-tiered habitats for early primates, rodents, beaked birds, and other organisms to start opening new niches. Life reclaimed its vibrance by embracing the novelty of a changed world, not by trying to go back. Under it all, there are only two routes—adapt or vanish.
There was a time, as the seriousness of the pandemic set in, when many of us considered how our lives—our society—might be different in the aftermath. Individually, we took up new hobbies from electric guitar to sourdough. We talked about how working from home reduced pollution and allowed more accessibility to people who are disabled. Some even got the notion that the 21st century would have its own Roaring ‘20s, when people cooped up from lockdowns would quickly make their way to bars and BDSM parties in a riot of debauchery the moment we had the chance. As awful as it was, and remains, the pandemic offered a chance to ask what we might change and how quickly we might change it.
Now here we are in 2023, having been told time and again that at long last we have returned to normal. We know that’s not true, and all of us—in ways big and small—have had to find ways to grieve what we’ve lost over the past three years. We’re meeting this day differently than the people we were as 2019 came to a close, just as we’ll be different tomorrow than we are today. Life is change, reiterated over and over again through rock and bone through the ages as much as the histories of our lives. In the worst way possible, we have been given a moment to recognize what’s been lost and ask what we might do differently just as our relatives that picked through the ruins of the Cretaceous world had no choice to adjust to an Earth unlike what they knew before. “Normal” is just waiting for extinction. If we can adapt, we may yet thrive.