This past Friday I went out to dinner with my neighbors. We decided to grab a bite down at Ala Moana Center. I’m a regular there, eating breakfast at a local diner there at least once a week whenever things are opened back up. When we got there, the upper parking lot was full. We went from restaurant to restaurant trying to find a place that would seat us together in a timely manner. I have to admit, it was a little jarring. It’s been a long time since I’ve been around that many strangers. The good was great, and the company was wonderful. But it was also a real reminder of how things can change for you psychologically even when so much of life is screaming to go back to “normal.”
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I think that’s a big part of a conversation that people should be having but aren’t. After a long parenthetical existence, what does “returning to normal” look like? And is going back to “the way things were” the best thing to do? Now that there is rumor of a 90% effective vaccine, there’s talk of a return to “normal” even earlier than expected (and this as cases continue to rise). How do you determine what’s worth holding on to and what is worth letting go? I’ve been thinking about this kind of thing for a while, even before Covid, because of commitments and sunk costs.
I often think of the Alasdair MacIntyre quote from After Virtue that “inspired” Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” and Saint Benedict. (This post isn’t about the BenOp, just so you know. At least not totally.)
A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of goodwill turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead– often not recognizing fully what they were doing– was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained.
First there is the “shoring up.” Granted, the imperium died a slow death. But what about the lifespan of things in our accelerated culture? How do you determine healthy traditions and habits as opposed to fads and novelties? When is maintenance no longer “worth it” with something? Then there is what the maintenance signifies (they why that necessitates the continuation in the first place). This is more than a case of losing face, I believe. There is something about goodwill and morality and civility at play here. Such a community finds itself immersed in “new forms” of what is most vital, forms that will allow for sustenance over time. And that’s no small thing.
One of the potential lessons of Our Current Moment has been the realization that bigger is not always better. And just because it might be better doesn’t mean it is actually sustainable. This can be a difficult pill for our culture to swallow. One of the correlations of acceleration is growth of the exponential kind. To reject the notion of exponential growth is to reject the contemporary mindset of success.
There are no easy answers to these questions that we should be asking. And I suspect that most of us will do our best to avoid the questions and simply jump back into the way things were as quickly as possible. I hope not. This is a good time for necessary conversations. We’ll see if they can happen.