Old Normal/New Normal

My brain is rotting. I can feel it.

I blame fourteen months of excessive screen time. What’s excessive?

What am I left with? Eyes that feel like they’ve been cooked and a brain that “breaks” every once in awhile.

This tells me Zoom fatigue is real. According to experts, video calls require more focus. We’re forced to work harder to process non-verbal communication cues. When not on calls, we’re starring intently at a screen for lengthy periods of time without visual or mental breaks. And moving around? Does anyone actually get up every 45 minutes to walk and stretch? I don’t.

COVID-19 is being promoted as a catalyst for a “new normal”. But what was so bad about the old normal?

If I look at my “old normal”, it was exhausting. As a working mom, I was in the same cycle most of us were in. Work, feel the stress, consume to relieve the stress, work some more to afford the consumption. Rinse, repeat. Welcome to the woman’s dream of having it all. Feminist movement gone south.

I recently came across blogger Beth Berry, who sums it up quite accurately:

“As a whole, we’re all incredibly stressed, drowning in self-doubt and filled with anxiety. No matter our demographic, many of us also feel ashamed of our messy lives and inability to “keep up”, isolated and unsure of who we can trust and guilty that we can’t give our children more of what they deserve.”

Beth Berry, Why Modern-Day Motherhood Feels So Frustrating, 2018,

A few months ago, while seeking support to avoid a burnout, I asked the question “why”. Why are we all running around wearing the “busy” badge of honor? The answer: because it’s incredibly profitable for the system. Not only is our productivity contributing to the GDP, it’s generating billions of dollars for our self-care, self-help industry. We don’t need help and a support system, we just need essential oils and pedicures.

I appreciate Canadian author Tara Henley’s perspective on this. When explaining why she wrote her book “Lean Out“, she explained:

“I think part of it was just that idea that everything can be solved by just working a little bit harder or trying harder, trying more. Also, it really bothered me that there was a real kind of lack of recognition of any area of life other than work.”

Dana Gee, “Author Tara Henley discovers working harder isn’t always working out for most of us”, Vancouver Sun, April 10, 2020.

Without getting into other issues like inequalities, injustices and growing polarization, it’s clear returning to the “old normal” is not an option. To echo what Winston Churchill said in the 1940s, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” This begs the question, can we design a better future or will we simply polish and slap lipstick on “Old Normal” in order to keep feeding the machine?

To this, I love Oli Mould’s perspective on true creativity.

“Real creativity would create new social conditions. Creativity is not about finding a way to become a smoother cog in the machine. It’s to link up with the other cogs in an unprecedented way that creates problems for the machine.”

Dr. James William quoted in Jenny Odell, How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.

I see nothing in our new normal show an upside for our collective mental health.

Tele-everything is being embraced in the belief that technology can make the world better. We’re not thinking of who it can worsen inequalities, spread misinformation, and reduce our access to a basic biological need: connection.

As a population, we’re already highly stressed. This new normal is calling for investing in remote workforce cultures for the long term, baking virtual school into the education system, and digitizing just about every aspect of our lives. In these grand visions, I don’t hear consideration for how this will further diminish in person contact and social connection, and as such further debilitate our mental health.

At the same time, our attention will continue to be manipulated as a profitable commodity. Artist and author Jenny Odell made the attention economy the topic of her book “How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy”. Funny story, I wasn’t going to read her book assuming it was a self-help book with recommendations to turn off your phone at night. I later found out she purposely didn’t write a self-help book and in fact, her “only suggestion is to try to dismantle late stage capitalism”.

Not only is our attention generating financial reward for corporations, we’re letting our time and brain power be monopolized by a suite of apps. The time we spend scrolling is time we’re not spending engaged in conversation, engaged in creative endeavors, engaged in the moment.

In the short term, distractions can keep us from doing the things we want to do. In the longer term, they can accumulate and keep us from living the lives we want to live or even worse, undermine our capacities for reflection and self regulation, making it harder to want what we want.

Dr. James William quoted in Jenny Odell, How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.

Odell references in her book Marxist theorist Franco Berardi. To make his point regarding the power of distractions and the chatter we’re exposing ourselves to, he contrasts modern-day Italy with the political agitations of the 1970s. Back then, those in charge relied on repression of dissent or enforcement of silence. Now, that’s hardly necessary. “The proliferation of chatter, the irrelevance of opinion and discourse and on making thought, dissent and critique banal and ridiculous” all reach the same goal.

Or said differently, our attention is under siege leaving us with no bandwidth to critically examine our environment, to be creative (as per Mould’s definition of creativity) and to engage in constructive discourse.

This isn’t the world I want for my family and I. I often tell my daughters, you can’t control the actions and feelings of others but you can control your own.

On this question of old normal/new normal, I’ve decided to focus on my normal. I’m on a journey to live the life I want outside of the chatter, the cult of productivity, and the endless distractions. I’m throwing my voice in with the others who realize how fucked up life has become. I’m responding to Odell’s call to disengage with what feeds my ego, builds my image, and stokes my fears and to “re-engage with something else like environment, history, other people”. I’m reclaiming my bandwidth to critically examine my environment and to engage in meaningful connections.

Odell offers the story of a useless tree that gets to grow old, to offer shelter and shade, because it’s too different and gnarly to make it to the wood chipper. She likens the tree to those of us who do what she calls, “the work of maintenance”, i.e. the work of keeping those we love alive and well.

In my new normal, I’m leaning into being the tree, especially if it means I get to avoid the wood chipper.

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