How to Be Normal When the World is on Fire

It’s been eight days since seditionists attacked the Capitol. We are still in the midst of a pandemic. Way too many people choose conspiracy theories over reality. And I’m wondering how to be normal through all this.

Seriously, I tried Googling “How to be normal after…” and then stopped typing because I wasn’t sure how to sum it all up. After what? Insurrection? A terrorist attack? A pandemic? All of the above?

The auto-fill Google results were not helpful.

How to be normal after... (Google search)

I did come across this useful PDF from the FBI on Coping After Terrorism. It includes many things I already know about self-care, and they are good, practical tips.

But even if I’m getting by at the basic, not-super-depressed/anxious-or-suicidal level*, it’s still hard to figure out how to be normal these days. Whatever “normal” means.

(*Note: if you are struggling with depression or anxiety, or having suicidal thoughts, there’s no shame in that. We’re dealing with A LOT of triggers for those feelings. Please talk to your doctor or therapist, or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Trust me, you are NOT alone in those feelings and there are specialists who can help!)

What is Normal?

Honestly, sitting down to write fiction feels pretty frivolous right now. Mundane chores, like cleaning the house, feel unimportant, too. It’s hard to shake the “shouldn’t I be doing something?!” feeling.

But what should I be doing? My normal will always seem frivolous and/or mundane compared to being a first-responder during an active crisis. That doesn’t mean my normal isn’t worthwhile.

All of our lives have been disrupted by the events of the last year (or so). We are living in times of political instability and health insecurity. In countless ways, our sense of control has been damaged. And that’s hard to overcome.

We can’t turn a blind eye to what’s happening around us, but we also can’t spend our lives assuming a crash position. What can we do? Cling to our “old normal”? Create a “new normal?” Give up on the idea of “normal” at all?

Embrace the Normal

If you’ve read this far, you may now be expecting some magic answer for how to be normal and get your life back on track. I don’t have one.

But here’s my best shot: Embrace the most frivolous and the most mundane parts of your life.

Does cleaning the house seem pointless when the world is on fire? Do it anyway! Does pursuing a passion feel frivolous when the world is on fire? Do it anyway!

Our normal lives are made up of mundane and frivolous things. When big events happen, like the attack on the Capitol, our routines may be disrupted. We may have new fears to assess and new emotions to examine.

By all means, stay (reasonably) up to date on what’s going on in the world. Educate yourself and speak out when an opportunity arises. But let’s try not to throw out the rest of our lives in the process.

Do the mundane things. Do the frivolous things. They are your normal and they are beautiful.

I Can’t Do It For You (Duh)

“I can’t do it for you!”

Many months into the pandemic, while still trying to get my post-virus stamina back, mixing up my routine with some online cardio dance seemed like a great idea. Enter Figure 8 Fitness with Jaana Kunitz, who loves calling out encouragement like “Keep going! I can’t do it for you!” or “Lift your knees higher! I can’t do it for you!”

In my weakened, grumpy state, her peppy rallying cries were a bit much. They prompted some grumbled replies like “I’m off the couch, I’m moving, what more do you want from me?!” as I grudgingly kept moving, even if my knees weren’t lifting very high.

Her frequent repetitions of “I can’t do it for you!” were particularly grating. On a good day, I might laugh it off with a mocking “well, duh!” Oh a bad day, when I just wanted to collapse on the couch, I was more prone to snapping “Nobody asked you to do it for me, Jaana!”

Yet, sometimes, the most profound revelations come from the most obvious observations.

I can’t do it for you!”

Jaana is absolutely right. She can’t do it for me. Even if she were to show up at my house, attach strings to me like a marionette, and move my body for me, that wouldn’t work.

If I want to get stronger, I have to put in the work myself. Buying an exercise video isn’t enough. Watching an exercise video isn’t enough. I have to physically get up and do the exercise.

“I can’t do it for you!”

It’s an incredibly obvious observation, but—if I’m really honest—there are plenty of times when I buy a workout video… or a foreign language app… or a book on nutrition… etc. and feel a sense of accomplishment… even though I haven’t done the thing yet.

“Look at me, buying a book on healthy eating! I will now be super healthy with perfect nutrition!” I might think, while skipping lunch because I ate too many Fritos for breakfast.

Or, on the flip side, I might be irritated at my lack of progress on something I do inconsistently. “I spent an hour playing the piano after not touching it for 6 months, why is this so hard?!”

Taking that further…

It’s the same with pretty much anything in life. There are resources everywhere, but they don’t do the work for you. Reading a guide on how to knit will not make a lovely scarf appear. You have to knit that scarf yourself, stitch by stitch.

As a writer, this has come up more than you might expect. Many people hear about my books and say, “I’ve always wanted to be a writer.” So, I ask what they’ve written, and often get a reply like, “Oh, I’ve never written anything, but I have lots of ideas.”

If you want to do something in life, you have to start doing it. Your first attempts will not be great. You will likely need to research and find a teacher who can show you what typically works for others. But, ultimately, you still have to do the work yourself.

I may not lift my knees as high as Jaana, but I’m off the couch and moving.

Because she can’t do it for me.

Learning from Flowers

Learning from flowers - they are beautiful just as they are

The other day, a friend dropped some surprise gifts and flowers on my porch. It was a lovely gesture during this time of social distancing. I smiled each time I caught sight of the bouquet, learning from the flowers as they settled into my home.

The flowers I received are tulips, which I haven’t had in my house very often. I cut and arranged them, not surprised by the way they gently draped over the rim of the vase. Tulips are heavy flowers and I’ve often seen them droop under their own weight.

They were lovely regardless, with pink-and-yellow petals that capture the beauty of late summer. I set them on a table near a large window, where I could see them often. As expected, the tulips didn’t do anything. They rested in their vase of water, simply existing. However, I felt calm each time I slowed down to look at them. I appreciated them for the beauty I saw in them.

As the day went on…

Learning from flowers - drink more water

The tulips began to gradually perk up. The water and sunlight had given them the strength to lift their heads high. It delighted me to see what improvement could come from plenty of water and simple care.

I considered my own self-care, remembering the times I had been too busy to slow down and refill my water glass. Or too busy to get outside for some fresh air and sunshine.

As a result, I stepped outside and appreciated the joy of simply feeling the sun on my skin and the breeze in my hair. I listened to birds in the distance and kids happily playing nearby. The next day it rained, making it cool enough to crack open the terrace door, letting the tulips enjoy a breath of fresh air as well.

When the rain cleared…

Learning from flowers - enjoy the sunlight

The tulips reached for the sunlight after the rain had passed. I could see each bloom turning itself toward the light. The flowers knew what they needed to feel strong and healthy, and they reached out for it.

I considered how many times I’ve known what was best for me but made a different choice anyway. Staying up too late when I was clearly tired. Eating too much when I was clearly full. Pushing too hard when I clearly needed rest.

The tulips reached for the sun with ease, making their own needs their focus. If flowers can be beautiful by simply existing… If they can enjoy the elements that sustain them and reach toward them… Why can’t we follow their lead?

We can learn a lot when we slow down and appreciate nature. Even when that means learning from the flowers in your own home.