We can’t get back to “normal”.

This year was hard. 2021 should be harder

With 2020 in the rear view mirror and vaccines on the way, we grieve for lives and livelihoods lost and many of us yearn for elements of our lives…and for our kids’ and parents’ lives…to return to normal.

For me, normal means MORE. More traveling to see family, more going to movies with friends and more catching up with my colleagues as we walk to our on-site cafeteria. For my kids, normal means more playdates, better birthday parties and learning in person from people. For my dad (far away) in Tulsa, normal means more playing Uno with grandkids, baking for friends and meeting buddies for breakfast.

Getting back to “normal” also means LESS. Less anxiety. Less separation. Less stress.

Living with and without these things has been hard for so many of us. We have made it this far because, as Glennon Doyle writes in Untamed, a book that helped me through the first few weeks of quarantine, “we can do hard things.”

Last year, I found it hard to organize my work around what my kids needed from me. It was hard to plan meals around the food I had, not the food I wanted. It was hard to find time to keep my bed made, my clothes put away and my bathroom clean. It was hard to sell and clean out my childhood home remotely. It was hard for me to admit to myself that I still had a lot to learn and a lot of hard work to do to become actively anti-racist.

I’ve seen others in my life do even harder things.

On the day this summer that I drove twelve hours to pick up my father in Indiana, my 75 year old uncle drove fifteen hours to bring him to me.

On the day I had to jump off an important work call to help my son with technical glitches, my colleagues with younger kids and kids who needed constant attention were struggling to figure out how to attend any meetings at all.

On the day I missed the experience of helping my dad move into a retirement community, my colleague struggled with the challenge of caring for her mother-in-law with dementia in her own home.

And I know that on the day I had to “make do” with the ample food in my house, others struggled to put any food on the table at all.

Every day, as I met my own challenges of doing hard things, so many others were enduring hardships that I can hardly fathom - experiencing the pain of racism, grieving the loss of a loved one they couldn’t even be with in their final days, losing a job or a business, not being able to pay the rent.

Early on, as my teammates and I reflected on how the pandemic might impact our Foundation’s work exploring the future, my colleague Jody shared the phrase “the future has never been more present.” Everywhere we looked, we were seeing what we had read in speculative fiction stories become a reality. The future of work, food, social interaction and evidence (all areas of focus for our team) became more present overnight.

Ironically, the rapid pace of change and uncertainty about how current events would play out actually made our work — on a team charged with anticipating the future — harder. With so many new and different health challenges and opportunities for progress emerging in real time, it has actually been a struggle for my colleagues and I to take the long view and focus on the future…not just 2021, but 2026, 2030, and beyond. As we searched for signals that life as we knew it was changing for all of us, my teammates and I had to constantly impose the discipline to understand how emerging trends would affect health equity many years from now.

  • In the very present worry about the child socially isolated in second grade, we strove to predict and address the implications this year might have for that child’s academic and emotional life when they are in seventh grade.
  • We looked beyond the immediate impact of a devastated job market and explored systems that might ensure that those currently un and underemployed will be earning enough in ten years to provide for their families.
  • We got to work trying to understand foundations of new and historical distrust so that the next time a pandemic strikes more people will benefit from the expertise and advice of culturally competent doctors and public health leaders.
  • We watched overwhelmed front line workers leave the health professions and our friends and family postpone check-ups and screenings and wondered what these trends will mean for access to health care 10 years from now.

The Foundation recently launched a web based platform to collect hunches, observations and signals of what the future holds. A couple of weeks ago, Matthew Holt posted there:

Matthew’s hunch collided with mine. Those of us who are privileged enough to see a world in which returning to normal means thriving, risk missing the opportunity to impact the future of those who were not thriving before — whose lives have always been harder than ours.

The hard work won’t be — can’t be — over when all people have access to a vaccine. Historic health inequities laid bare by COVID will not go away if we return to normal. Racism, polarization, misinformation and climate destruction will not end if we return to normal. They will get worse and make us feel much much worse by the time our kids are grown.

My friend Kelly gave me a copy of the book “The Stoic Challenges” by William Irvine, which I read over the holiday break. Irvine provides life advice based on the work of stoic philosophers — and suggests that thinking of challenges as tests of character can dramatically alter our emotional response to them. Irvine argues that by doing things that are hard, we show ourselves that we can do hard things, which helps us become calmer, tougher and more resilient.The Hidden Brain podcast recently featured the author.

So here’s the good news. Now that we have learned that we can do hard things, we can celebrate when some things get better and easier. At the same time, we can and must resolve to do even harder work going forward.

As I set my New Year’s Intentions, here is what this idea means for me.

  • As my ability to rely on babysitters returns to “normal” and makes it easier for me to get my work done, I must more ardently contribute to efforts to ensure all people have access to high quality child care.
  • As my ability to fly to visit family, travel for work and take a vacations returns to “normal” I should factor what I now understand about the impact this activity has on our climate, along with what I can do from where I am, into my decisions about whether or not to travel.
  • As I begin to return to gather with friends and families at church, dinner parties, work conferences and other celebrations, I must redouble efforts to discover, welcome and recognize people and voices that have been suppressed or overlooked.

If life simply returns to normal, the future is bleak. A better future for all of us is possible now that we have rediscovered our ability to sacrifice, to re-prioritize, and to do the hard things that make life better, and more equitable for all. This is not a pollyannaish call to look for the silver linings within a bleak year. Rather it is a call to not welcome a return to normal as the end of the story. We must each renew our commitment to do the hard work that will be necessary to create a better future. Not just for ourselves and our loved ones, but for all. Not just in 2021, but in 2025 and beyond.

This year was hard. A new, better, more equitable normal should be even harder. But if we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that we can do hard things.

What hard things will you do next?

This post is the first in a series exploring the future of health post COVID-19. Thank you to Bob McKinnon, Jody Struve, Glennon Doyle, William Irvine, Matthew Holt, Kelly Mateo, Trene Hawkins, Trista Harris, Jemma Weymouth and others for providing inspiration, advice and edits to this piece.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (@RWJF) Director exploring cutting-edge ideas and emerging trends to build a Culture of Health.