I see it on the faces of everyone I talk to. The war wearied look of two years and three months since life changed. As we peer into a fall in which COVID continues to roar along and many I know who had dodged it are now catching it, life-February-2020-style feels more distant than ever.
This was supposed to be the summer of genuine victory. COVID numbers had plummeted over recent months and the remaining virus appeared somewhat defanged from its original form. Then the call came, canceling my family’s Independence Day celebration. My cousin, a doctor carefully following the situation in our county, had grown concerned about the rising numbers, and we found ourselves where we had been the two years prior: looking forward to next year (or maybe Christmas) to finally be together again.
Of course, plenty have already hailed the return of normal. “Normal” for the most COVID skeptical rang in as states like my own Missouri lifted most restrictions just a month or so after the initial wave of protective measures. “Normal” when Summer 2020 appeared to beckon with a mostly safe world. “Normal” when vaccines began arriving at the end of 2020 and substantial protection against the insidious virus appeared within grasp.
Those of us who followed the virus carefully, grimaced at each declaration of “Mission Accomplished,” because it was clear the pandemic was not over. Eager victory celebrations were dampened by the incredibly nasty Delta and, later, the overwhelmingly pervasive Omicron variant. Whether willingly retreating or forced to by new closures, masking rules and direct illness, one could hardly claim “normalcy.”
We can yell, we can scream, we can insist, but the world is different now.
While I was far more content to social distance and avail myself of digital means of staying connected than many I knew, 2022 has felt different than the time before. I can actually point to many blessings that came from the time social distancing, working largely from home and the like. But, starting to return to something of a “normal,” it’s so painfully clear normal has died and the emotional wear of the journey from there to here has taken a toll.
No matter how much we may attempt to reset to the days before we all discussed viruses and masks and social distancing, that world feels caricatured by the present one. The empty seats of those claimed by the virus remain and those we know suffering long COVID and no longer themselves remind us that death isn’t the only trick the virus had to play on us. Anger and despair seem to drip from people, often exposed when driving roads where previous rule breaking seems downright studious compared to the crazed anarchy of now.
Oh, and the virus keeps spreading, too.
Our sense that somehow we were in control and could chart a better and better destiny seems fried. I think it is one of the reasons I’ve found myself appreciative of a project I’ve been involved in with some friends, providing devotionals through the Psalms this year. The Psalmists often came before God in the midst of uncertainty and their words, querying God and seeking His protection hit ever so close to home in this present moment.
In Psalm 80, written in the face of an invader who would soon wipe out a significant portion of Israel, the faithful remnant cries out, “May you give support to the one you have chosen, to the one whom you raised up for yourself. Then we will not turn away from you. Revive us and we will pray to you” (vv. 17-18). Given a world turned upside down — and some parts of it that would never return to life-as-before, the Psalmist simply asks for God’s presence to survive and praise Him another day.
As much as I would prefer a world more like the one before we all knew about spike proteins — a world that seemed kinder and more innocent (though I’d have hardly described it that way at the time) — I am struck by how we, like the Psalmist can’t go back. Our normal life that was is dead. But, there remains comfort to be had in prayer and, just as God did back then, He will again take those who turn to Him and offer hope, even if our normal is wiped away for good just as much as it was for those who faced the Assyrians in the Psalmist’s day.