The need for not-normal

A few weeks ago I finished watching The Leftovers, which is one of the rare shows that keeps me thinking about it after. It first aired in 2014 and it’s about what happens, how people react after “a stunning global event.”

In the show, the event is called the Departure. One day, 140 million people simply vanished. The show follows the lives of those who weren’t taken. The ones who remain, wondering what the hell is going on, without answers. The leftovers.

It’s about despair and meaninglessness and how different people deal with it: addiction, extremism, cults, violence, self-destruction, delusion.

Perhaps the most devastating part of tragedy (which the show depicts well, I think) is how you’re expected to keep doing normal things like getting groceries and walking the dog and going to work and attending social functions.

You get maybe a few days or, at most, a few weeks to “deal with it,” whatever it is.

Someone dies? Quick. Arrange a funeral. Make it on a weekend because people can’t take off work. Go through their things. Don’t take too long. Don’t cry too much.

Your life shatters? Too bad. You’ll have to handle it on evenings and weekends. Meanwhile, keep handling all the other things you have to handle on evenings and weekends.

You’re sick or injured? Here’s a bit of time off, the bare minimum. Here’s a pile of forms. Good luck.

You’re mentally unwell? Ooooh, you’re going to have to squeeze in a bunch of forms and appointments, and we’ll give you a couple of “Mental Health Days” and you better figure out the right combo of meds and therapy in that amount of time. Okay? Okay!

Keep going, keep going, keep going is the mantra.

In the show, a cult emerges and grows, its popularity based on one single thing: the refusal to go back to normal. Everything’s fucked, and we’re not going to act like it’s not. That’s the core tenet.

I get it. I get why it’s attractive. And I think, to some extent, that’s precisely what we need: adequate space for despair, for mourning, for wailing and gnashing of teeth, for not getting back to normal when nothing in your life will ever be normal again.

This is true at so many levels, and for so many reasons — from personal loss and individual life tragedies to national politics and global “events.”

We need space to grieve when we lose things we value, time to process when we face devastating loss. We need a reprieve from doing when we are overwhelmed and unwell. We need a way to stand still in shock as long it takes when change and tragedy come in, when our lives are upended. We need to grieve the normal we lost, well and truly and deeply and loudly, before we can ever start thinking about creating the next version of normal for ourselves.

No one gives us that, and I don’t quite know how we take it for ourselves. I just know it’s a need.