Following my dog’s lead during our daily walk through the woods near my home, I was lost in thought, gazing at the mosaic of dead leaves beneath my feet.  But we must’ve wandered from our normal path because I lifted my eyes to an anonymous thicket of trees, under low hanging branches with chattering leaves.  For a nightmarish moment, I had no idea where I was, or who I was, as if I were seeing through Alzheimer’s glasses. Then familiarity rushed back in, and I was again myself–sort of.

In the aftermath of my dissociative moment, I recognized a similar but larger cultural dissociation in America’s time of Covid.   Seemingly overnight, our world was turned upside down, leaving many of us feeling lost, disoriented, and frightened; trapped in a nightmare in which an invisible virus has stalked the lives of loved ones, friends, colleagues, and neighbors.

We walked in masks, trying to keep a safe distance from each other.  Businesses went bust while unemployment and homelessness rose.  Theaters, restaurants, bars, concert halls, and stadiums, where we once socialized and recreated, then doubled as centers for disease transmission.  Nursing homes and hospitals, normally havens for the sick and vulnerable, acted as petri dishes for a mutating virus.

Meanwhile, trust in government, medicine, education, and science was challenged by faith in political party, social media, and disinformation. Now, a nation founded upon reason has been convoluted by lies and propaganda trumpeted by politicians and the national media.

Understandably, in the face of chaos, many people just wanted the world to return to “normal.”  On the other hand, others saw this crisis as a moment of existential reckoning.  For them, the pandemic has torn a veil from a world too many have taken for granted, and they are reappraising values long followed without serious reflection.

For example, front line employees, exposed to the risk of disease and death the most, but compensated the least, have reconsidered working long, dangerous hours for less than a living wage, substandard medical coverage, and minimal benefits.  They’ve been abused by some consumers and treated as expendable by their employers.  A return to “normal” means more of the same treatment they’ve had for the last 40 years.  So, many have dropped out of the work force altogether until the balance between risks and benefits is addressed.

Consequently, the pandemic has changed the power dynamic in the workplace, and these workers now have more leverage to negotiate for better pay, medical coverage, and childcare, or to pursue other occupations with better perquisites. Nurses and other medical personnel, for instance, faced with the absurdity of exposing themselves to a life-threatening virus to care for patients that refused to be vaccinated, began to be more selective about their work environment and hours.

Higher paid corporate employees forced by mandates to work remotely have also realized it’s more efficient, more climate friendly, and less frustrating to work from home than to waste hours commuting in congested traffic. They have found a healthier work-family balance.  Consequently, they have pushed back against an unnecessary return to the office. Some have decided to move to regions with lower cost of living, or even to exotic destinations overseas.

Families with the financial means have similarly fled from urban centers, where infections spread more easily, to suburban and urban communities where their children may play in open spaces and breathe fresher air.  Rather than obsessing over work and climbing the corporate ladder, some have chosen to spend more quality time with family, friends, and neighbors. In short, many are now working to live rather than living to work.

Most significantly, in the wake of widespread disease and death, many have been shocked awake to life’s fragility, preciousness, and beauty.  For some, the pandemic has illuminated our common humanity and increased our mutual empathy.  Most see that a mask doesn’t rob us of our freedom and identity but expresses our shared humanity and obligations.  Further, such small, personal sacrifices may not only diminish our sense of entitlement and selfishness but also inspire a more giving nature and a kinder society.

So, though we may have experienced a nightmare loss of our “identity,” the pandemic may have also opened our eyes to a beautiful reality that has always existed but has been obscured by our “normal” cultural lens.  And a return to “normal” would deny life’s protean nature, in which everything does change overnight, often in ways beyond our control, but within our capacity to accept and to adapt, together.

So, by overturning the “normal” values of an upside-down world, we may actually turn the world right-side-up.

Thomas Cangelosi is a retired teacher from Avon.