The New Normal

My dear friend, the late Honorable Sheila E. McGovern, Chief Justice, Middlesex Family and Probate Court, who in 30 plus years on the bench saw just about everything, used to say it takes 3 years to adjust. To a divorce. To a chronic illness. To a death. To an adoption. To almost anything. 3 years until life feels completely normal again. A new kind of normal, but completely normal.

A long time. Too long, when you’re going through the adjusting. But the amazing thing, really, if you think about it, is that we do adjust. To just about anything and everything. To the bad things, the unimaginable things, the unbearable things. And to the good things, the wishes come true, the better than we ever imagined things. They become normal, too. The baseline shifts, imperceptibly, and what was once not even on our radar screen is one day simply a fact of life.

Consider: You couldn’t imagine how you could ever do without…vacations and taxis, your memory, the ability to eat anything and not gain weight, time to linger over the paper with a cup of coffee in the morning. You really couldn’t imagine it; you never actually even tried to imagine it. You just thought those were normal parts of your everyday life, and you didn’t really think about them at all. Except, maybe, to bemoan losing out on a beach vacation because your boss said you had to work on that deal. Or to wonder where you’d go on vacation next year, or what you’d cook for that special celebratory dinner tonight.

But now, just 3 years later, life’s different. You can’t eat half the stuff you used to because you’ve got reflux; you have, much to your amazement, come to understand the appeal of the early bird special. You walk instead of spending money on taxis – and because you’ve gained five pounds without really noticing how. You don’t have 5 minutes to make the coffee in the morning, let alone sip it along with the sports section. And your memory? You can’t seem to remember when you last had enough time, money, energy, or anything else you used to take for granted. The ground’s shifted, imperceptibly and in fits and starts. You’re in the new normal.

Consider: You can’t believe your good fortune. You got that promotion you’d been dreaming about, and the raise that went along with it. Who’d have thought you’d be making that kind of money? Certainly not you. Multiples of what your father made over the course of his lifetime, and you’re only in your thirties.

But that was 2 years ago, and a funny thing has happened since then. You got used to something you’d once only imagined, and it didn’t seem so amazing anymore. Terrific, maybe, for a while. Then pretty comfortable. And then, well, maybe you just started to take it for granted, assume this is how your life’s going to be, maybe even how it was always meant to be. You know you’re supposed to be feeling pretty good, grateful even, to have any kind of secure work right about now, let alone a job with the hours and income you’ve got. But when your colleague gets promoted over you, your blood starts to boil, and you find yourself feeling unjustly marginalized. Why? You’ve adjusted to what was once a dream job, and it no longer feels like such a dream come true. Your fantasy job has become your new normal, and it’s just not so exciting or satisfying or fantastic as the one you didn’t get. The one your colleague got.

Funny, isn’t it, how we adjust? To the bad, to the good, the feared and the wished for? And then, well, we are human. So we somehow just keep moving the normal marker. Again. And again. And finding peace, satisfaction, gratitude, delight, appreciation…it’s all too easy to move the markers for those, too.

Copyright © 2009 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved.

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One response to “The New Normal

  1. Your essay reminds me of a study which states that we all have a happiness set point.

    A number of people were tracked after winning the lottery. After one year they returned to their prior level of happiness. Similarly, those of becoming paraplegic. After one year, they too returned to their happiness set point. This set point is difficult to change without concerted effort.

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