The New Normal? A Buddhist Perspective on Disability and COVID-19

By: Darla Schumm

April 17, 2020

Religion and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Vulnerable Populations

In these coronavirus dazed days, I keep noticing people yearning for a return to “normal.” Social media accounts are flooded with memories of normal activities from past times; political pundits prognosticate about when the economy will return to normal; media commentators toss out hopeful predictions about when we can resume normal social activities; and friends and family members mourn the loss of some vague notion of a normal life. As disability studies scholar Lennard Davis observes, we live in a culture propelled by the “hegemony of normalcy.”

As I faithfully practice social distancing while working from my new office on the couch, interacting only with two humans (my husband and son), one dog, and one parakeet, several questions float to the surface of my mind. What was this “normal” to which we so desperately long to return? For whom was the “normal” of even just a month ago so wonderful? And, perhaps most urgently: Do we really want to go back to “normal”? 

Questioning a glorified notion of normal is not new for many of us who live with disabilities. The disruptions, chaos, stresses, fears, anxieties, and uncertainties unleashed by the onset of COVID-19 are all too familiar to people with disabilities. The “new normal,” so unsettling and shocking for the majority of Americans, is, for people with disabilities, simply the old normal. We understand the stress and fear accompanying life in a body that surprises you with its inability (sudden or expected) to perform typical functions. Many of us recognize feelings of loneliness and isolation resulting from social distancing, whether it is externally imposed because of a global pandemic, or because exposure to large groups of people is potentially dangerous to our health even without a pandemic. Still more of us know all too well that the intersections of race, class, gender, and disability exacerbate the precarious nature of our economic stability. In other words, the “new normal” is not new at all; rather it is an old reality avoided, ignored, dismissed, and denied by systems and structures of power and privilege that fuel extreme poverty, inequity, and injustice. Too many of us were able to pretend that these inequities and injustices did not exist until the novel coronavirus forced us to confront the uncomfortable truth.

Even as I am acutely aware of the tragic wreckage wreaked by COVID-19, I stubbornly refuse to let the end of this story be one of complete despair. How can we unearth the hidden opportunities for learning and growth that might be lurking beneath the rubble of the coronavirus? What are the possibilities in this historical moment to imagine a new normal that is truly new? How can we map the terrain of a new normal rooted in principles of justice and equity? What are some religious teachings that can inform our creative imagining and mapping of this future new normal? In other words, how can we harness our collective energy to dismantle the current hegemony of normalcy?

The wells of religious teachings for re-molding the contours of the hegemony of normalcy run deep. It is my fervent hope that multitudes of individuals and communities are engaging in this type of life-generating justice work, even if from an appropriate social distance or via the ever-present world of Zoom. I offer some entry points into this creative imagining by drawing from the well of Buddhist teachings and from my embodied experience as a person with a disability. 

Buddhism teaches that impermanence is the true nature of reality. The only constant in life is that life is constantly changing. Suffering results from our inability to grasp the true nature of an impermanent reality, or conversely, from our clinging to a desire that things remain the same. According to this worldview, it is not change that causes suffering, but our inability to accept the inevitability of change.

Buddhism further emphasizes the interdependence of all sentient beings. We dwell in an interconnected web of existence where my suffering and your suffering, or your joys and my joys, are inextricably linked. Suffering or joy do not belong to any one individual, they belong to the collective community. The medieval Indian monk Shantideva describes it this way: “I should eliminate the suffering of others because it is suffering, just like my own suffering. I should take care of others because they are sentient beings, just as I am a sentient being. When happiness is equally dear to others and me, then what is so special about me that I strive after happiness for myself alone?” 

As a blind person, I am intimately acquainted with the Buddhist conceptions of impermanence and interdependence. Inhabiting a non-normative body means that in some circumstances I can count on my embodied knowledge, but in other situations I cannot. Contrary to what most able-bodied folks think, this is neither tragic nor scary; rather it is my normal. In fact, it affords me frequent and welcome opportunities to discover surprising and delightful ways of being in the world. I rarely expect constancy or stability because I understand at a cellular level that life is unpredictable and ever-changing. Likewise, blindness reminds me daily of my interconnectedness with others. There are basic life tasks I simply cannot complete without assistance. As a fiercely self-possessed woman, I have learned to graciously and humbly ask for help, and I in turn strive to return those kindnesses whenever possible. 

The novel coronavirus has revealed much about the hegemony of normalcy in American culture and society. It has demonstrated the fragility of some of our most dearly held institutions. It has displayed in bold relief many of our most unjust systems and structures. It has illuminated with new and disturbing clarity the overwhelming gaps between the haves and have nots. It has shifted the very foundation of almost everything we thought we knew about the world. Yet, these seismic shifts have also cracked open possibilities for imagining and creating a new normal—a normal grounded in the beauty of impermanence and the gift of interconnectedness.

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