Camille Brayshaw/Fourth Estate

In March, Mason students went home for a normal spring break, but since then, nothing has been normal. We accepted lockdown and dealt with the chaos because we had to, under the pretense that it was only temporary, that the world would make sense again soon (remember the two-week delay?). We thought normalcy would return by Easter. When that date passed, we were sure the world would settle by summer, then by fall, then by 2021, then by spring. However, with the recent release of a predominately online spring 2021 course catalog, we once again push the return to normal ahead to fall 2021.

Even though seven months have passed since that chaotic week when the world shut down, society still anxiously awaits relief. Unfortunately, this normalcy may not be coming. Even once a vaccine is developed, deployment will face challenges. Even if the virus were to be eradicated, the economy is still reeling. Even if the public health outlook looks better by February, our spring semester will not be the vibrant, active, social experience we envisioned when we enrolled.

Throughout history, the most significant breakthroughs in philosophical thought — genuinely revolutionary methods to live a meaningful and fulfilling life — occur at times of great instability and struggle. The politically unstable Hellenistic Age shifted Greek philosophy from largely metaphysics to addressing the more personal questions of how to live a meaningful life. Taoism and Confucianism arose under warlord rule in China. The English Civil War and general social unrest in the 17th century spurred philosophers such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes to re-evaluate the role of humanity and government in relation to the natural order. People started to think differently about the world because the philosophy they had inherited from the preceding, stable era was no longer meaningful when applied to their chaotic experience. 

Many college students grew up surrounded by a culture which reinforced the underlying philosophy that stability (financial and otherwise) is key to happiness. If we work hard and make an effort to actively participate in our community, we will be rewarded with a vibrant and fulfilling life.

Many college students also enrolled their freshman year believing that they would be able to live the college dream: closely interacting with professors and other students, feeling at home at the university, and developing meaningful friendships. College is touted as a transformative, once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

It’s not beneficial to view our present reality as a hollow imitation of the rich and meaningful lives we led before. Our biased, preconceived notions of what life should be inhibits our ability to embrace our lived experience. The longer we spend attempting to apply outdated philosophies to a world that has outgrown them, the more we will find ourselves feeling unfulfilled, lost and disappointed by our experience.

The cultural value placed on an idealized college experience is what drives many students to ignore restrictions and live as though COVID-19 is not a threat — they believe that they will miss out on a critical, irreplaceable part of life. An official ban on large gatherings does little to stop stir-crazy 18-year-olds from abusing their newfound freedom and attending the (secret) parties they’ve dreamt of. Even students who avoid the more flagrant festivities are likely to bend the rules within their own social circles. To these students, preserving some of the college experience is worth the increased risk of spreading the virus.

The belief that stability is the key to happiness has primed us to be mentally destroyed when we are forced to confront our lack of control. Though many of us are back on campus, we face the constant threat of another lockdown, another eviction, another slap in the face reminding us that life is turbulent and stability is an illusion. This is an unstable time, and it’s time to accept that a new way of thinking is needed. 

The new normal must be more than a lonely, meaningless, hollow version of the old. 

We need to embrace the reality that life is uncertain, and allow the COVID-19 generation to be a new generation of groundbreaking philosophers. We must learn to live meaningful lives in a world that doesn’t align with the philosophy we have inherited. We will never get back the experiences we “lost.” All we can do is learn to value the unique experiences we are having, and learn to understand the new normal in a meaningful way.