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Play it safe: Follow the Precautionary Principle

We might be able to benefit from safety heuristics more than usual right now.

Here’s the definition of a heuristic:

A heuristic technique, or a heuristic, is any approach to problem solving or self-discovery that employs a practical method that is not guaranteed to be optimal, perfect or rational, but which is nevertheless sufficient for reaching an immediate, short-term goal.

Right now we know that COVID19 is dangerous, and we know the ways that we can most easily put ourselves and others at risk. But we’re also still waiting on wider testing, which we need before we can determine several aspects of the risks involved with this virus. We don’t yet know exactly how fast the virus spreads. We don’t know whether or not antibodies lead to sufficient immunity. We don’t know exactly how much of a risk there is of catching the virus through airborne transmission. There are many details that we need more research on.

Since we don’t have enough information yet, we should follow risk-averse heuristics. By playing it safe, we can avoid accidentally doing dangerous things that could put ourselves and others at risk.

The precautionary principle is a heuristic that can help us play it safe.

The precautionary principle is: when you don’t know the fragility of a system, behave as if it’s fragile.

Put another way, the precautionary principle “is a strategy for approaching issues of potential harm when extensive scientific knowledge on the matter is lacking.”

The precautionary princinple is useful when these two things are true at the same time:

1. The risks are potentially high

2. The risks are not easily calculable

The situation we currently find ourselves in meets both of those criteria.

Tim Ferris is one of the people who’s been following the precautionary principle in response to COVID19 for several weeks now. He decided to start self-isolation on February 14th, almost a month before the rest of North America decided to. He made this decision based on the precautionary principle.

He outlines his reasoning for doing so in his post Some thoughts on coronaviruses and seatbelts.

Here’s a key excerpt — this is from February 14th:

“I am curtailing unnecessary travel and group interactions for the next 2–3 weeks to see how things shake out, particularly given the asymptomatic “incubation period” of up to 14 days.

Might that be an overreaction? Might I be misinformed? Totally. But then again, how many head-on car accidents have I had? Zero. I nonetheless put on my seatbelt every time that I drive, and we have great data on traffic fatalities. Do you have a fire extinguisher in your kitchen? Would you accept $100 to get rid of it? $1,000? I wouldn’t. As unlikely as a kitchen fire may be, the extreme known consequences of an out-of-control fire easily justify a fire extinguisher, even if it gathers dust forever. It’s cheap disaster insurance, just like having emergency stores of water in the garage.”

Six weeks after Tim wrote that, most people are now on board with the basics of social distancing.

But there remains a great deal of debate about two details:

1. Masks or no Masks

2. Is it reasonsible to go for a walk?

The science on both of these questions is fuzzy and conflicted. The truth seems to be that we can’t really asses those questions without doing a level of testing that we can’t do soon enough to know. Because the initial testing hasn’t indicated obvious and direct danger, we’re being given the go-ahead to decide for ourselves whether or not to wear a mask if we don’t have clear flu symptoms. On the outdoor activity front, some governments are encouraging people to go for walks as long as we leave 6ft.

But despite that, we should consider following Tim’s lead and acting based on the precautionary principle. Since there’s a lack of clarity, we should consider wearing our metaphorical seatbelts right now.

In terms of direct steps, we should wear masks, and we should avoid going outside for non-essential activities. Going for a walk is not an essential activity for most people. It’s a nice to have, but is it essential?

As I wrote in my post Just because you can go for a walk, doesn’t mean you should go for a walk

“We each have different needs and different resources. So we’ll need to make different decisions. It’s up to us to decide how much of a sacrifice we can make, beyond the basics. And our answer about how much of a sacrifice we can make can also change, in either direction. It doesn’t have to be a stagnant thing. But we need to be honest with ourselves about whether we’re doing everything we can to do our part.

It’s up to us to be honest with ourselves about what our needs are and what sacrifices we can afford to make. We aren’t being forced to do the right thing. It’s up to us.”

We’re not being forced to follow the precautionary principle. But playing it safe right now is something that many of us can afford to do. Many of us could get by without exercising outdoors. Many of us could fashion together a homemade mask without impacting any health care workers’ supplies.

If we choose to follow the precautionary principle, the worst case scenario is that we made some unnecessary personal sacrifices. The best case scenario is that we help save lives.

Ask your friends how they feel, a second time

Friends are reaching out to each other more and more during this crisis. It feels great to know that someone cares about you. We want to feel connected with the people that we care about.

But amidst these gestures of kindness and hands digitally extended for connection, we are sometimes just not able to connect on a very deep level. Sometimes, it’s so clear that both people want to give each other the space to express what we’re feeling inside, but that connection doesn’t happen.

On a recent episode of the Tim Ferris Show, Esther Perel (a psychotherapist and author, whose work focuses on relationships) put forth a suggestion to help with this problem:

We can ask our friends how they feel, a second time.

Maybe that’s crazy talk during normal times, but we’re in a different context now. This is a chance to allow ourselves to go to more vulnerable places than we’re usually comfortable with. We don’t need to force our friends to talk about their feelings. But we can certainly try to create permission for people to express what’s actually going on for them.

Tim and Esther recount a situation that’s familiar to many of us — when we ask a friend “how are you?” they’ll respond with something along the lines of “nobody in my family is sick, I’m doing great all things considered”. Our friend hasn’t really responded about how they’re feeling.

A distinction that Esther Perel draws is that how things are going is not the same things as how you are feeling.

So, when we are talking to somebody who we are reasonably close with, if we ask them “how are you?” and they respond by telling us how things are going, we should consider asking them again, how are you? We can clarify by saying something like “I’m happy to hear that things are in place. But I’m asking, how are you feeling?”

Sometimes we need someone else to do that for us. I know that for myself, there are times when I’m incredibly relieved to have a friend ask me a second time (one way or another), but how are you feeling? When someone gives us permission to actually express what’s going on for us internally, it’s a real gift.

It’s a gift that’s not very expensive to give, either. And we’ve got more time than we did before.

Of course, this can be taken too far — we shouldn’t push people too hard to talk about how they’re feeling if they clearly don’t want to. We’re all in a different place in any given moment and sometimes the person you’re talking to won’t be ready to talk about how they feel. But we can take this extra step and give some light encouragement, incase people are undecided about whether or not they want to express what they’re feeling. You don’t have to go all Good Will Hunting. We can respect each other’s boundaries, and still try to create space.

It takes a bit of a leap of faith on our part, and theirs. Both people have to be willing to take the risk to go to a more vulnerable place together. But by taking this risk, we mutually create the potential for real connection and catharsis.

During this time of isolation, we desperately need to feel seen and understood by other people. We need to connect. We need to know that we’re not alone in our experience of this. And we need to be able to express our experience of what’s happening right now. We can help make that possible, by asking our friends a second time — but, how are you?

Awe from home

Awe from home

While we are at home, life sometimes feel dulled. Things can feel less real in some ways.

But we can choose to actively seek out awe.

The sun rising in the morning is a reminder that life continues.

We need those reminders right now.

Awe does not need to come from a screen. A window works too.

Do not distress yourself with dark imaginings

When we see so much death and tragedy unfolding around the world it can feel like a dark wave is washing over us. Even though we know we are most likely safe, death can feel like it’s just around the corner. There are moments when it feels like the fear might overwhelm us.

We always know that the possibility of dying is real, but the fear of death feels palpable, right now. Those of us who experience some level of anxiety during normal times – which is all of us – are feeling anxious more and more. Not all the time, but more than before. How could we not? This is not a normal time.

There are some of us with much more acute anxiety than others and we can only begin to imagine the suffering that this is causing them.

What should we do when we feel the dark imaginings of our fear?

There are things we can do to abate our fears pre-emptively – mindfulness, eating healthy, exercising, to name a few. But what should we do in the present moment when we can feel fear crawling over us?

Wishing fear away will not do us much good in the moment.

We must bring our awareness to our dark imaginings as they unfold. This doesn’t mean that we lean into them. We can see the hole without diving into the hole. Though some times we are already in the hole. Either way, notice what it’s like, to exist and to feel the fear in that very moment. We must begin by noticing the sensory details of our present moment experience.

What is your breathing like? Are there images floating through your mind? Are you feeling pain or constriction anywhere in your body?

When we investigate our present moment experience, we do not need to do anything to make our experience any different than it is. Even if fear is there, when we bring all that we are experiencing into the light of our awareness, the moment begins to dissolve. And the next moment will emerge. In this way, we can accept everything that occurs in any given moment. We will not implode. We will still be here. And the waves will pass.

It can be terrifying to look at our fear, but this is where we begin. When bathed in the light of attention, the grasp of fear will gradually abate. Nothing can last in our present moment attention beyond this very moment – if for no other reason than because the next moment will arise. And if we’re paying attention to the moment we are in, we’ll realize that a new moment has begun.

The fear may return a moment later. Some times, we need to bring our awareness to the present moment again and again for the waves to pass. But the waves will pass, and we will still be here, and we will be okay.

Be Kind to Yourself, Dummy!

Be Kind to Yourself, Dummy!

The beatings will continue until morale improves.

We can’t control what other people do. We can’t control how the virus spreads. We can’t control the specifics of what our governments decide to do in the short-term.

But we can control how we treat ourselves. We can choose to be kind to ourselves, or we can choose to be harsh with ourselves on top of everything else that’s going on. The choice seems clear.

That doesn’t mean we need to go numb out. But it also doesn’t mean we need to constantly be the perfect model of productivity and normalcy in the middle of a crisis.

We can start from where we are right now.

As Jack Kornfield says, “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.”

Ring the bells that still can ring

Ring the bells that still can ring
forget your perfect offering
there is a crack in everything
that is where the light gets in
— Leonard Cohen

It’s okay to be exhausted. There are a lot of additional expectations right now. We need to do our best to do our part, but doing our usual work in addition to that can feel even harder than usual.

Maybe it’s okay if you only have the energy to do 1-set of push-ups today instead of an entire workout.

Some things are essential and need to get done regardless of how tired we are. But for everything else, we can be easier on ourselves when we need to be.

Some is better than none.

Put your pain in perspective

Many of us are experiencing a mild inconvenience because of the pandemic. Staying at home and eating at home all the time can get boring. But we need to remember just how good we have it.

It’s easy to forget how different our baseline level of comfort and luxury is compared to other human beings in other parts of the world.

For people who don’t have a home to shelter in and who can’t afford to eat if they don’t work, life during this pandemic is absolutely devastating.

Right now, there are migrant workers in India who are attempting to walk back to their homes over 100 miles away and they haven’t eaten for two days. People who don’t have places to shelter in Delhi are trying to return to their homes in Uttar Pradesh either by foot or on a very limited number of buses. Here’s one of the line-ups for those buses:

I’m not saying to look at them and be grateful that you’re not them — that feels perverse.

But we need to put our pain in perspective.

For those of us who are not ill and whose pain is only the inconvenience of adjusting to social distancing in our comfortable homes, we need to accept it with less of a groan.

Being at home all the time is frustrating. Other people being in a worse situation than we are doesn’t mean that our own experiences of pain aren’t also real. Our individual experiences of pain all matter.

But we have a safe place to sleep and enough food to eat.

We have it so incredibly good.

Notice the simple beauty in the room

We are staring at the same couple of things over and over again these days. Or more likely, we are staring past them. I know I am.

But once in a while, there’s this impulse to actually look at the things that we see all the time — to look at the things right in front of us.

We should follow that impulse. It’s a pathway to beauty.

Look at how the corner of your page has curled. Look at the little specks of dust that have gathered on your monitor like a constellation of tiny grey stars. Look at the people you’re sheltering at home with. Look at their smile. Look at the way they look when they’re just existing. If you’re alone right now, Facetime a friend and look at their face — they won’t notice, they’ll be looking at your face.

There is beauty in every detail if we look closely enough.

Spend your days like this is a marathon, not like this is a sprint

We might have to live this weird quarantine version of life for quite a while. So we need to start to spend our time as if that might be true.

It’s not clear yet how long this will go on. Health experts are saying some version of quarantining could be necessary for up to 18 months. It will hopefully be shorter than that, but we don’t know yet. It’s definitely not going to be over by Easter.

Many of us have now made short-term decisions about how to respond to this crisis. We’ve decided whether or not to go in to work and we’ve decided how we’re going to practice social distancing in our lives. Or we’ve had those decisions made for us by our employers or our governments.

We don’t have enough information yet to start making concrete long-term plans about how to respond to this crisis, especially when it comes to the financial side of things. We will have to wait and see on that. For now, that’s out of our control.

What we do have, though, is information about ourselves and information about our values. And armed with that information we can make provisional long-term commitments about how we intend to spend our time during this quarantine.

There’s a lot that’s out of our control during this crisis. But how we spend our time, is in our control.

It’s okay to turn towards beauty in times of suffering

Sometimes you hear a voice through the door calling you,
As a fish out of water hears the waves… Come back, Come back.
This turning toward what you deeply love saves you.


Turning to beauty in troubling times is not a weakness. We can look for something transcendent amidst suffering and pain — it doesn’t mean we’re trying to hide from reality. It means we’re trying to experience the full scope of reality.

We turn to beauty so that we can come back to awareness of the true unbroken nature of being. Beauty helps us connect to the sublime. It’s cathartic.

Numbing is not the same thing as moving towards beauty. Numbing is about self-annihilation. Numbing is about trying to suppress some parts of our experience that we want to reject. Numbing is a route to disconnection.

Moving towards beauty is about connection, not about disconnection.

There’s a subtle (but crucial) difference between numbing and moving towards beauty. Sometimes the line between the two is blurry and they can get intertwined. But we can often figure out the difference if we’re paying attention.

For instance — listening to a song that moves you on an emotional level is probably a way of moving towards beauty. On the other hand — eating a full box of Triscuits when you weren’t even hungry and didn’t want to eat a full box of Triscuits, is probably numbing. It’s a personal favourite of mine, but it’s probably numbing.

But you know, maybe eating a slice of apple pie with ice cream could be a way of moving towards beauty. It’s, of course, subjective. Do you feel equanimity afterward? Do you feel transcendence? Do you feel a release? And do you feel okay the next morning? Was it connecting? It’s not for someone else to decide what’s numbing for you and what’s moving towards beauty. It’s about what it feels like for you, experientially.

We need beauty in our lives. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. There are no prerequisites for beauty. You can close your eyes and breathe deeply — if you’re present with the breath while you do so, that’s a moment of beauty.

A good laugh is always a moment of beauty — unless you’re punching way down.

It can feel like we’re not allowed to experience beauty when there is pain in the world. But that’s not true. We need beauty more than ever when there is pain. Through beauty, we can return to presence and to a deeply felt sense of being alive.

We still have to do what’s necessary in order to survive. Everything else is still fully real and it all matters and we should act accordingly. But beauty matters too — it connects us back to the deepest part of ourselves and we need it. Luckily, beauty hasn’t gone away.