The days are starting to blend together.
The routines that we are hoping to make sacred — make rituals — sometimes feel dull and repetitive.
Sometimes even the idea of talking to a friend feels unappealing because COVID is so likely to dominate the conversation whether explicitly or implicitly.
It feels like some necessary amount of randomness is missing. Some bits and pieces of what make up our normal experience of humanness.
Things aren’t normal right now, but we can seek out humanity. We can swim towards it.
Bring back the randomness by looking at the details. Take in the full experience of what we are doing and seeing, big and small.
When we pour our tea, we can notice the way that the steam drifts up off the surface of the water as it slowly changes colour.
We can ask our friends to tell us a story about their past.
We can reread a book we love, with the new eyes of our current age and what life has shown us since we last read it.
Lean in to really taking in the tiny details of everyday existence. Notice all the beautiful bits of randomness that are there, waiting to be noticed. They are there in books, in movies, on the internet, in conversations, and in every waking moment.
Perhaps in these tiny details we can find some solace. Perhaps in these tiny details we can see a mirror of our humanness.
It could be a relief.
Right now, many of us feel more anxious than usual. Some of us are feeling a lot more anxious than usual. We’re thinking about how one bad thing could lead to another and yet another after that. It can feel paralyzing.
This level of anxiety is some people’s baseline.
Our current heightened experience of anxiety is similar to the consistent amount of anxiety that some people live with all the time. People with generalized anxiety disorder often feel this way for months on end, when there isn’t a global crisis taking place.
Generalized anxiety disorder symptoms include:
– Feeling restless, wound-up, or on-edge
– Being easily fatigued
– Having difficulty concentrating; mind going blank
– Being irritable
– Having muscle tension
– Difficulty controlling feelings of worry
– Having sleep problems, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, restlessness, or unsatisfying sleep
This is a chance for us to build empathy towards people who regularly experience anxiety. We are becoming more familiar with how difficult it can be to carry on when you’re feeling anxious. We’re learning just how much effort it takes to work, study, and even just relax when you’re feeling anxious.
When life has gone back to normal — or at least, once the peak of the crisis has passed, our anxiety will hopefully begin to subside. But it won’t subside for everybody in the same way or at the same time.
We should remember how this feels so that in the future we can better extend our empathy and compassion to others who are grappling with anxiety, even once our own anxiety has passed.
We are in a paradigm shifting moment. There’s a sense that we need to recalibrate. But it’s not entirely clear what we need to recalibrate towards. It sort of feels like we need more time to figure that out.
In some ways, yes, we do need more time. But there are also ways that we can start to recalibrate immediately.
We can recalibrate towards what is truly beautiful, towards human connection, and towards meaning.
We can move towards taking delight in the magic of our very existence.
It’s a gift to be alive. As Gary Vaynerchuk loves to remind us, the chances of any one of us existing, to begin with, are 400 trillion to 1. The fact that each and every one of us exists is nothing short of a statistical miracle. Even amidst the sorrow and pain in the world, this miracle of life continues.
As long as we continue to breathe.
“War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth.” — On War, Carl von Clausewitz, 1832
We are not at war with each other. But as a global community, we are waging a war against COVID19.
The fog of war seems to be in effect. The world has changed in just a few weeks. There is so much uncertainty. We don’t know what’s what on several different grounds. The institutions that are meant to help us make sense of reality — science and media — are doing their best, but they are struggling. They can’t always give us clear (or even non-contradictory) answers, to questions that are crucial.
The fog of war is what leads to things like friendly fire. It makes people lose the war.
While we are in the fog of war, we can try to minimize the risk of making dangerous mistakes by following the precautionary principle.
As I said in my previous post, Play it Safe: Follow the Precautionary Principle:
The precautionary principle is: when you don’t know the fragility of a system, behave as if it’s fragile.
When we don’t know just how risky something is, if the stakes are high, we should assume that it’s risky until we know otherwise.
We gain something and lose somethings by following the precautionary principle. Broadly, we gain safety and we lose some freedom.
If we follow the precautionary principle during the fog of war, we are less likely to accidentally put ourselves and others at risk.
But the cost of following the precautionary principle is that we often have to opt not to do things that we would like to do. In this way, it puts a damper on our freedom. But during wartime conditions, when the fog is thick, and the stakes are high, sometimes we as individuals need to carefully choose which freedoms we are willing to temporarily sacrifice.
There’s a big difference between having your freedoms taken away from you by someone else, and voluntarily choosing to sacrifice parts of your freedom for a period of time. The former is tyranny, the later is heroic.
So we should do our part, by taking every precaution that we can.
There is a lot of adjustment required right now. We’ve had to get used to so many new things at once. Amongst the changes has been a radical change in the way that we interact with other human beings. We are not socializing with people in the ways that we normally do.
But we are social creatures, and we long for connection. So, we’re looking for ways to recreate parts of our pre-pandemic social life. We might be able to use video chat programs to do a virtual version of some of the things that we used to do together in-person. But for those of us who have been highly distanced for the last few weeks, even though technology opens up the possibility of virtual normalcy, something feels ominous about going back to a version of normal life while the pandemic continues.
For those of us who have been both social distancing by staying at home and who have also not had the built-in social interaction that people who telework regularly get, we’ve ended up being quite acutely isolated. Many of us in this situation have only been regularly communicating with our closest friends and family. The prospect of suddenly engaging in group activities with anybody but our closest friends can produce a spike in anxiety.
There’s a comforting idea that has been circulating in relation to teleworking, which I think could be useful to keep in mind when socializing from home as well.
In teleworking, the idea is: you are not working from home; you are at home during a crisis trying to work
Translating that into the context of socializing from home, we might say: we are not socializing from home, we are at home trying to (virtually) socialize during a crisis
There’s a reason why the group zoom chats feel so weird — and it’s not just that the little technical bumps are jarring. We’re in an extremely disoriented position, and we’re trying to make the best of it.
We do yearn for connection, though. So, we can let ourselves face the discomfort and gradually step back into an experience of socializing during this pandemic, through the virtual tools available to us.
But while we gradually return to some parts of socializing, through virtual means, we need to be easy on ourselves. We need to be patient. Adjusting will take time.
It’s okay that it feels disorienting. It’s okay that it’s not quite the same. It’s something. And with time, it will hopefully not feel quite so disorienting.
In the meantime, we can notice that it’s kind of disorienting, and continue on. We don’t have to live in denial of how fundamental of a shift this is.
The world feels like a scary place right now, even for those of us who get to stay at home. There’s so much uncertainty about what the future holds. And that uncertainty is incredibly uncomfortable at times.
When we try to process the discomfort that we’re feeling, we turn to many different things for relief. We all have our things. When we’re scared and we’re anxious, it’s natural to seek relief. Sometimes we just want to feel a bit less in touch with the stark reality of the moment. But sometimes while we grasp towards relief we can end up numbing out pretty hard.
We can only numb for so long though. And this pandemic is looking like it’s going to last for months, not weeks. This is going to affect us all for a while, and numbing isn’t a good long-term solution.
What we need for the long term is more than just relief. In order to be okay in the long-term, we have to move towards a sense of peace instead of just a sense of relief.
The problem with relief is that we need more and more to fuel our relief from the moment. We need to consume things for relief. Relief helps us push fear away. But it takes a lot of effort to keep pushing the fear away.
Peace is more sustainable in the long term. Peace is accepting the fear. Peace is being okay, despite the fear.
We can continue to seek relief from our fear by pushing it away, or we can try to find peace amidst our fear by accepting the fact that we’re feeling fear.
Peace is available to us in every moment. Peace is not something for rich people or monks or simpletons. Moving towards peace is always an option. Peace is one of those simple but not easy things.
We move towards peace by noticing when we seek relief. If we notice our impulse for relief, we can bring awareness to it. And in that tiny gap of time between noticing the impulse for relief and doing something to try to create relief, we can choose to try to move towards peace instead of relief.
On the most basic level, when we notice the impulse to seek relief through some kind of numbing or consuming, we can just sit there and try to notice what the impulse feels like, instead of acting on it right away. Sitting with that impulse might not sound very appealing, especially compared to doing the thing that we think will give us immediate relief. But noticing the gap between the impulse and our response is the first step to peace. The second step is to allow it to be okay that we’re feeling the impulse.
In order to move deeper into processing that impulse, without acting on it, we can turn towards a Buddhist meditation process called RAIN. It can be helpful to do a short guided meditation to help with this process. Tara Brach’s free RAIN meditations are my go-to for this.
Even if we don’t have the bandwidth to meditate, though, we can move towards peace, through even just a few seconds of increased awareness. It’s a step along the path to peace. Notice the impulse to seek relief and sit with that impulse for a second or two. Try to notice what the impulse to seek relief actually feels like.
The point is to create a gap between the impulse to seek relief, and the action of seeking relief. In that gap, we have the chance to choose a different response instead. And in that gap, we can find a moment of peace. Perhaps with time, and practice, our peace will grow.
We don’t mean to be so self-centred in conversations. We want to listen to the other person. We want it to be a two-way street. But it’s so easy to slip into thinking about the next thing that we want to say, instead of really putting our attention on the other person and taking in what they’re saying to us.
Sometimes we do actually listen fully, but it’s easy to slip into the habit of being in our own heads during a conversation.
We can become more consistent listeners by practicing pausing in conversation. We can actively cultivate the habit of giving others our attention, by pausing.
During a conversation, when someone else says something, we can wait a moment and pause before we respond. During that moment we create the room to let what they just said resonate. What they said might impact us. After that brief pause, we can respond to them and have an actual conversation, instead of just telling them what we were waiting to say.
We’ll get our chance to say things as well — and hopefully, the other person will reciprocate this kindness and really take in what we’re saying as well. If they do, we can connect and share together on a much deeper level.
When we pause and actually take in what the other person is saying we are much more likely to have interesting conversations with people.
This is obvious stuff. We know that this is true. But it’s easier said than done. For many of us, practicing the pause will be difficult. If it’s difficult for us, then it’s more likely that we could benefit from doing it.
Some people intuitively practice the pause — or they’ve already learnt to prioritize it. Think of how much of a pleasure it is to talk to those people. We all want to talk to people who are present and listening to what we have to say.
Being in conversation with someone else who is also reciprocating this kind of pause — someone who is actually listening to what we are saying and is engaged with us, as opposed to someone who is waiting for their turn to talk — is an absolute delight.
Tara Brach — a clinical psychologist and meditation leader — sums up the practice of pausing as follows:
We may pause in a conversation, letting go of what we’re about to say, in order to genuinely listen and be with the other person.
In a pause we simply discontinue whatever we are doing—thinking, talking, walking, writing, planning, worrying, eating—and become wholeheartedly present, attentive and, often, physically still.
Remember that you already know the things that you know.
You may not know the things that the other person knows.
Be the type of conversationalist that you want to see in the world.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.