The fine line between preparedness and panic

In the mid-80s, the generally sullen and often depressive singer and songwriter who fronted the English rock band The Smiths, Morrissey, wrote a hit song called “Panic”.

You probably know it — it includes the famous line “Hang the DJ, hang the DJ, hang the DJ” and starts like this:

Panic on the streets of London
Panic on the streets of Birmingham
I wonder to myself…
Could life ever be sane again?
The Leeds side-streets that you slip down
I wonder to myself…

Hopes may rise on the Grasmere
But Honey Pie, you’re not safe here
So you run down to the safety of the town
But there’s panic on the streets of Carlisle
Dublin, Dundee, Humberside
I wonder to myself…

I’ve listened to this song a couple of times this week, after it was included on the playlist of one of my favourite radio shows, Cathal Murray’s late night festival of music that carries wisdom about life, Late Date.

As coronavirus continues its spread around the world, it seems that general panic is not far away from many people’s minds, and I’ve been trying my best to observe the general behaviour around the phenomenon.

Marty Whelan, of another Irish radio station, Lyric FM, on his morning mix show on Thursday read a few lines about Irish plans for coronavirus from one of the morning newspapers:

It says, ‘If a person is so sick they need to be hospitalised, they will be treated in the 12-bed national isolation centre at Dublin’s Mater Hospital.’

… What happens if there’s more than 12? I’m not being smart, I’m just curious…

When respected professors can go on Twitter and post things like the below, without any corroboration or substantiation from the authorities, is it any wonder that a general sense of panic can take hold?

And what are the ramifications of general panic? Mass anxiety? Food shortages? Social unrest? Violence and murder?

When the potential of a Black Friday bargain can create situations like this…

… what might happen if people suddenly thought that survival was at stake?

Panic is a natural response at that point. Natural, but largely unproductive, and one which should perhaps be recognised for what it is and allowed to pass, and then quickly replaced with some calm preparedness.

While preparedness must be sought at every turn, panic is borne out of fear and powerlessness and must be recognised and resisted.

The fine line between preparedness and panic

But there can be such a fine line between the two, and many of us, driven wild by the emotion of fear and the sense of powerlessness, can take a wrong turn at the fork in the road.

To panic is to rush around wildly, endangering rather than helping ourselves and anyone close to us.

To prepare is to analyse any situation in which we might find ourselves — from unemployment to running out of money to illness to, yes, a novel coronavirus pandemic.

To prepare is to strengthen ourselves with the information we need, and only from the sources both responsible and qualified to hand out that information.

To prepare is to compel ourselves to think, perhaps for the first time in a long, long time, about what’s essential and what is just nice to have.

To prepare is to closely consider how the things we give our attention to can affect our outlook, and to consider anew where we place that attention.

To prepare is also to let ourselves go: to closely consider the things we can control and the things we cannot; to have the grace to accept those things we can’t control, and to go with the flow of wherever a life might bring us.

David Whyte on the conversational nature of reality

This opposite and paradoxical sense of control and lack of it has occupied some of the greatest minds for millennia. Life is nothing so much as a series of paradoxes.

David Whyte, the great English poet, gave an interview on the Sam Harris Making Sense podcast recently.

In it he spoke about what he describes as “the conversational nature of reality”, the interface between us as individuals and the world as a general force that can both weigh down upon us and liberate us, and how this meeting is where things are most real.

Whatever a human being desires for themselves will not come about exactly as they first imagined it, or first laid it out in their minds. Equally, whatever the world desires of you will not happen, no matter how coercive that world is.

What always happens is the meeting between what you desire from the world and what the world desires for you. It’s this frontier where you overhear yourself and you overhear the world, and that frontier is the only place where things are real.

That to me is the conversational nature of reality. The discipline is to stay on that frontier as fully as you can.

Whyte the poet and Morrissey the songwriter are both north of England folk. They were both born in the 1950s, and each grew up in small towns about an hour apart (Davyhulme in Lancashire for Morrissey; Mirfield in Yorkshire for Whyte).

There could be a cultural and geographical sentiment to their outlook. Or it could be that each one, through their art, touches on something universal.

The Smiths song “Panic” was released in 1986, when the tragedy of Chernobyl was at its height and everyone experienced the very real anxiety from the threat of Cold War escalation and nuclear fall-out.

Fear, powerless and panic can easily take hold if we allow it.

Instead, instilling a sense of preparedness — first by deciding what’s essential and letting go of what’s not, and second by aggressively interrogating the sources of our information and silencing the dangerous bullshit that can enter our lives every minute of every day through our technology — might be the buffer all of us need to shield us from recurring waves of sensationalism and alarm.

The craft of feeling clearly

Our society and culture actively promotes clear thinking.

From an early age through education, and potentially for decades thereafter in the workplace, we are exposed to the necessity of thinking clearly.

Academically and economically, through the curriculum, the schedule, the system, the timetable, the procedure, the process, we are encouraged to engage in clear thinking, and those of us who respond the best to that are rewarded for our skills and talents.

It’s not that thinking clearly is wrong, or even unimportant.

But it’s incomplete.

Society and the culture doesn’t promote clear feeling.

Clear feeling is about the emotions that all of us experience most days and all weeks: sadness, anger, fear, joy, confusion, elation, disgust, contempt, surprise or hope.

As human beings, all of these emotions, and all the rest, are natural, innate, unavoidable.

We are not rewarded for feeling these emotions. Indeed, the opposite can be the case: we can be distrusted or frozen out if we are seen as too prone to emotion.

Feeling clearly is not a panacea. A society that promoted feeling clearly at the expense of thinking clearly would quickly be dysfunctional.

But ask yourself this:

Now, when you look around, how close are we to a society that promotes thinking clearly completely at the expense of feeling clearly?

And would that society also be dysfunctional in many ways?

We feel our emotions in dark rooms or under blankets. We feel our emotions in anonymous support groups or on the therapist’s armchair.

And there is a whole other swathe of humanity that never allows itself to feel.

Because those emotions are present and unavoidable, those of us who do not allow ourselves to feel instead cover up, beat down or thwart those feelings as somehow unfortunate or worse. We drink or do drugs, we binge-watch Netflix or we become addicted to damaging behaviours like gambling, gaming, pornography, online shopping or 80-hour-work-weeks.

It’s not just okay to feel clearly. It’s necessary to feel clearly.

It’s necessary to allow ourselves to feel, and necessary too not judge ourselves mercilessly for the feelings that come up.

Feeling clearly is a craft, and like all crafts, it can be made 1% better each day or each week.

Thinking is the logical part of one powerful organ in action. Feeling occupies other parts of the brain, and it comes also from our gut and from our heart.

Feeling is just as necessary as thinking. So today, give yourself permission to just feel, even for a few moments, and don’t judge yourself too harshly for whatever comes up.

Individuality vs Individualism: The key differences

When it comes to individuality and individualism, there are important things to note about the differences. There is a stark contrast between cherishing the ideal of individuality and adopting the cultural norm of individualism, and we must recognise that contrast and highlight it whenever we can.

Individuality is essential.

Exploring who you are, what makes you tick, what gives you energy and what takes it away.

Discovering the passions and skills and talents that only you, with your first-time-in-history genetic makeup and the unprecedented sequence of experiences that you’ve been through in whatever thousands of days you’ve been here on this earth, added to the skills you’ve learned and practised and honed and refined to become good at whatever list of things you are good at.

Doing the work to know what your individuality amounts to us vital to a life of energy, purpose and contribution. It’s essential to a life of fulfilment and happiness. Essential to a life well lived.

Individualism is different.

Individualism aims to break up your tribe.

Individualism aims to pit you against your friends, colleagues, acquaintances in a winner-take-nothing race to the bottom.

While individuality is amping up the things that are uniquely ours, individualism is the culture where we are separated from the whole and forced to see ourselves as separate, a culture that is readily apparent everywhere from Instagram profiles to salary negotiations to political and military history (The strategy of “Divide and Conquer” has been deployed successfully by everyone from Julius Caesar to Charles I of England in Ireland 400 years ago to the Nazis to Donald Trump…)

George Monbiot’s 2019 book, Out Of The Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age in Crisis, is essential reading for anyone interested in the future of the world and everything in it.

He writes a lot about the spectre of individualism as handed down by the economic culture for the past half-century.

For example:

Competition and individualism are the values at the heart of the twenty-first century’s secular religion. Everywhere we are encouraged to fight for wealth and social position like stray dogs over a dustbin: competition, we are told, brutal as it may be, will enhance our lives to a greater extent than any other instrument. This story is supported by a rich mythology of rugged individualism, and advanced through an inspiring lexicon of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone. The word ‘people’ has been widely replaced in the media by ‘individuals’. The most cutting insult we can throw at someone is ‘loser’.

The consequence of this is:

… the loss of common purpose. Our tendency is to stop seeing ourselves as people striving together to overcome our common problems, and to view ourselves instead as people striving against each other to overcome our individual problems. Never mind that these problems are often much bigger than we are, and arise from structural forces that no person acting alone can tackle. As individualism is the religion of our times, it must be the solution to whatever crisis we face.

And so we are presented with one of the many paradoxes of life and living.

To survive and prosper in this world, we must take every care to explore and embrace our individuality, and we must take equal care in recognising and rebuffing the individualism that is everywhere.

Just like the crows I watched over the fields some weeks back, we are individual and separate and must see ourselves as such, but we must be part of a greater whole, and we must see that too.


Episode 26: Author, Public Speaker and Voice for the Voiceless Advocate Tracey McCann

Enjoyed this episode?

If you enjoyed this episode, please do one of these three things:

  1. Rate and review on Apple Podcasts — this helps to make sure that others will find it
  2. Take a screenshot and share this out on your preferred social media (and make sure to tell your friends and followers why!)
  3. Sign up for updates about the Life Well Lived Project and its mission. This work is all about making things better. Tiny bit by tiny bit, ripple by ripple, one day at a time. The vision is a world where the cycle of depression doesn’t have to be handed down across multiple generations and accepted as an unavoidable fact of life. The vision is a world where everyone is liberated to know, embrace and express the full breadth of their own individual uniqueness, and be resilient enough to accept the judgment of others who’ve yet to experience their own awakening. The vision is a world where happiness is well defined as a lasting peace of mind, peace of heart and peace of soul, and can be experienced by everyone. The vision is a world where we can work together to solve big problems rather than squabble over minor matters out of a place of insecurity and hurt. If any of that resonates, please do subscribe to this podcast and sign up to get updates by email here.

Listen to the archive

You’ll find all other episodes of The Life Well Lived Podcast are here, or at any of the following links:

Other Life Well Lived Podcast interviews you might enjoy


What a Formula 1 qualifying lap can teach us about life

I’ve never been to a Formula 1 Grand Prix, so I can only imagine the rush to all the senses.

What an F1 qualifying lap can teach us about life

Crowds wait for the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Austin, Texas

The sights: the colour, and the flags, and the blur as the cars whizz by almost too fast to be really seen. The sounds: decibel levels ripping at your eardrums as the engines roar. The smell: fuel fumes and burnt rubber, concession stands with doling out expensive grub to long queues.

A key component of each Grand Prix is the qualifying lap. Taking place a day before the main race, it’s an hour on the track to determine the positions on the grid come start time.

The rules have been revised in latter years, but traditionally in F1 everything was geared up to ensure the driver can hit one fast lap: tyres, fuel levels, weight of the car.

Then, a little less than 24 hours later, the drivers return to the cars and get in the groove for the marathon two-hour race.

One fast run to lay the foundations for the main event.

What has this got to do with the work?

Many of us approach life like we’re on a qualifying lap, putting in the slog to get ready for the main event. We’re not qualifying. The main event is here.

Honesty and Truth

Honesty and the truth can often be two different things.

Honesty should be a given. Anything that crosses the honesty line should trigger red flags every time, no matter how small the indiscretion might appear on the surface.

Sometimes those who are dishonest are people whose messages reach us through the ether, via television or radio or marketing or politics.

A good question when someone out there (that is, not someone close, not a family member or friend or work colleague) skirts the honesty line is this:

If they are dishonest about this, what else will they be dishonest about?

In the case of the public figure, spending a little time to answer this question  (and answering honestly) can save ourselves from the pain of the further dishonesty further down the line.

For those who are closer to us, those family, friends and colleagues, a good question to approach an honesty indiscretion might be:

What is driving this dishonesty?

For those within our circle, answering this question can serve both you and them. It can bring assistance to someone who needs it. The conversation might be a difficult one to have, but as Tim Ferriss said about that, “A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.”

Honesty and Truth

So honesty is one thing. Honesty should be a given. Often it is not, of course, and that makes things challenging. Often we expend priceless time and energy figuring out whether we’re receiving honesty.

Honesty and truth, though, can be very different.

While we have a right to expect honesty in the day to day, truth is a lifelong search.

When you ask someone a question, they can be completely honest but still not reach the level of the truth.

Honesty can be on the surface, while the truth might need to be uncovered. It needs care in the uncovering too: it’s unlikely to be uncovered by an earthmover; it requires the care and attention of the archaeologist who brings great treasures to the surface through the gentle use of trowels and toothbrushes.

In one of poetry’s most often quoted and perhaps most profound lines, John Keats wrote: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

Niels Bohr, the 20th century physicist and philosopher, and the man who made breakthroughs in quantum theory which form the basis of much scientific work even now, wrote, “The opposite of a fact is a falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.”

Three thoughts about truth

  1. Uncovering the truth is a lifelong project, and the project needs care and attention
  2. Truth is more than beautiful; truth is beauty
  3. Truths can exist in opposite to one another. Your truth and my truth could be two stars at opposite sides of the universe

Truth, facts and fake news

Facts and honesty have perhaps never in history been more in peril.

For perhaps a century and a half the craft of journalism was dedicated, at least in part, to an uncovering of truth in the public domain. Media organisations have always had competing agendas and an undercurrent of bias, but in general there was a search for truth that existed in the craft. Journalists might call it something like “holding the accountable to account”, and it was often a noble calling, for the betterment of society.

Now, though, that ideal is being threatened from all sides: it’s threatened by the crumbling of the media business model, where news organisations must compete for attention and “eyeballs”, and so reach for the quick sensation at the expense of the slow truth. It’s also threatened by the proliferation of opinions and facts. From Trump’s “alternative facts” to data that is massaged to become propaganda and broadcast as such, we’ve never been more unsure of the facts.

But truth exists somewhere else, both beneath the surface and everywhere in the atmosphere. Truth is ethereal, spiritual. Truth can never be compromised.

Truth is yours, and mine, and everyone’s, the quest to uncover it is lifelong, and your truth is yours alone.

Best of luck in the rest of your search to uncover it.

The final line of Keats’s Ode to a Grecian Urn, of course, the continuation of the “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” line, is “that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”

Find your truth, and know that that is all you ever need.”

Changing the world, tiny ripple by tiny ripple

Almost everything I do, I do it for these guys.


They’re at the heart of it all.

The work is about trying to make things better.

Changing the world, bit by bit, one day at a time, tiny ripple by tiny ripple.

A world where the cycle of depression doesn’t have to be handed down across multiple generations and accepted as an unavoidable fact of life.

A world where everyone is liberated to know, embrace and express the full breadth of their own individual uniqueness, and be resilient enough to accept the judgment of others who’ve yet to experience their own awakening.

A world where happiness is well defined as a lasting peace of mind, peace of heart and peace of soul, and can be experienced by everyone.

A world where we can work together to solve big problems rather than squabble over minor matters out of a place of insecurity and hurt.

A world where ideas can be shared across all the borders and boundaries we face, from language barriers to religious doctrine to nation states.

At the risk of sounding all Sixties, peace and love, everyone. Go out and change your world, one little ripple at a time.

Why I don’t have a grand vision

An admission: I don’t know where I’m going.

I have no grand vision in mind. I’ve tried and tried, and I can’t bring something true and meaningful to the front of my mind.

I can come up with visions — ways I might work, places to live, things to experience, how I might relate to my family — but it seems to be an alluring selection from the minds of others, rather than a compelling vision plucked from my own inner truth.

So I’ve sort of given up trying to find that grand vision.

But something that has become abundantly clear to me is this.

I don’t know where I want to get to, but I know when I’m going in the wrong direction.


Anthony de Mello on the cure to our ills, and why we don’t really want it

Today, a quick thought from a wise man on why many of us struggle.

Anthony de Mello was a spiritual teacher and Indian Jesuit priest who wrote about the benefits of all religions as opposed to a single Church doctrine.

His book Awareness, which is less a book than a series of transcribed recordings from his seminars, has been cited by many for its deep well of wisdom.

From the early chapters of Awareness comes this passage on why we struggle:

Most people tell you they want to get out of kindergarten, but don’t believe them. All they want you to do is to mend their broken toys.

“Give me back my wife. Give me back my job. Give me back my money. Give me back my reputation, my success.”

This is what they want; they want their toys replaced.

That’s all. Even the best psychologist will tell you that, that people don’t really want to be cured. What they want is relief; a cure is painful.

In another sound bite a little later in the book, he says,

It’s only when you’re sick of your sickness that you’ll get out of it.

Most people go to a psychiatrist or a psychologist to get a relief.

I repeat: to get a relief.

Not to get out of it.

What do you think?

Are we typically afraid of the cure to our ills?

Is relief really all we want?

Or can short-term relief provide the respite we need to help ourselves find the long-term cure?

The comments are open below. Love to hear your thoughts…

Depression and self-obsessiveness

Tim Ferriss is one of those voices who I’ve paid close attention to in recent years.

It’s well over a decade since his Four-Hour Work Week catapulted him into the minds of millennials everywhere who were intent on finding freedom before retirement age, but his thoughts and work related to the area of mental health, and major depression in particular, is something else entirely and one that may well reveal him to a much larger and much broader audience — at any rate a much more diverse audience — in time.

He has spoken at length about how depression brought him to the brink of suicide in the past, and last year revealed he was part-funding of potentially revolutionary research in treatments for depression, based on studies of the effects of microdosing of psilocybin, the mind-altering compound found in magic mushrooms.

Ferriss spoke with Ryan Holiday on his podcast last week, and after kicking off by talking about dogs, Ferriss riffed on the antidepressant benefits of owning a puppy because it forced him out of his tendency to ruminate.

Caring for a puppy, at least if you do it well, takes your attention outside of any type of self-indulgent reflection / obsessive-compulsive rumination. I’m someone who has had a history of depression, which is being stuck in the past and being highly self-referential.

Depression is, I think, as someone who has experienced it a lot in life, very self-obsessive. So when you have something in front of you that requires and demands care or it’s gonna pee on your carpet every two and a half hours, like Molly my dog, it’s incredibly antidepressive because it forces a complete refocus.

A key element of cognitive behavioral therapy is to address rumination: the seemingly endless and unbreakable cycle of typically negative and, yes, self-obsessive thoughts of the depressive.

These thoughts are generally, although not always, focused on the past. Things that didn’t work out as well as they could. Things that might have gone differently. Mistakes made that have brought you to this point in time, and the inability to reverse the clock and change them.

Anxiety and depression: two sides of one coin?

Anxiety feels a bit like the flip side of the depression coin. Many people who suffer from depression also suffer from anxiety, and vice versa; it’s unclear where causality or correlation lie, but it’s well established that depression might cause anxiety and that anxiety might cause depression, in an ever-spiralling negative cycle that needs to be broken if life can be lived at all.

Anxiety is obsessing negatively about the future, and depression is obsessing negatively about the past and the present, and both hugely affect the present, where one or both can be totally debilitating. It’s not for nothing that the World Health Organisation describes depression as a leading cause of disability globally.

The most debilitating thing about depression

The most debilitating thing, however, might just be the thought that depression (or anxiety) are just an unavoidable part of who we are, and therefore an empirical fact that cannot be challenged or changed.

The way I think of it in my case: I have struggled for years with many bouts of major depression. But depression is not a part of me. A susceptibility to depression is. And that’s a very different thing.

As always, the recovery starts first with awareness, and secondly action based on that awareness.

The awareness is mostly already there — as Guru Singh has said, “If you’re depressed you’re paying attention” — and it’s the beating down of that awareness, the refusal to believe the things of which we are deeply aware, that can make us depressed.

The action can be a different task entirely. For us depressives, taking any action can often be a step too far, but finding a way to take even one small step, and finding our footing there before trying another, can have massive positive long-term benefits.

The far-reaching benefits of one small step

Taking even one small step forward shows us that taking a step forward is possible. And if we can take one small step, and follow it sometime soon with another, perhaps we can keep taking small steps until our condition is under control, or at least not a constant threat of inflicting cataclysm on our lives.

Doing something that doesn’t just encourage us to take a few steps forward, but forces us to — something like owning a puppy — can set the ball rolling in a way that might have far-reaching benefits in months and years to come.

Doing something that forces action upon us can lift us up and out of the self-obsessiveness for long enough to take a couple of these small steps.