Episode 27: The context, the current reality, and three possible individual responses to Coronavirus / Covid-19

The Internet vs Real Life

We are truly blessed to live in an era that allows us to communicate, one to one and at scale, via technology.

We are privileged to be in a position to build relationships with people we might never have met in real life.

We are only beginning to appreciate the possibilities that the Internet brings to all of us, wherever we are in the world.

Last November a family trip took me to Florence, where in the 15th and 16th centuries Brunelleschi and da Vinci and Michelangelo and Galileo and hundreds of the brightest minds in the history of humanity congregated to propel mankind forward.

Today, March 19th, 2020, Florence is a city where hardly a soul moves as Italy grapples to control the crisis that has crashed on its shores this past month.

Today, in Florence and all over the world, the brightest minds can assemble online, can collaborate from wherever they are, can run a profitable, scalable business from a garage in the countryside.

But all of this social distancing and virtual conferencing and work-from-home-by-necessity brings one thing into sharp relief: the beauty of the real world, the one outside and away from our screens.

The Internet and all the technology that is built upon it is a powerful tool, one that will help scientists and researchers and medics come up with the treatments and the vaccines that will help humanity overcome the current collective threat.

But the Internet can also be a pale facsimile of real life.

While we physically withdraw from each other and leverage the undoubted power of virtual reality and try to do what’s required to stay healthy, the current pause can allow us to stop and wonder at the real world around us.

The feel of morning dew-wet grass under our bare feet.

The miracle of fresh air sucked deep into our lungs.

The tangible wonder and otherworldly wisdom of a physical book.

Wherever you are, I hope that fear and anxiety are the worst of your problems, and that you may find it possible to breathe in the wonder of the real world that all of us can sometimes take for granted.


A new normal awaits

For the first two seconds after I wake up, everything is normal.

I open my eyes, and I see the sycamore tree out my window. The buds on the sycamore are not open yet, but somehow every morning the tree grows infinitesimally greener: it’s entirely undetectable in the same way your little girl’s change in height is undetectable; you see her every day and one day she’s up to your shoulder and you never noticed how that happened.

Somewhere in the frantic rush of neurons in those first two seconds after waking, the dawning reality comes. It feels like we’re living in the first half hour of a disaster movie, the scenes where everyone goes about like normal because they’re inside the movie and know nothing about the posters and the trailers announcing the terror that awaits.

But it’s not a disaster movie. It’s really happening, and everyone who’s paying attention is scared.

And somehow there is a fine line to be walked, with a precipice falling away on both sides.

On our left is ignorance, and it’s up to all of us to climb out of that as quickly as we can.

On our right, though, is something equally damaging: hyper-awareness to everything that’s going on, everywhere in the world, right now.

Of all the technologies that have inveigled their way into all our lives these past ten years, the instantaneous nature of Twitter means it is perfectly set up for situations such as this.

Perfectly set up to provide real-time updates to a situation that has been evolving in real time, and global updates on a situation that effects the entire globe.

So if lots of people are paying hyper-attention, refreshing feeds and following hashtags, and if everyone who’s paying attention is scared, then the maths are simple: many, many people are very scared right now, and a lot of scared people is a recipe for lots of dangerous sideshows to the main challenge, and empty supermarket shelves might just be the start of things getting worse before they get better.

The three-foot-wide path

But between those two precipices, there is still that three-foot-wide path to be walked.

And if we’re fortunate enough to be well enough to be able to clamber up here, to leave both ignorance and hyper-awareness to external matters behind for a few moments, we can stand up and pause for a moment and breathe deep in the cool, clean air.

Those of us up here, we’re up here together. We can extend a hand down both sides to all those clambering up. There’s room enough for all of us.

Up here, in this realm of thoughts and ideas and words, a realm at slight remove from the physical world in which our bodies live, we can dispense for a moment with social distancing.

Up here, we can allow our ideas and words and thoughts to embrace and commingle.

Up here, we can forget about the ignorant: the crowds at Disneyworld and the Stereophonics concert and the pub revellers packed in cheek-by-jowl singing Sweet Caroline at the top of their voices.

Up here, we can forget about the hyper-awareness: the hearsay and the rumour-mongers and the harbingers of doom.

We can choose to seek out the trusted channels, and blot out all the rest.

We can choose to think about this pause and shift as a moment in time, the likes of which we’ve never seen before and the likes of which we’ll never forget.

We can choose to see in this moment in time an opportunity to consider how we behave: to ourselves, to others and to the world around us.

We can choose to be honest and humble about the uncertainty and hypocrisy that surrounds every one of us.

And we can choose, each of us, to step up and lead the way forward, into a new way and a new world that will be different in many ways to the one we’ve just left behind.

The front line

Businesses large and small will falter and die, livelihoods will disappear in a heartbeat, economies will crash.

And all of that is important, and troubling, but all of that in the short term is largely secondary to those who find themselves on the front line now.

The trenches now are not foxholes in the mud, but testing centres and triage rooms and intensive care units.

The infantry now are our nurses and doctors, putting themselves in the line of fire every day in the knowledge that some of them will not make it through.

The cavalry are our scientists and researchers, desperately seeking to understand this new and inert common foe so that they can provide vaccines and treatments.

The artillery are our long-distance truck-drivers traversing continents with essential supplies, our stay-at-home parents compelled to embark on an often considered but never tried experiment in homeschooling, our postal workers, bin collectors, electricity supply staff and internet service providers, all working hard to keep some of the cogs of normality for those of us getting used to all this unexpected time at home.

And yes, credit must go to our politicians too, who are for the most part, and maybe for the first time ever, removed from the cloak-and-dagger performance of politicking and forced to get on with the core task of leadership under fire and decision-making under strain.

Normality as we knew it

Many of us will be yearning for a quick return to normal, but it’s likely that what we knew as normal might never be that way again.

Whether this pandemic is the situation that threatens our species existence, or a prep run for some similar challenge in the future, it has quickly become clear that the greatest tests facing humanity as a collective over the rest of the 21st century will require global togetherness as the primary prerequisite.

In the face of a rapidly moving virus, where we can see the fall-out in China and Iran and Italy and can imagine ourselves perhaps a couple of weeks behind that contagion, it is still difficult to change behaviours. How can we expect to change the behaviours necessary to slow down climate disaster if the worst of that is 10 or 20 or 50 years away?

We can’t.

Not without an emergency response, at a global level.

The coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic will cost thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of lives, and those lost lives should in time be remembered as martyrs in the cause of human survival and the survival of Planet Earth.

It could be seen as a gift that allows a great majority of humanity to slow down, inhale the extravagant and miraculous elixir of air through our nostrils, and be thankful that if we do the right thing now, we still might have enough of everything we need.

Enough food for all.

Enough time to do what we need to do.

Enough urgency to make it all happen, sooner rather than later.

Enough ingenuity to overcome any challenge, no matter how hard the task can look and no matter how many vested interests are lined up in opposition.

Normality as we knew it created the perfect environment for contagion to spread to all corners of the world.

The next normality will look different.

There is at least a chance that whatever normality is to come will allow the only habitable planet we’ve got to continue to offer up its treasures for us, and for our kids, and for their kids and their kids’ kids, all the years of their lives.

The sycamore will bloom again next year. I pray that I’m here and healthy to wake up to its beauty.


Happy Strange St Patrick’s Day

Today, March 17th, is St Patrick’s Day, strangest St Patrick’s Day anyone can remember.
Normally on this day everyone with a drop of Irish blood in their bodies stops for at least a moment or two and considers this island and identity and idea we call Ireland.
St Patrick’s Day is Ireland’s day, one day in the year when everyone celebrates the commonality of who we are and the common ground of this green isle we’ve come from, wherever we are in the world.
There are about 6.5 million people living on the island of Ireland, but that only tells a small part of our story.
We’ve been a dispersed bunch, forced to travel to all corners of the world, first by the Great Famine in the 1840s, and just about every generation since then by the potent mix of stony home ground and the promise of bright lights and opportunity beckoning us from abroad, so conservative estimates put the Irish diaspora—those folk all over the planet who consider “Irish” to be a part of their heritage—at somewhere around 50 million people.
And a great percentage of us traditionally put something green and go out to gather someplace.
The gatherings usually start at one of the parades that snake through the streets of everywhere from the world’s largest cities to our smallest Irish towns.
The gatherings typically move from the parade to the pub (on rare occasions, you might be lucky to get a combination of both—my dad has fondly told a story from the Foot and Mouth livestock epidemic of 2001, when parades were also cancelled or curtailed and he found himself unwittingly in attendance at perhaps the most unique and most memorable St Patrick’s Day parade ever held, several laps of a pool table in Gertie’s pub in Keshcarrigan in County Leitrim).
The pubs dispense with green beer and normal beer and Guinness, lots of creamy Guinness lined up beside the taps waiting for the second pull, and all sorts of whiskey with an e, because only whiskey with an e can be drank on this day, and gins and pink tonics in globular glasses for some of the girls, and they drink deep and are merry, and anyone with a nervous disposition gives all drinking establishments a wide berth as a small but noisy percentage of the revellers who started the day in such good spirits inevitably find themselves falling over or falling out, or bent double in a side-street willing the contents of their stomachs, placed there with great joy and at great expense, to make the return journey and splat on the pavement in the shape and colour of an almost perfect pizza.
At home, if we avoid the revelling, we might sit on the couch for The Quiet Man or Darby O’Gill and the Little People or Ryan’s Daughter, and marvel at all these Hollywood stars who took time out of their busy bright American lives to make a film—we always called it “a fillum”—about this little faraway place of ours.

And we might also look around us and listen, to the music that this little place has given to the world. From the masters of the past, like Luke Kelly and Rory Gallagher and Phil Lynnott, to those we grew up with and are still around and doing their thing, like Christy Moore and Clannad and Finbarr Furey, to everyone making now their time, like Glen Hansard and the Lost Brothers and Lankum, let us listen to the rhythms of these masterful performers and consider the gift all of them continue to give to the world.

St Patrick’s Day is Ireland’s Day, but it’s always been more than that too, more than just a chance to congregate and celebrate our Irish Ness.

St Patrick’s Day is also two things in the rhythm of the year.

Firstly, it is a break from the 40 days of Lenten sacrifice, which depending on how Easter falls would have started a week or two or three previously but which already would have built up a signfiicant hunger for the good things in life (sweets in wrappers, or chocolate bars, or creamy Guinness or whiskey with an e, depending on your current station in this slow-slow-but-all-too-rapid merry-go-round of life…)
And secondly, and perhaps most importantly, March 17th is a line in the sand that draws an end to the winter months and beckons us forward into the longer warmer brighter days of spring and summer.
In this way it works precisely the same and opposite as Halloween, October 31st, which calls us back to the homestead for the dark and slower days of winter.
As far as weather goes, St Patrick’s Day can bring it all. There have been parades in the blizzards of snow and there have been mass sun-burnings, So it’s usually best to be prepared for everything.
Today there will be no mass sun-burnings, and no collective toasting of whiskey or beer, green or otherwise.
Today, like the rest of the world, all of us are reflecting on the strangeness of the time, and thinking about how we might get through it, and how it might change us forever, and how possibly our most precious human trait—our very closeness, our togetherness—can be both threatened and strengthened by the collective experience all humanity is grappling with today.
By the very fact that you and I are here today, alive and breathing, we know that all the endless generations of our forefathers and foremothers survived and flourished at this thing called life for long enough to propel their offspring into the world. All those people went through moments in time like this, or much, much worse, and whether they got through it with the fullness of grace or with a residue of bitterness, they got through them all the same.
And we will get through them too.
We will rise to the challenge, and perhaps, if we do this right, we will shift our perspective on the world and everyone in it, and be mindful of the invisible but undeniable and absolute interconnectedness of every one of us to everyone else.
Happy Strange St Patrick’s Day to you, wherever you are in the world.
Allow me to finish with a traditional Irish blessing:
May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
And rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

A poem for the globally interconnected uncertainty we’re living in

Lynn Ungar is a spiritual leader, where she acts as a minister for the Church of the Larger Fellowship, an online congregation for Unitarian Universalists and other religious liberals.

I confess that after I had read Lynn’s poem below, and researched a little more about her and her background to find she was a church minister, my immediate response was one of scepticism.

Given the oneness of the world, underlined by the rapid move towards mass global interconnection through commercial travel and the Internet over the past three decades, Church teachings have seemed more and more to me to belong to a different time and place, when all of us were armed with much less information and knowledge and wisdom than we are now.

But further reading soothed me a bit. The Church of the Larger Fellowship describes its philosophy as being not about doctrine or creed. “We are atheists and Christians, Buddhists and Jews, agnostics and Hindus, who know that no metaphor or story of the holy is big enough to truly hold what is holy … We are people who value diversity: of opinion, of culture, of language, of life experience, of spiritual practice.”

More than a church minister, Ms Ungar is also a poet, and I am sharing her work here as it is a new work of art that seemed to speak directly to me during these uncertain times all of us, all over the world, are living through.



By Lynn Ungar

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

Read more about Lynn Ungar and her work here.

The Life Well Lived Project is writing, podcasts, events and teachings about navigating the challenges of life, discovering the one-time in history uniqueness of our own individuality, and living with purpose, fulfilment and happiness. You can sign up for regular updates from me here.



Three things in the face of coronavirus / COVID19

The format for my weekly Saturday morning email is now three things to do, read, watch, listen to, think about or question.

Here’s the contents of the latest Three Things email, focusing squarely on the global coronavirus and COVID-19 situation, sent on Saturday, March 14th, 2020.

All of us, all over the world, are going through a collective global emergency right now. The coronavirus / COVID19 is almost universally seen as the biggest challenge facing humanity in more than half a century, and certainly the biggest challenge in the lifetimes of many people.

What to do when faced with such a challenge? Everything I’ve been doing for the past two years (writing, podcasting, speaking and business) has been geared towards identifying and overcoming challenges. This one will test me and all of us. We will all face suffering and mortality, many of us will experience it up close in these coming weeks and months. Humanity will prevail, but it’s also likely that humanity will be changed forever by this. I think of that as a good thing. Worthwhile progress rarely falls in our lap.

This week’s three things:

Some things to see: Humanity’s resilience and beauty in the face the great coronavirus / COVID19 challenge

1. This supermarket in Scotland which decided to create hundreds of free hygiene packets and give them away to the elderly and infirm in their communities

2. These Italian communities forced into nationwide lockdown, taking to their balconies for communal song (see the full list of tweets for loads of examples of human togetherness at its best)

3. This Instagram post of a young Italian nurse showing what her job has become, declaring that she loves that job as much as ever, and pleading for everyone to take things seriously in order to protect (English translation here)

Something to consider: The concept of teleology

I was searching for stuff like “There’s no such thing as coincidence” this week, and that brought me to hitsuzen (a Japanese word meaning events that happen in accordance with some scheme, plan, or design), and that brought me to a new word and concept for me: “teleology”.

From WikipediaTeleology is derived from two Greek words: telos (end, goal, purpose) and logos (reason, explanation). A purpose that is imposed by a human use, such as that of a fork, is called extrinsic. Natural teleology, common in classical philosophy but controversial today, contends that natural entities also have intrinsic purposes, irrespective of human use or opinion. For instance, Aristotle claimed that an acorn’s intrinsic telos is to become a fully grown oak tree.

The idea of natural entities things having an innate purpose seems sort of obvious, although I’m led to believe it’s widely rejected by evolutionary scientists.
As to why I was searching for “no such thing as coincidence”, let me explain. I have a watch, a silver Citizen, which my wife Lorraine bought for me a long time ago.

For a number of years it gathered dust in a drawer. One day I plucked it out and decided to start wearing it again. But it wasn’t working, so I brought it back to the shop for a replacement battery.

The lady in the shop took a look at the watch, and then at me, and broke the news to me as gently as she could. “This is an Eco-Drive. It’s powered by light. Just leave it in sunlight for a couple of minutes and it will work perfectly.” She was right. And it’s been working perfectly for several years since.

Until this week. I put it on earlier this week and noticed it was five hours slow. It had been in a drawer for a day or so, so just needed light, I said. I corrected it, and wore it, and it was fine. Until this morning, when I noticed it was several hours slow again.

So I started thinking about what all of us and the world are going through right now. It feels like a giant and collective and wholly necessary slowing down of everything, to allow the choking planet to breathe a little, so that it can sustain us and everything on it far into the future. Lorraine has described what we’re going through right now as a “Pause”. I’ve called it a “Correction”. Either way, it seems to be a slowing down and a shift, and while it will be a painful one for many, it feels like a necessary one too.

Evolutionary science is hard to argue with, and I won’t try, nor am I sure I want to.

But there’s also something else in the world. An underlying energy to everything. Call it a higher power, infinite intelligence, the divine, God, the universe, the cosmos, Mother Nature, Gaia, or whatever you want, but it feels real to me.

What this means for the present situation I’m not sure, and will take some time to mull over. But I do know that all of us – me, you and everyone else – are part of this unintelligibly complex ecosystem where everything is interconnected, and sometimes just observing that ecosystem without judgment is a good thing to do

Something to make you smile

We often allow ourselves a little snicker at dogs in their dog cones after operations.

Like Harriet here.


But they can maybe have a laugh at us now…

That’s all for this week, thanks for reading, *|FNAME|*.

Stay strong, safe and healthy, and see you back here next Saturday.


Mission: All my work, including writing and podcasts, and the speaking I do and the business I’m working hard to build (which combines coaching and marketing to help mission-driven businesses first get clear on where they’re going, and then help them get there), falls under the Life Well Lived project. Everything good in life comes from time spent doing meaningful things. The Life Well Lived mission is to change the perception that downtrodden, browbeaten circumstances are unavoidable facts of life and to help people reconnect with meaning and purpose in their lives. The project will try to achieve this mission by providing support, guidance and inspiration for people all over the world to navigate and overcome life’s challenges, fully embrace their own individual uniqueness and live with energy, purpose, contribution and fulfilment.

More writing: I try to write one blog each day Monday through Friday, and at least once a month there are longer articles on something that’s been turning over in my mind.

Podcast: The latest episode of the Life Well Lived podcast (Episode 26) is with Tracey McCann. I was delighted to have Tracey on, and I hope the show does some justice to her incredible story of will, endurance and optimism. You’ll find this episode here. All other episodes are here. You can also find and subscribe to the Life Well Lived Podcast on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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