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14. Seeing past, or through, the daunting obstacles before us

Obstacles are everywhere. The ways of doing anything — from making civic change happen, to launching a successful business, to the age-old and private task of knowing oneself — rarely come without frequent frustrations and occasional furies.

This is true in ordinary times. It feels much more urgent now, in a world reeling from a year in a global pandemic and increasingly run on new technology that can make us all feel like novices.

How are we to approach, or even think about, the obstacles that lie before us? Perhaps, if we’re looking for workarounds or hacks or marginal gains, the clues to the answer lie not in finding a way around the edges, but within the meaty, unavoidable reality of the obstacle itself.

To back this up — and, to be honest, to help myself try to think differently about the long list of daunting obstacles I see before me (hands up if you’re a default pessimist too…) — let me refer to a handful of resources and comments that have simmered to the surface within the past few weeks.

Ryan Holiday is a writer who curates the ancient wisdom of Stoic philosophers such as Seneca and Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, and repackages it in books and tweets for the Internet generation. He published a bestselling book a couple of years back titled The Obstacle is the Way. Subtitled (because the formula for every bestselling book includes a pithy subtitle) “The ancient art of turning adversity into opportunity”, it includes the following back cover blurb:

We give up too easily. With a simple change of attitude, what seem like insurmountable obstacles become once-in-a-lifetime opportunities … What blocks our path actually opens one that is new and better. The Stoic philosophy — that what is in the way, is the way — can be applied to any problem: it’s a formula invented more than 2,000 years ago, whose effectiveness has been proven in battles and board rooms ever since.

Lunch with the FT last weekend was with Sherry Turkle, the psychologist who has spent her working life researching the impact of technology on people. She recalled a story about a university demonstration she once attended about some of the possibilities presented by the “Internet of Things”.

The demo went as follows:

Sensors and mobile devices allowed academics to get from class to Starbucks “without meeting anyone they’d ever had a fight with — no ex-wife, no department chair. It was like in Harry Potter, you know, the Marauder’s Map. Everyone in the room loved it. I thought, ‘who said human relationships are better if you never have any troubles?'”

For many of us, the pandemic perhaps resembles one extended spell of troubles, one such seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Millions of people the world over were already stressed, burnt out or depressed from the perpetual uncertainty of the world before coronavirus arrived. (Although while the problem is clear, the data on mental health and substance abuse issues suggests it hasn’t actually gotten worse over the past 30 years — it’s a pretty constant ~15% of the population affected by mental health or substance abuse disorders).

Whether we’re suffering from a disorder or not, the flux of the past 15 years or so presents new obstacles and challenges. Since about 2005, Facebook arrived and quickly became one of the biggest companies in the world, spreading its various tentacles into so much of our daily lives; the iPhone and then the iPad changed our relationship with technology forever; Uber, Airbnb and Google Maps changed how we travel; Twitter powered everything from the Arab Spring to #MeToo to cancel culture.

And these billion-dollar companies are only the tip of the iceberg, the small visible part of a world where the way to do everything is turned on its head. The Internet, and all the technologies built on top of it, has changed everything utterly, giving birth to a terrible beauty of creativity and destruction everywhere we look.

Everything from 500-hundred-year-old institutions to the nation state itself to financial currencies and exchange, to the way we check out books from the library or order from McDonald’s (driving through the local town at 10am the other morning I saw an Uber Eats driver pick up a brown paper bag of McMuffins) — technology, software and hardware, is taking over the world.

This is neither intrinsically bad or good. Optimistically, I think the upsides outweigh the downsides, but both sides tend towards infinity and there will be a lot of pain for those who are unable or unwilling to change with it. Whether technology liberates or enslaves might be down to not much more than a mindset or point of view.

Arriving on the back of these crashing tidal waves of change came the pandemic, fast-tracking the adoption of software and the online world, which had been progressing on an exponential curve in any case.

Long before the pandemic, Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli historian (and futurist) and author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, wrote that the most essential skills for anyone living and hoping to thrive in the 21st century were personal resilience and awareness and intelligence of one’s own emotions.

In the valuable Tim Ferriss-curated 2017 book Tribe of Mentors, in answer to the question, “What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the ‘real world’? What advice should they ignore?”, Harari wrote:

The world of 2040 will be a very different world from today, and an extremely hectic world. The pace of change is likely to accelerate even further. So people will need the ability to learn all the time and to reinvent themselves repeatedly — even at age 60. Yet change is usually stressful, and after a certain age, most people don’t like to change. When you are 16, your entire life is change, whether you like it or not. Your body is changing, your mind is changing, your relationships are changing — everything is in flux. You are busy inventing yourself. By the time you are 40, you don’t want change. You want stability. But in the twenty-first century, you won’t be able to enjoy that luxury.

If you try to hold on to some stable identity, some stable job, some stable worldview, you will be left behind, and the world will fly by you. So people will need to be extremely resilient and emotionally balanced to sail through this never-ending storm, and to deal with very high levels of stress.

As those flat-line data on mental health disorders seem to show, humans in general appear to be extraordinarily adaptable. (I once — pre-pandemic — had a short conversation with an urban planning university lecturer here in Ireland, when we chatted about the ever-widening commuter belt and the amount of time people were spending in transit each day. “People,” he said, “are like rats; they get used to anything.”)

Are we to get used to the pandemic, to living with Covid? Or are we to push through the obstacles and create a new and slightly better corner of the world on the other side?

Also in Tribe of Mentors, Janna Levin, an American theoretical cosmologist and a professor of physics and astronomy, puts it well.

I used to resent obstacles along the path, thinking, ‘If only that hadn’t happened life would be so good.’ Then I suddenly realized, life is the obstacles. There is no underlying path. Our role here is to get better at navigating those obstacles. I strive to find calm, measured responses and to see hindrances as a chance to problem-solve. Often I fall back into old frustrations, but if I remind myself, this is a chance to step up, I can reframe conflicts as a chance to experiment with solutions.

Experimenting with solutions is, maybe, easier for a tenured university professor than a single parent working multiple freelance projects to try to make ends meet.

But the sentiment — life is the obstacles — seems valid. There is no path without challenges to overcome. There is only how we think about and approach obstacles. Maybe, on good days, we can clamber over one or two, and hopefully we have as many of those good days as bad.

This is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email each day for 30 days.

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13. Choosing love in a world of fear

In number 12 of this series, I included a line from Camilla Cavenish, the author, Harvard fellow and FT columnist: “When polls show support for continued restrictions, thoughtful MPs should ask themselves how exactly a nation became so fearful.”

She was writing about the United Kingdom, but the sentiment applies to a lot of the world right now.

Fear has always been the most powerful and prevalent of emotions. It’s been said that anger, the emotion that sparks whole swathes of negative behaviours — from withdrawal to manipulation to substance or alcohol abuse to violence against oneself or others — is a secondary emotion.

Some other emotion lies beneath anger, and most often the underlying emotion is fear: fear of judgment; fear of becoming an outcast; fear of the abuse of trust; fear of being abandoned or left alone; fear of failing, or being seen to fail; fear, even, of success, of the change that success might bring and whether you’re capable of handling that change.

Fear is natural and built in to the oldest part of our brains. Fear signals dangers seen or unseen, and therefore is core to keeping us alive for long enough to pass on our genes and keep the species moving forward. For most of us, the external reality of the world outside our door is safer, in terms of physical threats to our wellbeing, than at any time in our history.

But other things have replaced bears and snakes and sabre-toothed tigers in our consciousness. Whether it’s a habit ingrained from our 100,000-year-old history, or some of the hallmarks of way the world works in the 21st century, or a combination of our genetic encoding and the culture that’s grown up around us, it’s not hard for most of us, in candid, private moments, to find at least a handful of things we’re fearful of.

For perhaps the last 30 years, the prevailing financial system has become one of the facets of life and living (in the so-called “developed world”, at least) which creates an environment of fear.

Some of the developments in the world of finance, perhaps starting with the invention of the credit card by Diners’ Club in 1951 and continuing through the development of complex financial instruments (derivatives, credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations — no, I don’t really know either) which contributed so significantly to the global financial crash of 2008 (but which still remain a key part of the financial industry in 2021) create an environment around us where most of us don’t really understand money, find ourselves lured by the availability of cheap loans and then go to bed every night for years carrying the weight of the burden of repayments on our shoulders.

This cascade of personal debt leaves tens or hundreds of millions of people with a perpetual background hum of threat to one’s safety. The ability to put food on the table, or pay next month’s mortgage under the veiled or real threat of repossession, is a daily reality for too many people in an age of apparent abundance.

Into this steady supply of daily fear came the pandemic a year ago, layering on another major threat to the wellbeing and survival of ourselves and others.

Conditioned to feel fear — first by human nature, second by the culture around us — it took no time for us to embrace this latest existential threat.

There’s a quote attributed to Oprah Winfrey:

I believe that every single event in life happens in an opportunity to choose love over fear.

Fear feels real and urgent.

What does love feel like?

Maybe it feels like a removal of all that is past and all that is to come, and a condensing of everything into this present moment, here, now, whatever you’re doing, whoever you’re with.

Artists and writers and athletes and creators of every kind talk about the desire to find the flow state. Maybe another word for flow is love.

All of us have things or relationships or experiences that give us joy, and maybe once in a while that joy can be elevated to bliss. Maybe another word for joy and bliss is love.

In this present moment, where fear seems to lie unseen behind every news report, every casual chat behind a mask, every choice we face, is it possible to choose love over fear?

Oprah says the choice is available for “every single event in life”. I guess that means now, too.

It’s not an easy choice to make, but knowing there is a choice might make it just a little bit easier.

This is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email each day for 30 days.

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12. The complex return to the thing we used to call freedom

Two passages I read at the weekend spoke about a similar thing in different ways, from different points in time, and from greatly different points of view.

The Sovereign Individual, James Dale Davidson and William Rees Mogg

I’ve been dipping into The Sovereign Individual, a complex, thought-provoking, many would say controversial book written in the 1990s by two men called James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg (the father of current UK Conservative Party front-bencher Jacob…)

The book was obscure for much of its history and is probably fairly obscure still (I’m not aware that it’s made any bestsellers’ lists during its quarter-century in existence) but it has struck a chord over the past 12 months or so with a new edition and a new foreword by Peter Thiel.

Thiel is a billionaire who was one of the co-founders of PayPal, an early — and therefore highly profitable — investor in Facebook and is the founder of a company called Palantir Technologies, which runs on a data mining and interrogation business model which might be described as an attempt to make real the Big Brother of George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four. (Palantir became a public company last year after 17 unprofitable years, despite which it is now worth an estimated $41 billion based on its stock price.)

Thiel’s secretive brand of billionaire attracts him to many in the tech set. As well as his dystopian Palantir venture, he has courted some notoriety as a result of his decision to purchase a large tract of land in New Zealand and hatching a plan to retreat there in the event of a global apocalypse.

His name on the cover of the latest edition of The Sovereign Individual was enough to see its sales spike in the past year, not least, perhaps, because of the Armageddon feel of a global pandemic that threatens health, livelihoods and economies everywhere.

It is a dense and challenging read, and the central thesis is that in the new borderless technological age, where finance and information and identities can travel the globe in the blink of an eye, governments — the countries and nation states humanity has become so accustomed to over the past 500 years — are destined to collapse. It sees the collapse of the Soviet Union’s communist state in 1991 not as a victory for the democratic west, but as the first evidence of the collapse of large governments everywhere. (There are many who might have viewed the Trump years in the US and agreed…)

One paragraph I read this weekend went like this (emphasis mine):

By any measure, the costs of democratic government have surged out of control … Most democracies run chronic deficits … Governments seem notably resistant to reducing the costs of their operations. An almost universal complaint about contemporary government worldwide is that political programs, once established, can be curtailed only with great difficulty. To fire a government employee is all but impossible.

Elsewhere this weekend, I came across an article by Camilla Cavendish in the Financial Times. For years I considered myself outside of finance, that it was something I’ve never understood and never will. A friend encouraged me to invest some time in the Financial Times. I can’t say that I’m especially financially literate yet, but it can’t be doing any harm.

(My sense of shame in my financial illiteracy was eased slightly by a quote about the financial world from the writer and historian Yuval Noah Harari, included elsewhere in the FT on Saturday: “How many people understand the financial system today? I think it’s fair to say it’s less than 1 per cent of people on the planet. Now imagine that in 20 years the number is zero. The financial system is becoming so complicated, so fast, because more and more decisions are made by algorithms. And algorithms make decisions in a fundamentally different way than humans, therefore there is some sort of unbridgeable gap.”)

Cavendish, a senior fellow at Harvard and a regular FT columnist, wrote an article about paths out of a general lockdown, under the heading “After conquering the virus, the task will be to preserve liberty” (paywall).

She wrote:

More than half of all UK adults have had at least one jab, and hospital admissions have plummeted. But ministers have become strangely addicted to extending curbs on liberty. As parliament rolls over emergency powers in the Coronavirus Act for another six months — three months longer than the promised end of lockdown — and the government pushes authoritarian plans to crack down on protest and foreign travel, I am left wondering which is worse: the casual alacrity with which ministers now crush democratic freedoms or the lack of reaction.

Later, she pointed out some of the multiple downsides of lockdown, and why we must take a wider lens to public health.

As the contradictions mount, the justifications for restrictions are wearing thin. The government has urged the public to get the jab, take Covid tests and quarantine. Most people have complied, expecting that normal service will soon resume. And it must, for this third lockdown has brought the country to its knees. Who is speaking for the women suffering domestic abuse, the children who are overwhelming psychiatric waiting lists, the old people crippled with loneliness, the patients who still can’t get a GP to see them in person, despite needing more than a cursory video call? When did we decide to abandon these people?

Not to jump to any sort of simple or straightforward conclusions — which don’t ever seem to exist in the real world in any case — but perhaps there is something of a “learned helplessness” of people everywhere.

The past year has seen a significant minority of people forbidden from going to work or running legitimate, law-abiding businesses, on the grounds of public health. And surveys show most people remain in favour of extending lockdown restrictions, a sort of Stockholm syndrome in the face of spiking fear and anxiety about an unseen, unknown enemy that can arrive in an instant and leave you or your loved ones breathless and fighting for your life in a sterilized hospital ward of masks and gowns and head-to-toe PPE. (As Cavendish writes, “when polls show support for continued restrictions, thoughtful MPs should ask themselves how exactly a nation became so fearful.”)

A rational analysis of the Covid situation would suggest that the vast majority of people have mild or non-existent symptoms, but rational analysis falls flat when one’s life is on the line.

And into this atmosphere of widespread fearfulness have come swathes of Government measures, in almost every country in the world, that will, inevitably, be much slower to remove than they were to implement.

Will we, many decades from now, have dreamlike reminiscences of a golden era way back when we had unimaginable freedoms?

Will we have to console ourselves with Google Street View journeys through Paris? Is a 23-inch monitor with high definition the closest we can get to a Van Gogh masterpiece?

I fully understand the privileges in these questions. We have been fortunate, most of us, to have lived in a peaceful time of almost universal progress.

It is easy — and true — to say that the challenges we face pale in comparison to those faced by older generations for whom war and disease and hunger were a daily reality.

Maybe we are behaving like spoilt children when we point out the freedoms we have lost. Or maybe pointing them out is the very least we can do.

This is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email each day for 30 days.

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11. On missing togetherness

Krista Tippett is the founder of On Being, which started out as a radio show inside the American Public Media organisation in 2003, and later morphed into a much wider project that considers, and invites us to consider, questions of being in the world: of faith, poetry, beauty, morality, spirituality and other good things that lift us up and out of ourselves.

The About page of the project’s website, refreshed since the arrival of the pandemic a year ago, describes the mission well:

The On Being show is the tip of an iceberg that’s been evolving for nearly two decades — with new depth and velocity in the post-2020 world. Every crisis of our age runs through fault lines of human hearts and well-being — pain and fear and dreams and hope. Work once imagined as “soft” is urgently pragmatic. Calming fear. Expanding imaginations. Resourcing social courage and creativity. Opening the moral questions of humanity hospitably to the seeker, the atheist, and the devoutly religious. Attending to the wholeness of every person: the life of the mind, the truth of the body, and the wild mystery of the human spirit.

Some of the things Krista mentioned and discussed during her recent conversation with clinical psychologist Christine Runyan about the effects in and around our bodies of a year in a pandemic — physiologically, psychologically and spiritually — resonated strongly.

She said:

What I’ve also experienced as I look back on the year and its many chapters — the death of George Floyd, the racial reckoning and rupture, the drama of the election — it feels to me, in my work, in our work with colleagues, there was a lot of adrenaline that got generated because of things that were happening. And that’s quite apart from people having incredible losses and stresses in their lives, losing people and illnesses and [losing] jobs.

But you kept going. There was this energy source.

And then winter set in, the election was over — and all of the energy flowed out of my body. It’s not just that I have felt low in energy, I’ve felt disembodied, and like I’ll never be the same again, and I’ve talked to other people who feel that way too.

I get the feeling that this sensation is something shared by many of us, even if we’re not able to put it into words as precisely and generously as Krista manages here.

Later in the same show, she asked the question which, to me, might go to the heart of the struggles we find ourselves in.

What do we know about the effects on us as humans, as creatures, of what we’ve called “social distancing”, and what that entails — the isolation, the lack of touch, the lack of seeing and being seen in a world of masks?

We are, more than anything, social creatures. It’s not just that we might miss the often empty or inauthentic or even hedonistic thing often called “socialising” — marking the end of a working week in crowded bars with a row of beers lined up beside the taps — but it’s that we miss being social.

Sitting alone in a coffee shop doing a steady trade, being apart but together, or welcoming a neighbour for a cup of tea at the kitchen table.

Walking down a city street that gently hums with activity.

Lining up at the turnstiles of a sports arena or music venue, allowing yourself to anticipate the possibility of witnessing a transcendent moment in the minutes or hours ahead.

Getting together in real time and physical space, whether that’s at the office whiteboard, on the organising committee of a community project, or at tennis or golf or martial arts or a thousand other athletic pursuits that are only really possible in the company of others.

Over the past year, our in-built need for togetherness has been denied. We are encouraged, or compelled, to shelve this species-old part of us for the greater good. It is a stark trade-off, and the only thing that’s guaranteed is that down either path we lose something vital.

You don’t have to be extrovert to enjoy the company of others. Even the most introvert of us can feel the joy of quiet togetherness.

All of us have missed that, I think.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that whenever this pandemic is finally brought under control, by further vaccine developments and supply chain improvements and treatment breakthroughs and changed behaviours, that we should emerge from it and immediately roll back time to engage in precisely the same things we engaged in before.

From depression and obesity to ocean pollution and climate change, many of the choices we made in the past were making us sick, and making the planet sick.

Is it too much to yearn for a future when we can have the solace of comfort in being alone with ourselves, and also to have the chance to be comfortable together in the eternally bubbling, energetic oneness of us all?

I hope not.

I look forward to a future when I am even more comfortable alone with myself, and also have the chance for the regular energising nourishment provided by the anonymous company and fleeting presence of others going about their own lives.

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10. The benefits and the unknown cost of lockdown

Earlier this week I wrote about the difficulty of truth in a world where trust in all institutions is collapsing. In this environment it’s easier for malign forces to stir the pot.

Many of us learned at school that “nature abhors a vacuum” — even if we might not have understood that statement fully at the time. That goes all the way back to Aristotle, who theorized that in physics, any vacuum will be consumed by the denser material that surrounds it.

The term has long been debated in physics, and has moved outside of science into all other areas, including social ideas. And so, for example, if we fear a vacuum of leadership in the world, the one certainty is not that there will be no leadership, but that there will be different leadership, perhaps of a kind that we might not like.

Put another way, when there’s a gap, something always fills the gap. If there is a void of trust in the world, something will step in to fill that void, and that something may not be pretty. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote in the book Skin in the Game, “we are vastly better off complaining about lawyers than complaining about not having them”.

The lockdown reality many of us have been living with for much of the past year has shown signs of fanning the flames of the sort of extremism that might easily step in to fill the gap left by possibly well-meaning but ultimately weak or bumbling political leaders. As humans, there’s something almost inexplicable in our psychology that we seem to prefer strong leadership and less freedom than weak leadership and more freedom.

We are, then, at some level afraid of our own freedom. We are afraid of what freedom allows or compels us to do. Better the devil of some sort of entrapment — a mortgage, a corporate career, a loveless marriage — than the devil of freedom to do whatever it is we might really want.

For this reason, perhaps, lockdown has been welcomed by the majority of people ever since the first lockdowns were introduced in open democratic countries around the world in February and March 2020.

What purpose do lockdowns serve? How are we to judge their success?

Let’s say that the success of a lockdown is judged by keeping people alive. Well, then, how are we to judge whether that’s working? One way is to find reliable data and interpret, as best we can, what they’re telling us.

One such dataset is presented by the European Mortality Monitoring Project (EuroMOMO), a project run out of the Denmark-based Statens Serum Institut (SSI) and with participation from public health bodies in 24 European countries as well as the European Centre for Disease Control and the World Health Organisation.

EuroMOMO collects basic mortality information from its members. Not cause of death, which can be convoluted or problematic. Did Person A die from the cancer that had been ravaging her body for five years, or from the pneumonia which overtook her in hospital? Did Person B die from suicide, or from a reaction to a cocktail of prescribed medicines, or from complications from longstanding schizophrenia?

EuroMOMO counts none of that. It just counts mortality. Numbers of deaths. And over time, these cold, clinical numbers in spreadsheets and graphs can give us a clear sense of excess deaths, when more people than normal are dying.

And judged on the graphs and charts presented by EuroMOMO, it’s not hard to see that on the question of “Do lockdowns prevent deaths?”, the answer is clearly “Yes”.

This 24-second animation shows a map of Europe coloured by its excess death figures — ranging from no excess to extraordinarily high excess — since the beginning of 2019. Watch for the deep blue bruises across the continent first in March and April 2020, and then winter of 2020/21, indicating periods of high or extraordinarily high excess death rates.

 

For the question, do lockdowns prevent deaths, the answer seems to be, “Yes”. Lockdowns work by keeping people from moving around, and therefore limiting the spread of the virus, and therefore keeping deaths down to normal levels. Whenever lockdown is eased, it seems to follow fairly consistently that more people will die.

But life is complicated, and public health is complicated.

Is public health simply to keep the most people alive? Or is public health about keeping the most people healthy?

I remember talking to a CEO of a health and advocacy charity not long ago (but before the pandemic). He was interested in ageing and the wellbeing of the older population, and he talked persuasively about “quality of life years” rather than just “life years”.

Is it better to have three years of dignity and freedom and the ability to take care of oneself, or nine years which may include a decline into serious dementia and/or a daily cocktail of powerful medication and/or round-the-clock care?

These are troubling questions, and there are no easy answers.

When we look at lockdowns through a short-term gaze of “are we keeping people alive?”, then the answer appears to be a resounding yes.

But put on a different lens, and we might see a different picture.

Habits can form quickly enough. The research says strong habits are generally formed with persistent participation in a specified activity for a period of time of between 18 and 254 days, with 66 days being the average time it takes to form a new habit. It’s now more than 365 days since the first lockdowns were announced in Ireland, the UK and the US in March 2020.

What habits have been formed since then?

Habits of social isolation? Habits of genuine fear in how contact with other people could ruin our lives? Habits of withdrawal away from the real, physical world around us (and all the beauty and limitations it gives us) and into a virtual world owned by big tech companies, which removes most of those limitations and offers us a filtered, distorted version of real-world beauty?

So, again, what purpose do lockdowns serve? How are we to judge their success?

As with everything, the truth is nuanced, messy, complex.

There are no easy answers in any of this, and maybe it’s understandable that we resort to short-term success indicators, especially when the people making the decisions are elected officials and the democratic political system is built on short-term judgment calls at the polls every 3-5 years.

But there’s no getting away from the suspicion that the long-term impacts are likely to include a range of unintended but very real consequences that leave tens of millions of people fighting their own private battles against mental and physical health issues, possibly for the rest of their lives.

What are we to do?

Perhaps, it’s to take the best care we can of ourselves, so we can take care of those who need us as best we can. And it’s up to each of us to decide what good care-taking looks like in our own gorgeous, too short lives.

This is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email each day for 30 days.

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9. The difficulty of truth

Since the earliest days of the pandemic, I’ve grappled with a daily battle to find out what’s true.

It’s been a series of recurring battles, and I’ve lost on a lot more days than I’ve won.

“What is true?” is one of the biggest questions to ask, and one of the most difficult to answer.

In the past we had at least two things that diluted truth and threatened truth: propaganda and gossip.

Propaganda was usually national, international, occasionally global. Propaganda was American leaflets raining down on North Vietnam, or the way the British Government controlled media access in the Falklands.

Gossip was much more localised, chins wagging at street corners, the come here till I tell yas and the did you hear the latests.

Propaganda and gossip still remain a factor, but when we add into the mix social media platforms — with the perfect storm of the availability of powerful technology to almost everyone over the age of 12, and the very human hunger for stories to explain the reality in which we live — the capacity to distort the information we receive is taken to a whole new level. (The  Facebook ads bought by Russian agents and targeted at American people is just the tip of a million icebergs.)

This makes the present moment especially difficult, and the virus is only a small part of the whole.

Who can we believe?

Governments?

Media?

Business leaders?

Religious orders?

All have seen their trust decline significantly over the past 12 months.

A comprehensive report by Edelman (yes, a global PR firm), the Trust Barometer, described the current state of affairs:

With a growing Trust gap and trust declines worldwide, people are looking for leadership and solutions as they reject talking heads who they deem not credible. In fact, none of the societal leaders we track—government leaders, CEOs, journalists and even religious leaders—are trusted to do what is right, with drops in trust scores for all.

Without a trusted leadership source to look to, people don’t know where or who to get reliable information.

Science and scientists enjoyed a spell of almost complete trust in the early stages of the pandemic, but even that has been eroded, and quickly.

With hundreds of thousands of scientific studies published every year on every topic imaginable, it is generally possible to find a study to back up your point of view, regardless of what your point of view is. (And that is ignoring some of the pre-pandemic scandals among scientific journals and peer review…)

So, the big unanswerable question remains, what is true?

A skeptical mind seems to be a good thing to have. The truth seems to be generally a messy and complicated thing, so it is good to question.

The problem is that questioning itself has been frowned upon by the culture, especially over the past 12 months.

It seems that there is no availability of a safe middle ground where debate and discussion and questioning can take place.

WB Yeats in his poem “The Second Coming” wrote the line:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

And that’s the thing. There is no centre. There are only the extremes — you are either towing the line unquestioningly, or you are a crackpot conspiracy theorist.

The truth is probably to be found somewhere in the middle. Questioning, with compassion and integrity.

Compassion and integrity seem to be rare and getting rarer, but they, above almost all other things, are worth fighting for.

And the truth, whatever it might be, is worth fighting for above everything else.

The best I can say is, when something is true, we feel it. We have a sixth sense for truth, somewhere deep in the tendrils of our nervous system.  And we know something is false long before we can articulate why.

This is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email each day for 30 days.

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8. The redeeming power of poetry

When things get difficult, I look to books for reassurance. On my weaker days, I might chastise myself — or, more accurate maybe, the voice in my ear chastises me — for indulging in escapism when I should be concerned not about books but about the real world outside my front door.

Last March, when the first waves of the pandemic began to crash on shores all over the world, I sought out books.

In particular, I found myself drawn to poetry.

Poetry and I have had a decidedly mixed relationship all these years. When I was 14 or 15, I remember our English teacher talking to us about poetry, and something once written by the great modernist poet TS Eliot in one of his prose essays.

Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.

Eliot was writing in 1929 about the work of Dante, who lived between 1265 and 1321. He added:

The enjoyment of the Divine Comedy is a continuous process. If you get nothing out of it at first, you probably never will; but if from your first deciphering of it there comes now and then some direct shock of poetic intensity, nothing but laziness can deaden the desire for fuller and fuller knowledge.

There are two things about this jump out.

The first is to do with words, the second is to do with poetry.

The first: Words.

These words — first Dante in the early 1300s, then Eliot in the early 1900s, then my English teacher in the late 1900s — have been saved through the long years by a combination of safekeeping and printing-presses and libraries and teachers and Internet servers, and are available to me through a simple search from my home office in rural Ireland, any time I please. I find that sort of staggering.

The second: Poetry.

The “direct shock of poetic intensity” is what poetry can give us. Poetry is not about banal simplicities. It’s about that shock of intensity, the transcendent moment caught by a poet through an almost-perfect combination of words and tone and rhythm. It is these moments when everything comes together in one emotional glow — moments of joy, or bliss, or awe, or sadness, or grief — that give life so much of its meaning.

For a long time I struggled with poetry. I struggled through the text books, trying to make sense of complicated sentence structures or dense references to other works, places, times. (WB Yeats,  a constant throughout the schooling of every Irish man, woman and child, was especially devoted to both complicated sentences and dense references…)

But then you find a poem or a poet that describes an experience in precisely the way you need it to be described, in a way that seems like it was written just for you.

It could be Michael Rosen on a particularly strict schoolteacher, or Seamus Heaney on the funeral of his younger brother, or David Whyte on the sometimes conflicting invitations the world offers to us, or Mary Oliver on our oneness with everything.

Poetry tells us that our experiences, no matter how small or insignificant we might fear them to be, are not just valid, but sacred, because they are experiences not just of you here now, but experiences shared by everyone everywhere throughout all of history and all of what’s to come.

Poetry can tell us that no matter what we are going through, we are not alone and never will be alone.

Poetry can tell us that we are together in the family of things.

Poetry can help us through all of the challenges that life presents to us, up to and including death, because it can speak a universal language that finds us at the precise moment we need it.

As John Keating, the teacher played by Robin Williams in the movie Dead Poets Society, put it:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

Here are a few poems for different moods on different days, read by the authors.

“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

“The Bell and the Blackbird” by David Whyte (skip forward to 12:35 for the poem)

“Mid Term Break” by Seamus Heaney

“Strict” by Michael Rosen

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The Pandemic, One Year On: 7. The fear of the fear of dying

A few days ago, in one of the first pieces in this series (“Becoming re-acquainted with death”), I wrote that I was no longer afraid of death.

For years I feared death. It was a constant presence for me, a low-level anxious hum that accompanied me everywhere. My fears now have changed — I fear not experiencing life, but I don’t have any real fear of my own death, or the death of those close to me.

And that’s true.

I recognise that death is an essential part of life, and that grief is evidence of happiness, and may even be symmetrically related to happiness — the more happiness we have in life, the more we will grieve.

There is a direct line in many ways between pain and joy. The road to the most blissful times is the same road that brings you through pain. Distress is a milestone on the path to contentedness.

This doesn’t mean we should seek out undue pain and suffering and distress. All lives contain pain and suffering and distress inevitably and of their own accord, and the job becomes to shoulder it, knowing that the joy and happiness we will feel later is made more whole by the experience. If life really is a rollercoaster, then a flat-line rollercoaster, trundling along without the peaks and troughs, is a rollercoaster no-one would be queuing up to ride.

But let’s get back to death.

Millions of people all over the world have lost loved ones to the Covid-19 pandemic. Tens of millions of others have lost loved ones in the past year totally unrelated to coronavirus: heart disease and stroke combined kill as many as the next seven leading causes of death combined — between 50 and 60 million people die each year, and about two-thirds of those are from non-communicable diseases (like stroke, heart disease, lung disease, diabetes and various cancers).

There comes a point, very soon above zero, when numbers don’t really compute for most of us.

Joseph Stalin — and he would know — once said, “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics”.

Death becomes real not through numbers and statistics, but through lived experience, and it is lived experience that gives all meaning to death and life.

Seneca, the great Roman political adviser, writer and stoic philosopher, told a story about death in one of his 124 letters to Lucilius, the procurator of Sicily:

Gaius Caesar was passing along the Via Latina, when a man stepped out from the ranks of the prisoners, his grey beard hanging down even to his breast, and begged to be put to death. “What!” said Caesar, “are you alive now?”

That is the answer which should be given to men to whom death would come as a relief. “You are afraid to die; what! are you alive now?”

“But,” says one, “I wish to live, for I am engaged in many honourable pursuits. I am loathe to leave life’s duties, which I am fulfilling with loyalty and zeal.”

Surely you are aware that dying is also one of life’s duties? You are deserting no duty; for there is no definite number established which you are bound to complete. There is no life that is not short.

Seneca wrote his letters during his retirement (he lived during the time of Christ, dying in the year AD 65 at about 70 years old).

All of us change immeasurably during our lifetimes — would Seneca have felt the same way about death during his 20s or 30s or 40s as he did during his retirement in his 60s? Maybe, but can we really know?

We read his thoughts on death, and we might gain some courage and wisdom and peace from them — because life is short, and because death is one of life’s duties, and because by dying we are leaving no unfinished business, because there is no non-negotiable list of things set down for us to do.

We can benefit from reading such 2000-year-old words.

But we can also give ourselves a little compassion and kindness for our place on our own journey too.

Wisdom comes dropping slowly, through the slow accumulation of daily experiences, from the most mundane Tuesdays to the occasional spikes of transcendent joy that we must notice and cherish.

One of the things about wisdom, too, is how it’s never self-referential. As soon as we consider ourselves wise, something will happen that will prove our foolishness. If we embrace all the things we don’t know, we might in time be considered wise by others.

All of which is to say that it’s okay not to have Seneca’s stoic philosophies on life and death, because there’s a good chance Seneca himself didn’t have them for much of his life.

And it’s okay to fear death and dying, even if what we really fear is not death — for what is there really to fear about that which is certain? — but the fear of the fear of dying.

It’s okay to fear the arrival of those moments when death’s shadow comes to the door, those moments when we know that all the paths we wanted to travel are disappearing quickly one by one.

It’s okay to fear all that, as long as the fear doesn’t paralyse us from choosing those paths when we can.

And if you’re reading this today, there’s a good chance today is a day you can choose one of the those paths.

Wherever it may lead, I wish you good luck on the journey, and the good fortune also to know that good luck often doesn’t look like good luck until long after it has happened.

This is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email each day for 30 days, or read all the pandemic essays so far here.

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The Pandemic, One Year On: 6: The guilty, blessed relief of lockdown

When you cast your mind back to the beginning of the global pandemic in the northern hemisphere spring of 2020, what are the things you remember?

Fear seems to have no real place in memory. We do not easily remember the fears of the past. If we are to remember fear, we must bring it to the surface again and feel it in the present. Even if the object of our fears is invisible to others, we see it and feel it and our bodies hold that fear in the here and now.

When it comes to the fears we felt in the past for a future unknown, when that future has faded into the past they tend to disappear, like water vapours on a warm day.

If we are prone to anxiety, the old anxieties give way to new ones, but when we reflect on the things we were anxious about in the past, we forget that many of those things never came to pass, and the ones that did, they were either not as unbearable as we thought they would be, or we were not as weak in confronting them as we feared we might be.

The fears of the early weeks of the pandemic brought empty supermarket shelves, and aisle fights over trays of toilet roll, and the opportunists, sniffing a quick buck, buying and hoarding hand sanitizer to resell, their own invisible fears gnawing them to the bone and manifesting outwardly in something that looks like greed.

Those early weeks brought a rapid response from governments, who quickly dispensed with stimulus cheques and social welfare payments to make up some of the shortfall of an economy placed on instant life support.

What I remember, more than anything, after the panic of the early weeks subsided, is the peace and the stillness.

I recognise the good fortune and the privilege, that I and everyone close to me escaped the worst of the virus, and I am grateful for that, but there is shame and guilt too in the feeling of relief that swept over me in those still, calm weeks.

For a month or so, the sun shone. The phone stayed silent. Nobody sent emails or expected to receive them. The roads were quiet as all the cars stopped, there being suddenly nowhere to go.

“Fan sa bhaile” read the permanent watermark on the corner of the RTE TV stations. “Stay home”.

We wandered the lanes near our home, and we read books rescued from boxes in the garage, and we finally had the strength and space to sort out the spare room that had become a sort of no-go area, a dumping ground for the overflow of the darker years when we turned our gaze away from everything that was too heavy for us to hold.

I was reunited with a little book I had cherished more than a decade before, and forgotten about for years, and read it again and found that it spoke to me on a new level.

(It’s a quality that good books mysteriously hold. They accompany us throughout life, offering themselves from time to time to our palms and our minds, and we find in their pages, in the words transplanted there and delivered here by some unimaginable alchemy of mind and machine, some wisdom that we knew but had forgotten and needed more than anything to rediscover here, today.)

The world did not stop spinning but almost everything stopped, almost overnight, and within that stoppage there was the most profound stress and fear and anxiety that comes inevitably when everything we once held as normal is suddenly no longer possible.

Within that stoppage too there was a glimpse of beauty, a small opening of a door to show a different world on the other side.

That world was slower, quieter. Despite the closeness of death and illness, it was somehow more peaceful too, as if all our jollity and perpetual motion in the before times had been a cloak to keep from view the things we feared the most.

More than a year on, the pandemic is still here and the motion has steadily returned. It is perhaps not yet at the relentless pace we once thought was normal, but it is here nonetheless, our need to come and go much greater, it seems, than our need to keep still.

Maybe all the stillness of last spring was, in some ways, too much to bear. Maybe the quiet and the solitude that could nourish us also threatened us, revealing for a moment a few of the big questions about our lives.

We can console ourselves that that stillness, and those questions, are available to us at every moment, ready for us to rest a while and ponder, once in a while, the unbearable beauty of being.

This is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email each day for 30 days.

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The Pandemic, One Year On: 5: The Cranberries, technology and the complexity of place

When I was in secondary school, trying to prepare for what was expected of me after the transition to adulthood, probably my favourite band was The Cranberries.

They were a popular band in general terms. Almost everybody in Ireland, and very many people around the world, knew what The Cranberries sounded like.

They weren’t the typical choice of teenage boys in all-boy schools, though, where most were split into factions (“Oasis or Blur?!” was a question that came with a suggestion of violence) and the really admirable ones, the not-yet-grown-ups who seemed to be more grown up than many of the grown-ups we knew, were advocates of The Smashing Pumpkins or The Stone Roses, Portishead or The Velvet Underground.

The Cranberries was a dangerous preference in this environment, so I kept it to myself.

I had the cassette of No Need To Argue, their 1994 album. It’s strange to look back now, from the bits and bytes future, at how music found a way to travel around the world, in the grooves of vinyl and on the translucent microfilm of a cassette tape.

I played that cassette to wearing point.

I had an old silver portable stereo of my dad’s, with all the knobs and controls and tuners on the top and two speakers either side of the cassette tray. (Memory is fragile, and I can’t picture it clearly, but it may even have been one of those high-tech variations with side-by-side cassette trays, which — magically — allowed us to play one cassette while recording to a blank in the other tray. A pencil was a vital tool, re-spooling the thread of the cassette whenever it became loosened or untangled.)

All of this I mention now because a friend indirectly reminded me of what The Cranberries meant to me almost 30 years ago, and because those memories brought to mind also a famous occasion in the recent history of Irish sport, and because those memories reminded me what we’ve been missing, and what may be on the brink of being lost forever.

The famous sporting occasion was when Limerick won the All-Ireland hurling championship in 2018.

This will, very likely, mean nothing to anyone who is reading this from outside of Ireland. It is likely, too, that it will mean not very much to many people reading this in Ireland.

Limerick, the place, has no real emotional resonance for me. My family is all from the east and the north. I have been to the city only a couple of times, and usually just when passing through, on the way to someplace else.

But as I watched the scenes at the end of that All-Ireland hurling final three years ago, the resonance of place went through to my core and brought tears to my eyes. (Tears to the eyes are always a good sign, I’ve learned with time. It pays to listen to what brings those tears.)

Limerick had just won the All-Ireland for the first time in 45 years. They had seen heartbreak many times during those years, especially in 1994, when they led by six points with a few minutes remaining but still lost.

Limerick, the local concept of Limerick, a county where you might walk from one end of the other with an early start and a good day, means something intangible but priceless.

(It’s the same for Donegal and for Waterford and for Tyrone, and all the other old Irish counties, and the “meaningfulness” of those ideas of things often comes out on the fields of Gaelic football and hurling on summer Sundays, the colour of crowds walking together down small streets in provincial towns, taking a pint of beer under the sun, marvelling wordlessly at the beauty of being alive, and together, and from somewhere.)

At the beginning of 2018, word had come through that Dolores O’Riordan had died, tragically, aged just 46, in a London hotel room. She was a proud daughter of Limerick, destined for greatness. Greatness might go global but it always starts local.

As tens of thousands of Limerick people celebrated the achievements of their team out on the field at Croke Park in the late summer of 2018, in those magic minutes after the whistle has sounded and the reality of a joyful moment is just sinking in, someone in charge of the stadium’s public address system pressed play on the song “Dreams”.

Suddenly these moments, already transcendent, were elevated to a new level. The green swathes of Limerick, with all of Limerick together both in place and in spirit, and the voice of one of their own, recently ascended to the plane of the gods, joining in from beyond the grave. (This video captures it well; the song comes in at around 3:30.)

It’s likely the same for you, too, wherever in the world you are. There is something old in the ground beneath your feet, and no matter how we layer it with concrete, its spirit and its magic bubbles to the surface and into the bloodstreams of its people.

This sense of place is newly complex in a pandemic world.

For the fortunate ones amongst us who have been able to continue working a job or a business, the reality quickly became “work from home”.

There are not too many steps between “work from home” and “work from anywhere”.

There is something beautiful to be gained in that. Whenever we can travel again, the opportunity to work while travelling presents the possibility of a joyful freedom.

But it’s also true that there’s something beautiful which could be lost too.

The places we come from and the places we are in are important. They shape us in ways that can give us great joy and can give us great hurt, too.

A future where place is unimportant, where you are everywhere but nowhere, is one I cannot imagine.

At some stage in the future, technology, through virtual or augmented reality or some other innovation we know nothing of right now, might make the virtual world indistinguishable from the real one.

But for now, the virtual world so many of us spend so much time in is a poor relation to the world outside our front door.

The world outside our front door is messy and complicated. If we’re paying attention at all, we will see lots about it that we don’t like.

It’s easy to withdraw from that. It’s never been easier.

When we withdraw fully, we might pay a price without knowing exactly what that price is.

In this new complexity of a tech-laden world that pulls us out of the present and pulls us out of our place, maybe the best way to find our surroundings again is just to try to look up and listen closely.

If we can do that, we might see and hear the magic of the place.

We might see and hear how that magic might be under threat.

And we might find out how we can play a role in honouring the timelessness that rests undimmed beneath our feet.

This is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email each day for 30 days.