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24. The place for individuality within group identity

Group identity is complex. It goes way back, all the way to the origins of humanity, within genetic code we’ve carried forward through millennia.

These days, we might be the chairperson of the community committee, the goalkeeper for the football team, the operations manager for the startup.

All of these things become parts of our identity visible to disparate people, all occupying different strands of the infinite collection of tendrils that is our life.

These identities are external constructs that we take on and internalise.

And these identities are, by necessity, incomplete, because identities evolve and change and fall away over months and years and decades.

There are individual identities in the mix too: we are the spouse, and the parent, and the child, each of them carrying different conditioning and behaviour and expectations.

And while the various strands of our individual identities always come with an encouragement to reflect — what does being a good father or good husband look and feel like today? how can I best honour or support an ageing or ailing parent? — it is the identities we find, or are given, through group attachments that offer us great opportunities at the same time as they present us with some of our most pressing difficulties.

The group and evolutionary psychology

It’s a feature of evolutionary psychology that we tend to gravitate towards groups.

Looking at this through the lens of our ancestors, the countless invisible generations that lie within our past, unseen and unknowable to us but connected to us intimately, it is easy to see why this might be the case.

Always there was safety in numbers. Way back in unrecorded history, the renegade, the maverick, the rebel who left the group behind could only survive by rejoining the group, or joining another, or creating one of his own.

Groups — the tribe, the clan, the village — ensured that the needs of its constituent parts were met.

Solitude might be a blessing, but too much of it kills.

The early 21st century and our shared history

Two things have come together at this point in our shared history.

Firstly, the development of instant, global communications technologies has allowed us to gravitate towards any group of our choosing, unburdened by the now unnecessary requirement of place.

Secondly, the breakdown in organised religions and the weakening of nationhood, each of which has left us facing up to the knowledge that the individual self is the most essential unit of humanity.

These two are inter-related. They provide energy and momentum to each other, creating a flywheel effect of forward motion.

Organised religion based on obfuscation and control had been breaking down for a century and that collapse has been hastened by the easy availability of information made possible by the Internet.

Nationhood had its zenith during the middle decades of the 20th century, and while there are reactionary nationalist ideologies — Brexit in Britain, Bolsonaro in Brazil, the far-right of Hungary and Italy and France — there is also the strong sense that a growing number of people are gravitating now less towards bordered local “states” and more towards borderless global “states of mind”, facilitated again by the openness and decentralisation of Internet technology.

We have no way of knowing where this might end. When we look at history through the lens of millennia rather than years or decades, it becomes obvious that the idea of the nation state is quite recent and not certain to last.

Our challenge, therefore, is to find a place for our individual self within the complexity of identities that are set down upon us by others, whether it’s by society, by convention or by culture, and to bring that individual self forward for the benefit of others.

Pandemic

This challenge has been available to us for the duration of our own individual lifetimes (at least from adolescence onwards) but it has been fast-tracked by the first year of the global pandemic.

The way we do almost everything has been moved into the netherworld of what is too easily described as “online”. That journey has changed the physical space around us — both figuratively, in the sense that our environments are increasingly virtual; and quite literally, in that we must be careful to stay two metres away from everyone.

This challenge, at this moment, encourages us to do two things.

  • To consider our own individuality through a new lens. To strip it of all its given identities, imposed by our place in various groups, to find what’s most true within ourselves, and to bring that to the world without hesitation or retreat.
  • To consider the groups we align ourselves to. Political parties or sports clubs, online communities or local committees.

Making this challenge more complex is the primary frustration of eternal distraction.

Like the legend of the warrior Achilles, the beauty of the information age we live in comes with a potentially fatal flaw: when we have instant access to everything we might ever want to know or learn or do, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to remove the incessant barrage of distraction and still ourselves for long enough to do it.

The most tempting thing at the core of our ancient humanity is to align ourselves with a group.

This kept our ancestors alive, and we hold the belief, unspoken but deep within us, that the group will keep us alive too.

Now we have the choice of which group or groups to align ourselves to, but we can only do that when we have taken the care we need to foster an awareness of our unique individual makeup.

Unlike life on the grasslands of the African plains thirty or fifty thousand years ago, our very survival does not rest on sticking with the group of people in our immediate vicinity.

In contrast, our survival now — and perhaps the survival of humanity itself — rests on our ability to remove ourselves from groups that don’t serve us and others well, and find or create groups that do.

This essay 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 as each one is published.

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23. The diverging approaches to getting back to normal

As these words appear on the screen before me, towards the end of April 2021, Covid-19 cases and deaths are soaring in India. The country has registered record daily case numbers for several days in a row now, and the number of deaths attributed to the disease is now reaching a few thousand each day — yesterday (Tuesday, April 27th) saw a new record for the country of more than 3,200 deaths.

This is being described as India’s “second wave”, but on the face of it — both the raw numbers and stats, and the on-the-ground reports — this bears no real resemblance to the first one.

Coronavirus data India

 

While India is getting the headlines, it is — relatively speaking, and while acknowledging the healthcare system stresses that make spikes much worse — far from obviously the worst situation in the world. Its deaths per million people figure is 1.93, compared to, say, more than 11 per million in Brazil and Poland, 17 in Bosnia-Herzegovina or 20 in Hungary.

Coronavirus COVID-19 deaths India

 

The problems with raw numbers

There have been many (reputable) scientists who have questioned some of the numbers that get routinely trotted out in data analyses and evening news bulletins. The PCR test, for example, which quickly became the gold standard for measuring daily case numbers around the world, has been criticised as being too sensitive, and overall not a good mechanism for recording official figures.

For example, a report titled “Covid-19: the problems with case counting” published in the reputable British Medical Journal last September included a section under the heading “What is a case?” (my emphasis):

One issue in trying to interpret numbers of detected cases is that there is no set definition of a case. At the moment it seems that a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) positive result is the only criterion required for a case to be recognised.

“In any other disease we would have a clearly defined specification that would usually involve signs, symptoms, and a test result,” says Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine at the University of Oxford and the editor of BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine. “We are moving into a biotech world where the norms of clinical reasoning are going out of the window. A PCR test does not equal Covid-19; it should not, but in some definitions it does.”

Angela Raffle, honorary senior lecturer in social and community medicine at Bristol Medical School, is also concerned about this. She says, “In the early phase back in March, deaths were just reported numbers—you couldn’t tell quite what was being counted—then after a while the small print appeared defining what is counted as a Covid-19 death.

I’m still waiting to see the small print to clarify what we are counting as cases.”

Added to that, there is the grand uncertainty that comes from the variance of symptoms and suffering, ranging from zero symptoms for some to prolonged breathlessness and death for others.

All of which means that the official number of “cases” — which at the time of writing stands at 148 million cases — is very likely to be much lower than the real one. (Even the World Health Organisation, as far back as September 2020, put forward its belief that as many as 10% of the global population had been infected. That equated to approximately 760 million people at a time when the official case number stood at *just* 35 million.)

Problems with case numbers aside, as those in frontline health services in India or Brazil or Hungary might attest — all of whom seem to be experiencing something similar to the suffering in northern Italy which attracted so many media headlines in February 2020 — the virus, and the suffering it brings to a small percentage of people who contract it, is very real.

The race to get back to normal

And yet, despite all this, the world is quickly opening up.

What’s the right thing to do?

Lockdown, close borders, impose restrictions … and wait it out?

Or open up fully, give people back the freedoms that had been hard-won over centuries of human progress, protect the vulnerable as much as possible and allow the virus to take its course?

Neither course of action is good for everyone, but then again, could it be that one of the big drawbacks of developments in politics and social activism and the drive for equality of the past 50 years is the idea that anything can ever be good for everyone?

Inequality is part of life. This does not mean that we should strive to stamp out injustice wherever we see it, but to equate injustice with inequality is to fail to understand life.

You can do everything right and get the wrong outcome, and someone else can do lots of things wrong and get the right outcome.

Luck is the great intangible that seeps into all of our days. The challenge for everyone is to keep striding forward with purpose in the knowledge that only a certain amount of things are within our control.

As F Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby, “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”. The current will be against us at times, that’s for sure. Sometimes it will be behind us, and we might not even know it until it changes. (And we have no idea when it will change.)

There is always some lurking temptation simply to give up, to admit defeat against the countless array of troubles that await us, to concede that if survival is the goal, then the goal is eventually doomed to failure for all of us.

Many people have fallen victim to such nihilism in the past. Many more will do the same in the future.

Nihilism is no way to live from day to day. But equally, sinking our heads in the sand and refusing to face any of our troubles is no good either.

And so, things open up.

Pubs serve beer once again.

Outdoor dining will become normal, even in places where outdoor dining was previously curtailed by climate and culture.

Sports fans will return to arenas, taking some precautions and ignoring others, like sports fans always will.

The different approaches being adopted in different places are fascinating to observe.

So in Ireland, you have a situation where the European Football Championship matches due to take place in Dublin this summer have been moved elsewhere in Europe because of the Government’s inability to meet the requirement from Uefa, the tournament’s governing body, that 25% crowd attendance should be allowed.

Hungary, on the other hand, have taken the 25% requirement and run with it. They are trying to stage games before capacity attendances.

Ireland’s Covid-19 7-day rolling death rate is 1 death per million people. Hungary’s is 20 times higher.

Ireland Hungary Covid-19 Deaths per million

Who’s right?

Who knows?

Should we continue to postpone all the things that we see as normal in a free-thinking, free-living democratic society?

Or should we take our chances?

There are no easy answers here.

But maybe, when in doubt (and doubt is permanent), the best bet is to bet on living life, rather than delaying death.

This essay 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.

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22. The individual, the collective and the problem with essential

Beneath all the numbers and data points of the pandemic, you’ll find some of the human stories that need to be told.

Whether it’s the doctors and nurses on the front-line, the nuance and complexity of vaccine trials and roll-outs, or the tragic human Petri dish that has been witnessed in the Amazonian city of Manaus, there are human stories of the challenges and trials (and also triumphs) of the COVID world.

This week there was some coverage for the plight of a man who had accepted a job in Ireland and set about moving from Brazil with his wife and two young children. As an Italian citizen, Bruno Scabora is entitled to work and travel freely within the European Union — at least in less fraught times. (News link, paywalled)

Having travelled ahead of time to start work and arrange accommodation, his family has now been prevented from coming to Ireland due to the fact that under current restrictions, there is a freeze on visa applications.

Two applications for emergency family reunification were dismissed by Irish authorities, with the bureaucrats’ official response including lines such as “reasons for emergency travel do not include missing a loved one”.

Surely, for anyone thinking rationally, this should be chilling.

Contrast this official response to Mr Scabora and, undoubtedly, hundreds or thousands of others around Ireland and around the world, with a vital clause of the constitution of the Irish state.

Article 41 reads:

The State recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.

The State, therefore, guarantees to protect the Family in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State.

Of course, you could make several arguments on the details.

You could argue that as Mr Scabora is not an Irish citizen, that the Irish constitution may not apply.

You could also argue that the free movement of people is one of the fundamental reasons for the spread of COVID-19, and that everyone needs to deal with personal and difficult challenges in the interest of the greater good.

You could also argue that none of us looking in from the outside really know the true depth and nuance of the details of this particular case.

But the purpose of this is not to discuss legal arguments or the specifics of a single case. It’s an attempt to focus my attention, and maybe yours too, on one of the great and profound impossibilities of the pandemic: the individual, the collective and the problem with how we define what’s essential.

We have heard the word “essential” thrown around with abandon over the past 12 months.

At times, only essential travel is permitted, only essential retail is allowed to trade and only essential construction sites are permitted to operate.

It is ludicrous, absurd and impossible to think of essential in these terms, for one primary reason.

What is essential to me is not essential to you.

And that is the way it should be in any mature society that values the freedom of its people to choose their own lives, work toward their own destinies and help to empower or elevate anyone who might find themselves helpless, whether that helplessness is from permanent condition or temporary situation.

I know a couple who are currently building a new home for themselves and their young family after almost a decade in rented accommodation.

If they followed the official advice to the letter, construction work would have stopped.

To almost everyone in the country, this work was not essential. To this family, it’s the most essential thing of all.

How is it possible to square that circle? Is it possible at all?

There are no easy solutions to the new challenges everyone has been faced with over the first year of the pandemic. It has uprooted the way we do everything, and amid such upheaval, it is inevitable for chaos to reign before such time as order is restored.

Absurd definitions of what is or is not “essential” does nothing to create order. All it does is create new divisions in society based on the personality traits of people. Some people will follow all advice faithfully. Others will think for themselves, oppose absurdity when they see it and ignore anything they see as ridiculous.

Among the many questions the pandemic has asked of all of us is this:

What are your most intrinsic values?

Intrinsic values are the things — experiences, qualities, emotions, wants and needs — that are essential and absolute (and absolutely non-negotiable) to you.

The thing about values is that there are no wrong values. There are only values that are wrong for you. One man’s meat is another man’s poison.

If your intrinsic values include security and order, there’s a good chance you will follow the official line and you will look with frustration and anger at the selfish people whose desire to go their own way threatens to create anarchy.

If your intrinsic values include freedom and self-reliance, then there’s a good chance you’re experiencing a complete breakdown in trust in institutions — including governments, universities and media — that you see as dangerously authoritarian and necessary to oppose.

And that’s the problem with one-sided definitions of what’s essential.

Perhaps this is the primary challenge of democracy.

In a democracy, the individual might be seen as vital, and the family unit might be regarded as a fundamental element of an orderly society. Governments and universities and businesses and nonprofits are all made up of individuals, but those individuals come together to form a separate entity, and that separate entity might align itself with groups and groupthink and behave in a way that no individual ever would, in a way that is fundamentally not good for many of the individuals it represents.

In 1947, Winston Churchill wrote:

No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried.

Perhaps the most important questions will always be impossible to answer with any sense of completeness.

Life — individually, and in the collective — might just be an endless game of whack-a-mole, where we solve one problem and immediately see a new one. And often, the new problem is a direct result of the solution to the previous one.

We can be confident that in the long run, the trend-line is upwards. That general progress is inevitable even when individual suffering is impossible to avoid.

Perhaps the best we can do is take the care we need to strengthen ourselves without inflicting any hurt on anyone else, and that individual empowerment — the strengthening of individuality as a different proposition to the individualistic greed that is the undercurrent to so many boardrooms and corridors of power — creates the best outcomes for the collective.

A commitment to that approach, if it’s even possible, would require authorities to have a deeper level of trust in everyone. For everyone to decide for ourselves what is essential, without disrespect to laws or customs or other people.

Maybe that’s no more than a crazy, utopian dream.

But dreams are important for a life well lived. Maybe, even, essential.

This essay 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 as each one is published.

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21. The pandemic’s numbers and stories

Everywhere since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, we have seen an endless array of numbers and been told an endless series of stories.

Numbers and stories are among the greatest inventions of humankind.

Stories have been told around campfires, from pulpits, from stages and via technology. Stories, told in spoken word and music and art, have existed from the earliest days of humankind.

Numbers are measurements. In allowing progress to be measured, numbers allow progress to happen.

Stories predate numbers. The first calendar was devised in the time of Julius Caesar, a generation or two before the birth of Christ. The number zero did not arrive in Europe until more than a thousand years later.

Both numbers and stories contain extraordinary power. Numbers, and numerical calculations, have allowed humanity to define gravity, harness electricity and see into black holes. Stories can liberate races and individuals, or just as easily tie us in chains.

Both are essential aspects of what it is to be human.

Stories allow us to make sense of the world of incessant progress that numbers make possible.

Over the past year or so, numbers — of positive tests, of hospitalisations, of occupied intensive care beds, of deaths — have been almost impossible to avoid without tuning out completely from all consumption of mainstream news media.

A controversy surrounded CNN, one of the world’s largest and most recognisable news organisations, after an employee was caught on secret camera revealing that there was an insatiable appetite for on-screen death numbers among both station executives and station viewers alike.

(This hunger was for compellingly different reasons on either side: the business executives were hungry for such coverage, because they could see viewing figures drop every time the number ticker of cases and deaths disappeared from the screen; viewers were hungry for it, because they were involuntarily, unconsciously drawn to the horror contained in those ever-increasing on-screen numbers.)

How the news industry works

There’s a saying in the news industry: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Tragedy, horror, catastrophe, bloodshed are one staple diet of the news business. Such eventualities engender the oldest emotional responses deep within our ancient brains. We feel fear. We feel fury. We might even feel relief that the suffering on the screen is the suffering of others and not us.

During the United States’ so-called “War on Terror” during the George W. Bush years, there was an unmistakable thirst from the 24-hour rolling news media for acts of and reactions to terrorism. On occasions, there was even a discernible air of disappointment among the TV anchors when an incident that looked like terrorism was revealed to have been merely an accident.

Two things are at play here.

Firstly, the very human yearning for drama that plays out among the on-screen presenters and reporters and the off-screen viewers.

Second, the very human yearning for safety and security that underlies the business model that underlies the reporting.

The media business model relies on paying customers to stay in business. The paying customers are the advertisers who will routinely fork out thousands of dollars for every 30-second slot. The value for the advertisers, of course, comes only from the certainty that the TV can attract the attention of enough viewers. And so the primary driving motivation behind the TV company’s behaviours and attitudes is to attract and keep that attention. Therefore, if it bleeds, it leads.

How the Internet has turned over the news applecart

Into this mix over the past two decades has come the Internet, and the obliteration of mass attention that has accompanied it.

Those of us above a certain age — say, 35 or 40 — can easily remember moments in time when the attention of a large percentage of the world was trained on a single event: the moon landings,  Live Aid or the wedding of Princess Diana. (Indeed, Diana’s death in a traffic accident in a Paris tunnel in 1997 might be the last time a single event attracted the majority of the world’s attention.)

Now, technology has scattered us to the four winds. It is extraordinarily powerful, in our favour if we possess the strength of mind and character to use the tools and platforms for our own benefit, but to our cost if we allow ourselves to react and react and react in an endless sequence of emotional responses driven by algorithms built with the help of behavioral scientists and neuroscientists.

One outcome of this atomisation of attention is that the biggest news and media companies, which grew so relentlessly by their status as the primary channels of information flow, have seen the need to reinvent as the entirety of their decades- or century-old business models collapsed.

The best of them — the Financial Times, say, or the New York Times — have been able to leverage the reach of the Internet to build a global base of paying subscribers, offsetting the fall in old paper-based ad revenue.

Others, though, are struggling to remain afloat and sustainable in this new world order. They thrash around from crisis to crisis. Crisis becomes both their internal day-to-day and external stock-in-trade. They firefight within the business while showing pictures of firefights out in the world.

There are many who would argue that the arrival of a new and rapidly-spreading global illness into this media environment has been a blessing.

Questions about the reliability of basic PCR test numbers are swept under the carpet, where all other nuance and complexity is sent.

It is here that both numbers and stories are letting us down.

Exposed to daily numbers, we become numb to the numbers; 500 new cases, 22 new hospitalisations, 12 new deaths, such numbers contain none of the living, breathing reality of what each of those cases, hospitalisations or deaths means.

Exposed to simplistic narratives, we find we are unable to find and tell the compelling story about the more complicated truths.

From the media, we need brave and courageous editors and reporters to ask better questions, to interrogate mainstream narratives, to uncover more meaningful numbers and to tell the compelling true stories behind them.

From ourselves, we need to adopt a position of positive scepticism in our consumption of news media. We need also to cultivate an awareness both of how our emotions cause us to react, and what  exactly might be the source of those emotions and emotional reactions.

The numbers we see and share, and the stories we tell and are told, are not an endpoint in our understanding. They are merely a starting point for a better understanding of the confusion all around us.

Only with a better understanding can we hope to live and breathe again and look ahead to making a better world on the other side.

This essay 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 as each one is published.

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20. Shay Healy and how the end of life’s journey might not be the end of everything

Shay Healy died last week.

For those of you outside Ireland, the name will probably mean little. But for many people within Ireland, especially for those above, say, 45 years of age, Shay Healy will conjure up a variety of thoughts and feelings and memories.

Healy was a master of many trades. Journalist, broadcaster, songwriter, entertainer, musician, philosopher and someone who — not many can say this — was instrumental in ending the political career of the leader of a country.

Let’s make a short aside into the Ireland in which Shay Healy came to prominence, before we return to the end of his life and what we can learn from the way he lived.

The two moments that could be said to book-end Shay Healy’s sphere of public influence came 12 years apart, in 1980 and 1992. The 1980s were a bleak time for a generation of Irish people, with a deep recession resulting in extended high levels of interest rates, joblessness and emigration.

Ireland has, in a way, always been like this: at least since the Great Famine of the 1840s, mass youth emigration was almost a Government policy (whether that Government was based in London or Dublin). Every generation has endured the reality of waving a probably permanent farewell to a high percentage of its young people, destined for new and hopefully brighter lives elsewhere. Official statistics tell us that between 2011 and 2015 alone, during the austerity years after the global financial crisis, 350,000 people aged between 15 and 44 emigrated from Ireland. (Ireland is a small country; 350,000 people is about 7% of the population.)

Indeed, the economist David McWilliams put forward a compelling theory about Ireland’s COVID-19 figures in a recent episode of his podcast:

COVID is a disease that kills old people. Ireland is the country with the least amount of old people per head in the EU. If you look at the numbers, Ireland has the least amount of people over the age of 65 as a percentage of our total population.

Why is that? Where are all those old people gone? Those old people now live in England. They are the people who emigrated in the 1950s and 1960s. Five hundred thousand people emigrated to England alone in the 1950s. Three hundred thousand more left in the 1960s. That’s 800,000 people who would have been living in Ireland now, who would have been old, who are now living in the UK.

So think, what has actually happened? COVID kills older people. And our older people are disproportionately living in the UK.

That was the 50s and 60s. The 80s were also dark and difficult, a time when for many Irish people survival meant leaving.

Shay Healy came to prominence at either end of this dark decade. First, as the songwriter of “What’s Another Year?”, which Johnny Logan sung to the top spot at the Eurovision Song Contest of 1980, and towards the end of the decade, as host of Nighthawks, an electric, rambunctious, often controversial late night chat show, where in January 1992 he set in motion a domino fall that resulted in the resignation of Charles Haughey, a charismatic, domineering and often hypocritical figure who had led the country as Taoiseach on three separate occasions between 1979 and ’92.

Healy’s questioning, and maybe the unique atmosphere of the Nighthawks nightclub setting, led to the revelation by a former Government politician that Haughey had tapped — or approved the tapping of — the phones of journalists to try to get a handle on political media leaks.

Nighthawks lasted four years (1988-92). “What’s Another Year?” is an emotive three-minute song from 1980. Those moments are what Healy is remembered for, but they are just that: moments. Peaks of performances in the course of a 78-year life.

What really lasts about Healy — and maybe this is the best any of us can hope for from the course of our physical time here, on this piece of rock and water spinning through space — is the way he approached, and thought about, life itself.

This became truly apparent in his later years, especially after the onset of Parkinson’s Disease and the effects it had on his day to day. In an interview with the Sunday Independent writer Barry Egan a few years ago, he said,

Parkinson’s is good fodder for gags but in reality I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. It is ugly, painful and distressingly intrusive into my daily life … The drugs help by alleviating the symptoms but there haven’t been any new drugs in 30 years. So they’re a bit of a blunt instrument. And there are lots of side-effects.

I can turn into a shopaholic, a gambling addict — and it can also drive up the libido, resulting in high levels of priapism. You’d be spoiled for choice if you were in the whole of your health.

The other weird thing I deal with is the constant hallucinations. When I go to bed, I will see people in the bedroom or lining the stairs … I know I am projecting these images and, if I want to, I can get rid of them with a blink of my eyes. But sometimes they are oppressive.

[Also] the tips of my fingers have gone numb. I can’t pick up peas if they fall on the floor. They stay on the floor.

Despite these struggles, and a much diminished public presence, Healy was able to shine a powerful light on the world. At 73, he received his first recording contract with a reflective, heartfelt and emotional take on life and death, a song called “Stardust”.

The song (you can watch his lovely television performance below) outlined his beliefs about the soul: that in the here and now we might occupy physical bodies, but that our souls might live on eternally, and that the end of one life might not be the end of everything.

As he wrote, and sang:

Dry away your tears now, our souls go on forever
And maybe we will meet again when you become stardust too.

Earlier this year Tommy Tiernan, the comedian, writer, actor and broadcaster, told a little anecdote about meeting Healy a few years back, and the power of the invisible torch that can pass — unseen but truly felt — between two people.

If I’m thinking of a “song line” that’s gone through my life, for a lot of my life, it’s definitely been “attention”. The desire for attention can be the thing that makes you good at stuff. If you want to be good at soccer, you try really hard, or if you want to be good at stand-up … all of the things I’ve gotten into over the years, part of it has been motivated by the desire for attention.

But it’s changed. Now, I think, the song line that’s replaced that is the song line of “togetherness”. I’ve kind of had my fill of attention! Now what interests me most is teamwork. Getting together with groups of people and saying, ‘What can we do together?’

Bob Dylan talks about a moment when he was about 16 years of age and Buddy Holly came to play in Hibbing, Minnesota, a small little place where Bob Dylan lived. And Dylan said, ‘There was a moment, Buddy Holly f***in looked at me’. Dylan was unknown. Buddy Holly died three days later in a plane crash. You’re talking about two of the greats of rock’n’roll. And Dylan says, ‘He f***in looked at me. He’s up on the stage, he’s playing his songs, and he just turned, and he f***in stares at me.’ And Dylan says, ‘Something happened. He gave something to me. A torch was passed.’

Buddy Holly looks into the crowd, at this young Jewish fella called Bobby Zimmerman, and Holly just stares at him. And years later that young fella becomes Bob Dylan.

The same thing happened to me, with Shay Healy.

I met him recently, about two or three years ago. Shay has Parkinson’s now, but the fire is still in his f***in eyes. He grabbed my arm, and he stared at me, [there were] loads of other people there, and he said, ‘Other people. It’s about other people.’

I took it in, or whatever. And [a bit later] I’m sitting there at the dinner, and I’m munching away at my food. And I look up, and he’s two tables away from me, and he’s f***in staring at me.

And I got it. Something happened. And the message he gave to me was, ‘Other people’.

And that has informed my life since that moment. The song line of togetherness. Of not doing stuff with myself. Of finding teams of people. Where the product is one part of it, but the community of togetherness is the other.

We might be troubled always and inevitably by loneliness. We might begin life alone, and exit it alone, and be alone with our thoughts and feelings and what they might mean.

At some point we might have to blink away the hallucinations, and leave the peas on the floor.

But through it all, the invisible connection to other people is something to hold onto, something to cherish and nurture.

The language of connection is difficult, often impossible, especially in the moment. (How often do all of us think of exactly the right thing to say, hours or days or a lifetime after the right moment to say it has passed?)

But there’s something invisible that connects us all. Shay Healy believed it to be the soul. Tommy Tiernan believed that an invisible, unspoken but absolutely real torch can occasionally pass between people.

This is something we’ve missed during the pandemic.

The sense that community is somehow a luxury, that we can remove it or postpone it indefinitely, and that everything will be alright.

But everything won’t be alright, because while aloneness, and occasional loneliness, is inevitable over a long life, community and togetherness are essential to a life worth living.

We are single beings, and finding and honouring the truth within ourselves, and bringing it to the world, is a lifelong task that each of us must shoulder for ourselves.

But the flip side of that paradox is that by honouring ourselves, we will honour others. By fully and truthfully living our own individual values, we allow others to do the same, through the power of our souls or invisible torch that we pass between us, one person to the next to the next, and on through time forever.


This essay 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.

Here’s Shay Healy, singing “Stardust”.

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19. The problem of loneliness

Around the world, there are signs that things are beginning to open up. After a year of Covid-19, the virus and attendant disease has not gone away, there have been significant vaccine challenges — from manufacturing and distribution to potentially fatal side-effects for a small number of people — and the fear over vaccine-resistant mutant variations is a real one.

Nevertheless, everywhere there is a cautious optimism that the world is approaching the end of the pandemic rather than bedding in for another year or two of fresh waves and restrictions on movement and everything else that has become normal for most people in the world since the early months of 2020.

In the UK, pubs have reopened and theatres, after months of online performances, are preparing to welcome back attendees for the real thing. In Ireland, where the country has been in a maximum Level 5 lockdown since Christmas, the Government is insisting that there will be no further lockdowns in the future, promising that when small businesses are allowed again to open, it will be to stay open.

In the US, meanwhile, states such as Texas have been reopened since March, and major sporting events such as the Super Bowl and the Masters golf tournament have taken placed with significant numbers of spectators in attendance (even if they were necessarily less than capacity). Much of Asia, which had been well versed in pandemic response following SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2012, appears to have been operating relatively normally, with high levels of compliance on measures designed to reduce spread among the populations in the likes of China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Singapore.

While we could argue at length about the down sides of the blind consumerism that had become normal in pre-pandemic times — both for us as individuals, and for the environment around us — most people will be relishing the prospect of a little more freedom of movement.

Community matters to our health and our happiness. We know this for sure. Places around the world with the highest level of local community seem to correspond neatly with the so-called “Blue Zones” — from the Seventh-day Adventist communities of Loma Linda, California, to the Greek island of Ikaria, to Okinawa in Japan — where people commonly live healthily and happily well into their 90s or past the magic 100.

There is a sense that the pandemic has quickly eroded a lot of local community around the world, crashing like a wave against a shore where the sands were already shifting.

More connection = more disconnected?

While Internet social networks such as Facebook and WhatsApp and Twitter have left us in some ways more connected, we are in many ways more disconnected too. There seems to be an inverse relationship — the more shallow connections we have, the fewer our deep connections.

Studies going back to the 1980s seem to suggest that our friendships and kinships, the kind of meaningful relationships that ward off loneliness, is getting worse.

In 1985, the General Social Survey (GSS) in the US found that adults had an average of three close friends or confidants. By 2004, that number on average was closer to two. Even more alarmingly, the most common answer to the question was “zero”.

That study predated the rise of the social media phenomenon, which has changed the way most of us communicate and convene, a trend that was fast-tracked by the arrival of the pandemic and everything — work, shopping, education — online.

Several interesting studies published in recent months suggest at least two things: first, that loneliness was already a existing problem, and that it has been made significantly worse by the pandemic; and second, that loneliness causes a spiral of mental health problems that can be extremely difficult to overcome.

The first study, by researchers at Cambridge University, surveyed more than 50,000 people over the age of 50 across 26 European countries last summer. It found that more than 1 in 4 respondents struggle with depressed mood, anxiety or sleep problems, and that for all of those, the problem had become worse during the pandemic.

The researchers also stated that, as the survey took place during the summer months of 2020, when lockdown restrictions and coronavirus cases had fallen sharply, and before the second wave and further economic and social challenges of winter, the results were likely very conservative and in reality the problems may by now be much worse.

The second study, by the Harvard University-based project Making Caring Common, surveyed a wide population of all age groups in the US. It found that a striking 61% of 18-to-25-year-olds, and more than one in two young mothers, reported “serious loneliness”.

A third study, published in Lancet and which analysed data from more than 3000 American adults between the ages of 57 and 85 going back several decades, found that “social network structure and function are strongly intertwined with anxiety and depression symptoms in the general population of older adults”.

In effect, they stated, loneliness creates mental health problems, and mental health problems in turn create loneliness, and the downward spiral continues to make everything worse until it can somehow be interrupted.

In short, the problem of loneliness-related mental health issues seems to have been fairly well established already. The pandemic might have made it worse.

Aristotle’s perfect form of friendship

All of which brings to mind Aristotle’s theories on friendship. The Greek philosopher, writing 2500 years ago, outlined what he saw as three types of friendship. The first was based on utility, such as work colleagues or local organisational committees where both parties gain from the input of the other. This type of friendship seems to sputter when the transactions stop.

The second was based on pleasure, mostly an external source of pleasure. We can have friendships while enjoying some pleasurable pursuits, such as a Wednesday night bridge game or a mountaineering club, but take away the pleasure, and the friendship also drifts.

The third type, and the one that Aristotle urged us all to invest in, is a friendship of virtues.

The perfect form of friendship is that between the good, and those who resemble each other in virtue. For these friends wish each alike the other’s good in respect of their goodness, and they are good in themselves; but it is those who wish the good of their friends for their friends’ sake who are friends in the fullest sense, since they love each other for themselves and not accidentally. Hence the friendship of these lasts as long as they continue to be good; and virtue is a permanent quality.

Aristotle, though, also knew that these friendships were not common.

Such friendships are of course rare, because such men are few. Moreover they require time and intimacy: as the saying goes, you cannot get to know a man till you have consumed the proverbial amount of salt in his company; and so you cannot admit him to friendship or really be friends, before each has shown the other that he is worthy of friendship and has won his confidence.

New loneliness, or a new awareness of loneliness?

If true friendships were rare even thousands of years ago, is there a chance they’re no more uncommon now?

Is there a chance that because of the vastness of the information flow around us, we’re just more aware of it, and more aware of our loneliness, than we have been before?

Lex Fridman is a Russian-born US-based academic and podcaster who has won a sizeable audience for his brand of philosophy and questioning, especially coming from his research standpoint, which focuses heavily on the field of artificial intelligence.

In a recent conversation with the economist Tyler Cowen, Fridman spoke about his sense of people’s loneliness:

I have a sense that there’s a deep loneliness in the world. That all of us are really lonely. We don’t even acknowledge it. Even people in happy relationships. It feels like there’s an iceberg of loneliness in all of us. We’re seeking to be understood. Like, deeply understood. Having somebody with whom you can have a deep interaction [with], enough to where they can help you understand yourself, and they also understand you.

Maybe what’s true now has always been true.

That we’re born alone. That we exit this life alone. That we wake up each morning with our own thoughts locked inside our own minds, and that it’s a daily challenge for us to find a way to translate such internal strife into words or pictures so that we can better understand ourselves, and so that others can understand at least a small part of who we are.

Thanks to social science, we understand loneliness and its effects more now. Those effects are real and difficult.

But maybe we’re just destined to feel some level of loneliness in our lives, and that we’re no lonelier than we’ve ever been.

Whether that makes our own individual lonelinesses, when they inevitably come, any easier to bear is for each of us to answer for ourselves.

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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18. Our private information war: The blurred line between ignorance and informed

In my day job, helping businesses to navigate the often murky waters and choppy seas of communicating and marketing on the Internet, I pay close attention to a gentleman called Avinash Kaushik.

He’s worked for Google for a long time and he writes about what he calls the “intersect between Digital Marketing and Data Analytics”. You might be thinking you need to be a particular type of nerd to find any of that interesting, and you’re probably right.

But there’s something he keeps returning to, that is both the core and the cornerstone of everything he does, which makes him compelling (for me, at least, and for hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of other readers around the world).

He talks about the disconnect between information and interpretation in the field of marketing (the activities businesses invest and engage in to try to succeed) and analytics (the metrics that might tell whether those activities have worked).

And a recurring theme in his work can possibly be boiled down to this:

There is a vast amount of information but there is precious little valuable interpretation of that information.

One thing that has come into sharp relief over the first 12 months of the pandemic, no matter where you are in the world, is the unprecedented availability of information, and the confusion around what that information means.

In the earliest days, in January and February 2020, when the news trickled through of a new virus in a province in China, we saw videos of the Chinese authorities erecting specialist hospitals in a matter of days, and videos of eerie deserted streets in the city of Wuhan where people were strictly quarantined into their homes.

This developing news was one type of information, and we relied on both external and internal factors to interpret it.

The external factors include the news media, for sure, who we have relied on for well over a century to construct a narrative from available information and tell us a story that makes logical sense to our brains. External factors of information interpretation have also always included our own small circle of friends and family: whether it’s a mature discussion around the dinner-table (or barbecue, or campfire), or something as simple as a little idle gossip, our small circles help us interpret the information that comes to us.

Internal factors of interpretation includes how we think and how we feel.

Your brain’s biggest job, of course, is always to keep you alive. Identifying dangers, and being afraid of them, is perhaps the oldest and most established task that sits as a minute-by-minute to-do list in your brain.

Neuroscientists have in recent decades discovered so much about the amygdala, a tiny almond-shaped slice deep in our brain, which is believed to be the emotional heart of the brain. When we feel fear or love, or fury or lust, the amygdala seems always to be involved, taking inputs from available information, and processing them. It’s safe to say the amygdala in all of us has been working overtime this past year or more.

As we interpret information that comes at us, about a new virus and potentially fatal illness that seems to be as easily transmissible as any virus has ever been, we can be forgiven for feeling some level of fear as the internal checks deep in our brains do their thing.

The availability of information: a new challenge for humanity

While our understanding of these things is still very new, all of these ingredients in the way we live and behave have been inside us for as long as humans have been humans.

What is new and explosive, though, is how the Internet has revolutionised the information flow.

In the past, we suspected the world was complex, but we had very little information about that complexity, and so we did our thing — we farmed, or cooked, or chatted with friends, or went about our businesses, happily unaware, maybe even blissfully ignorant, of most of the complexity about the world around us.

We relied on institutions like governments and media and courts of law to seek out and receive the information they needed, and to present us an interpretation of that information that made some sense to us.

What has happened with the onset of the Internet, though, is comparable to finding one’s way to Oz, and looking behind the green silk curtain and seeing that the “great and powerful Wizard of Oz” is a little old man with a microphone and a smoke machine.

With the new knowledge that the narratives being constructed, by media and by governments, are at best incomplete or ill-informed, and at worst willfully untrue and occasionally corrupt and fraudulent, what are we to do?

We have access to more information than we know what to do with. From the eternal rabbit hole that is OurWorldInData, to daily updates of case numbers and hospitalizations and deaths, to vaccine efficacy, information about the coronavirus and its effects is available all around us. Once we start the process of information excavation, we discover that it never ends with everything neatly tied up in a bow.

The difficulty lies in interpreting the information in a way that makes sense to us. In knowing what to believe in and trust, what to ignore and disregard, what to protest against.

It is a new challenge for humanity, and almost nothing in the history of our species prepares us for it.

We can go any number of ways. The spectrum runs from total ignorance on one side to total information on the other.

Neither extreme is especially appealing.

The best and safest thing we can do, perhaps, is to approach everything with an open, learning, questioning mind.

Questions that come from a place of humility — “I don’t know, and I want to learn” — have been central to every step of progress, for us as a species and for each of us as individuals.

We ask a question. We receive information. We interpret that information. We step forward into that interpretation. Then we ask another question, and the cycle endlessly repeats.

One of the biggest dangers to us all is the shutting down of questioning.

If there’s a blurred line between being ignorant and well-informed, there appears now to be a very fine line between asking questions and being accused of harbouring conspiracy theories.

Blindly following rules and orders — that’s the sort of thing innocent, well-meaning people did in 1930s Germany, or in the gulags of the 1950s Soviet Union.

Our right to question is core to our being. Asking better questions gives us better information.

Rights come with responsibilities, always. Out of the right to question, the responsibility that comes with it is to interpret the information we receive in way that is useful and productive.

It’s no easy task, and we might find many questions unanswered or unanswerable.

But it’s a task that must be done.

As the exposed Wizard of Oz says, “I’m a good man, but a terrible wizard.”

By asking questions openly and humbly, we stop seeking reassurance from wizards that don’t exist.

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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17. The saving grace of plants

A thesis has been developing in my mind this past year or more, first taking shape as time slowed down so much for so many of us in the early stages of the pandemic.

Later, as the external world inevitably started to speed up again, this worldview which had taken hold in the long warm locked-down Irish spring of 2020, settled in and bedded down and told me it was staying for the long haul.

The thesis — underdeveloped, not thought through, maybe fragile — goes something like this:

The solution to almost all of our human ills lies in the abundant fertility of the land beneath our feet.

You’ll find lots of short documentaries on YouTube about the so-called “Blue Zones” around the world, scattered locations without much, it seems, in common apart from the fact that their inhabitants commonly live long, happy and healthy lives.

One recent film, made by the Vice online media platform, tells a little of the story of Ikaria, a tiny island in the Aegean sea about 100 miles off the coast of Greece.

Ikaria in Greece

The Greek island of Ikaria (Photo via Matías Callone on Flickr)

The film tells us that one in three Ikarians live past the age of 90 (the figure for the USA is one in 20).

There would appear to be a few factors in this life expectancy (and quality of life expectancy): the pace of the day to day, which allows zero room for any element of stress or even urgency, is one; the benefits of regularly eating fresh fish caught daily in the purest of eastern Mediterranean waters may be another.

Another factor that jumped out, though, was the prevalence of plants.

Lashings of local olive oil from the olive trees that are everywhere, wine freshly pressed from the vineyards on the slopes of the hills, tomatoes and peppers and potatoes from the garden, and a wide supply of fresh garden herbs.

Not all of us can live in the Mediterranean, and supply chains and food miles might make it problematic even to introduce more Mediterranean variety into our diets, but this isn’t really about the Mediterranean.

It’s about the lushness that’s possible when we nurture the ground beneath our feet.

For me it started amid some of the blind bottled panic of the early days of the pandemic, when supermarket shelves emptied and there were signs everywhere placing limits on the number of items we could buy. (“Feed the Nation” was a real phrase that came out of the mouths of politicians everywhere, double-underlining the unspoken fear, that lies so deep in all our DNA, that we would go hungry…)

We purchased seeds for Jerusalem artichokes and peppers, and onion sets and peas, and a few bags of compost, and set about trying to assemble a vegetable garden.

Success was mixed. The onions were a roaring success, and the peas were highly promising, but the rocket lettuce was feasted on by slugs and butterflies and the artichokes never raised their heads. But the major outcome, in hindsight, was much less in producing food for the table, and much more about building a connection between our lives and the possibilities presented by the earth around us.

We can look at this in big, international terms — many studies have been carried out to show the potential global benefits of switching to vegan or vegetarian diets.

But just getting through the day can be a struggle for many people in many parts of the world, and thinking about things that are outside of our personal, individual control — such as the apocalyptic vision of climate change — can be a major negative trigger.

So if you’re well enough physically and mentally to take a global view, go for it. But if you’re not, then don’t feel under any pressure to look anywhere beyond the confines of your own daily life.

But maybe the most important thing is that diet is only one part of our relationship to plants.

Growing our food is beneficial, of course, but there are countless other benefits for us from the plants that can sprout untamed from the ground beneath us and around us.

Touching the bark of a tree releases invisible endorphins into your palm and nervous system and blood stream.

Earthing — bringing as much of your body as possibly into contact with the earth (in other words: lie down flat on the grass, preferably face down) — has become increasingly popular around the world as people everywhere seek solutions to the internal turmoil that invades so much of modern living.

Planting seeds, and tending them, and watching, a few days or weeks later, the tiny green shoots sprout and soar and bend their bodies towards the light.

Stirring porridge oats, chopping a melon, catching a glimpse of a Cherry Blossom in bloom, discovering a sudden burst of yellow daffodils, watching a sole red leaf poke its way through the green of a two-year-old poinsettia.

There is an unseen, un-see-able, almost spiritual quality to all these things.

Plants might nourish our bodies, but they also, in countless different ways, nourish our spirits and our souls, and anything that is good for that part of us we can safely embrace without any doubt or ambiguity or fear.

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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16: Questions of Travel: Journeys of the Body, Journeys of the Mind

One of my favourite writers, Bill Bryson, has a thought-provoking passage near the beginning of his book about Australia, Down Under, published in 2000.

Through the technological miracles of television and commercial travel, Australia seems so accessible now, even homely. We might easily remember the theme tunes of Home and Away or Neighbours, or know one or a dozen young people who’ve spent a gap year in Sydney or Brisbane, or recall with fondness the sporting exploits of David Campese or Ian Thorpe, Evonne Goolagong or Greg Norman.

But the technology distorts the reality.

A friend of mine, one of those people who sees right into the empty heart of most new technology — whether it’s a smartphone or a fancy new car — mostly prefers to use his sixty-something-year-old legs to carry him around. He runs for exercise and walks for pleasure. He once said to me, “When you’re in a car and you see a sign, ‘Next town: 5km’, you immediately think, I’m there. When you’re walking, though, that same sign means one hour.'”

Australia is a faraway place, and just because such distances have been condensed by the marvel of modern innovations doesn’t mean they’re not real.

Because Australia is so far away from anywhere, it is truly unique. Bryson’s book outlines all the horrible, uniquely Australian and slightly hilarious ways you can die there: “It has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures — the funnel web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish — are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you. Pick up an innocuous cone shell from a Queensland beach, as innocent tourists are all too wont to do, and you will discover that the little fellow inside is not just astoundingly swift and testy but exceedingly venomous. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.”

But it was his reflections on the origins of Australia’s people that has stuck in my mind ever since I first read it a couple of decades ago. Our own little lives are so short that it’s hard for us to think about the span of centuries, never mind millennia. But the story — or theory, because nobody really knows for sure — of how the Aboriginal people first got to Australia is mind-blowing.

Bryson writes:

At some undetermined point in the great immensity of [Australia’s] past — perhaps 45,000 years ago, perhaps 60,000, but certainly before there were modern humans in the Americas or Europe — it was quietly invaded by a deeply inscrutable people, the Aborigines, who have no clearly evident racial or linguistic kinship to their neighbors in the region, and whose presence in Australia can only be explained by positing that they invented and mastered ocean-going craft at least 30,000 years in advance of anyone else, in order to undertake an exodus, then forgot or abandoned nearly all that they had learned and scarcely ever bothered with the open sea again.

Thirty thousand years in advance of anyone else, they were travelling across vast oceans. Thirty thousand years is a long time. It’s only three thousand since the pyramids and the passage graves of Atlantic Europe, two and a half thousand since Socrates and Aristotle and Plato, two thousand since Jesus Christ and Julius Caesar.

Reflecting on this now, though, one of the most striking things about all this is the urge to travel.

Tens of thousands of years before the invention of agriculture, or the first urban civilisations, people were fashioning boats strong enough to take them across vast and inhospitable oceans — no doubt killing very many of them en route — to find another land to call home.

Yes, it was almost certainly driven by survival instinct, a voyage starting from a life gamble: either die where we are, or roll the dice with all our lives and see where the sea takes us.

If we believe in souls or spirituality, in any sort of transcendent plane of existence, if we’re to believe that there is an energy that transmits across the generations above and beyond the very real limitations of our own gravity-bound bodies, then there must be some core part of us that is driven to move.

To move, to move on, to leave behind, to seek somewhere new — all of those urges might be within all of us.

Elizabeth Bishop, the poet, has a lovely poem called “Questions of Travel” which includes the lines:

Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?

The poem later makes reference to Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician, who once declared that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

And maybe he was right. War and carbon emissions and all the countless problems of colonialism, all can be traced back to the inability to be happy with one’s lot in the here and now.

But maybe “problems” is too negative a term to be entirely accurate. Because there is something glorious and necessary too in our desire to go, to move, to find a place where we can see the sun the other way around.

Maybe this has been one of the biggest challenges we’ve had to deal with in this pandemic year. Along with the uncertainty facing so many livelihoods, and the new awareness of our mortality, we have been asked to stay at home, to restrict our movements, to stay still for the greater good.

It is a big ask, and it can’t go on indefinitely without losing something priceless and core to our being.

As vaccine rollouts continue to progress, and the understanding of everything around the virus improves — from how it spreads, to who is most at risk, to breakthroughs in how the illness can best be treated — many people will be allowing themselves to look forward to a time when they can travel more freely again.

Until that happens (and our collective desire for travel is so ingrained that it is certain to happen), maybe the best we can do is not merely to sit still and try to calm our mind with affirmations and incantations and mindfulness meditations.

Travel with our minds

Such pursuits can be valuable, of course, but another choice we have is to travel with our minds.

To pluck a book from the shelf, and sink into it, and find ourselves within just a few focused minutes, plotting revenge against the bore in the next bed in a World War II hospital ward, or on a desert planet in another time or another dimension, or accompanying a band of outlaws around the Australian outback.

Stories are more than just stories. Stories make sense of our world. Stories bewitch us. Stories can save our lives.

They take us on a neverending journey into countless places and perspectives we can never hope to experience in the objective, external reality of our own day to day.

We are privileged if, at any moment, we can reach for any one of a million travel guides, give ourselves over to them for a few minutes and allow them to bring us to some new shore of some new land.

When we can’t travel in our bodies, we can console ourselves, at least, that we can still travel in our minds.

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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15. Finding ease in our future of unnerving worries and infinite possibilities

Listening to a recent episode of the Tim Ferriss podcast, the extent of the Internet’s impact on the way we do everything became a tiny bit clearer.

As all of us who do anything know well by now, the impact of networked technology — the Internet, and all the countless pieces of software and hardware and apps that have been piled on top of it — has been felt in every facet of our lives.

Whether that’s the contactless payment technology we’ve been encouraged so strongly to use to limit the possibility of spreading COVID-19 by cash money, to the Zoom meetings and WhatsApp calls that have become so commonplace for work and family communications this past year, to using Uber Eats to get a delivery of McMuffins in the morning, to using Google Maps to never ever ever get lost, the Internet’s tentacles have found their way into our every waking moment.

Balaji Srinivasan is a (presumably wealthy) Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor, having started, grown and sold a number of businesses. He’s also someone who courts plenty of controversy, particularly in the old media and legacy institutions that he predicts will collapse.

In this interview with Ferriss, Srinivasan laid out a bleak future for many established institutions, including everything from universities to banks to governments.

I don’t think many institutions that predated the internet will survive the internet. It is this universal acid.

Srinivasan expanded on one of what he calls his “laws of Internet physics”, namely that by the very nature of how it works, the Internet has the capacity to send us to the extremes.

One of my laws of Internet physics is the Internet increases variance … You go from 30 minute sitcoms [in the old world] to 30 episode Netflix binges or 30 second YouTube clips [in the Internet world]. You go from a stable nine-to-five job to a 20-something billionaire or a 40-year-old failed son who’s made nothing of themselves. You go from a standard taxi ride, to Uber which has very long trips and also very short ones.

[W]hen the Internet disruptor comes in, variance increases, there’s more downside and more upside, more amazing outcomes and more really bad outcomes in all kinds of ways. Why does that happen? The Internet, because it connects people peer to peer, it removes the middleman, it removes the mediator, it removes the moderator, it removes the mediocrity.

In his poem “The Second Coming”, WB Yeats reflected on the state of the world, afflicted as it was by World War, by war and revolution and chaos everywhere, and the end of the world as he knew it.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

This poem was published in late 1920 (100 years ago almost to the day), and the encyclopedia Britannica outlines some of the thinking behind it:

Yeats believed that history is cyclical, and “The Second Coming” — a two-stanza poem in blank verse — with its imagery of swirling chaos and terror, prophesies the cataclysmic end of an era. Critics associated the poem with various contemporary calamities, such as the Easter Rising of 1916, the Russian Revolution of 1917, the rise of fascism, and the political decay of eastern Europe.

What does all this mean for us, now, as we look at the world around us in 2021 — at our own possible cataclysmic end of an era — and figure out what we might do next, how we might respond to the unpredictability that lies in every direction, all of the time?

In the work-from-home reality so many people now find themselves in (some of them permanently), the upside (“I can do my job from anywhere!”) comes with an equal and opposite downside (“Someone anywhere can do my job…”)

Add in the reams of startups making rapid breakthroughs in everything from robotics to artificial intelligence to task automation, and we can be forgiven for feeling a lump in our throats at the prospect of our experience and skills — the things that make us feel useful, that add up, rightly or wrongly, to a large part of our identity — being replaced by cheap labour in the Philippines or by computer code in a Texas server farm.

Such uncertainty is unnerving. We are hard-wired, deep in the biology of our ancient brains, to seek safety, security, belonging.

Pema Chodron, the brilliant Buddhist teacher, offers some hope of easement amid this storm.

In her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, she wrote:

Fear is a universal experience. Even the smallest insect feels it. We wade in the tidal pools and put our finger near the soft, open bodies of sea anemones and they close up. Everything spontaneously does that.

It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share. We react against the possibility of loneliness, of death, of not having anything to hold on to. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.

That last line is stirring. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.

Discovering what the truth is, that feels like a lifelong journey to the heart of ourselves.

Life-changing truth-teaching

Life-changing truth-teachers will show up, and most of them we will not think of as life-changing truth teachers until the teaching is softly, quietly done and the change has already taken place. (Hindsight, as the old saying goes, is 20-20 vision.)

The most life-changing teachings might just as easily come from situations or experiences as from people.

Perhaps all of us are going through a life-changing teaching moment just now.

Something we might be tempted to do, that we can be forgiven for doing, is something we must find a way to fight against.

Lowering our head beneath the stormy waves, holding our breath with all our might and hoping that at some point, a month or a year or more from now, we might surface back into the open air into the way things used to be, that is an exercise in self-endangerment.

We cannot hold our breath. We must breathe.

The world offers us possibilities that can unnerve us, in every direction we look.

That seems to be the way it’s always been and always will be.

If we really think about it, safety and security are only ever really possible in the past.

We might look back and remember with some fondness the happy times we once had. But in remembering the safety and security we had back then, we must recognise, too, that our view of that safety and security is distorted by the fact that we are looking back, and we can’t really feel the fear or anxiety we felt back then.

If we have doubts, uncertainties, insecurities, fears right now, we must at least be open to the possibility that way back then, we also had different doubts, uncertainties, insecurities, fears, and it’s hard — maybe impossible — to access those fears long after the events we feared either never came to pass.

Or, if they did come to pass, we realised they were not as wholly insurmountable in reality as we had made them in our minds.

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.