Lockdown learning: #14 of 14 Life and death

The last in a short series of 2 minute observations…

For me the lockdown has been like a magnifying glass poring over life and death. I have been encouraged to look more closely at what life is and is not really about and it has highlighted death on a dally basis.

Neither of these things are comfortable topics.  They have sharpened my focus.

For life, it calls forth a focus on priorities and bigger questions. For me, it has highlighted an idea well expressed by St Augustine back in 400 AD who said that humans are fundamentally lovers above all else – our choice in life is simply to decide what we will love.

I agree with him. Contrary to appearances, we are lovers not consumers (even if people might wish differently just at the moment!).

Our loves are the most important things in our lives. These are what we serve and end up ultimately being shaped by.

How do I know what they are? For me the lockdown has made them clearer. They are the aspects of life I most value or have missed most.

Our church did an online vox-pop where people explained their important loves and some humorous highs and lows. There were some strikingly similar thoughts and the exercise was a good prompt to consider this question. What are my loves and – are they worth loving that much?

On death, although so far I have not lost anyone close to Covid-19, people I know have, and two of my own friends have died of other things in the last couple of months. Death feels as if it has been brought out of the shadows. We have all been taken to the graveside and whatever bubble we were living in has finally popped. We understand afresh that mortality has a 100% hit rate and the world has always been a risky place.

In reality, our  risk of dying in any one year is quite low and Covid-19 has not really increased it by much (as David Speigelhalter explains). Nonetheless, we are much more likely to know someone who has died than before. What it has done is punctured our sense of unbounded safety – and brought us back to the reality of death….albeit with a vicious bump.

Death demands perspective on the importance, joy and value of life. We get one life to live and we need to live it well.

So at the end of this set of posts here’s the thought I am left with as we emerge (slowly and not smoothly) from lockdown:

What is worth loving and living for – and am I investing my life in that?

Lockdown learning: #13 Economy 2.0?

The penultimate in a short series of 2 minute observations…

We are nearing the end of ‘lockdown’ and entering a new ‘normal’ (or what passes for it). This week I was led to wonder if Covid-19 provides us  with a chance to reset our approach to living or at least the economic bit?

Bizarrely, this was provoked by the death of Lily Lian at 103 (see the obit in the Economist). She was the last of the street singers of Paris- a profession that lost its popular relevance post-WW2 as cultural changes, the pace of life and the importance of the economics grew.

We are starting to stare into the economic mess that the virus has created and talk is all about business and rebuilding.

I completely share the desire to provide useful lives for everyone in our society. The virus has wrecked millions of these but I also sense with others that it provides a wake-up call to rethink our approach to the economy.

We have an opportunity. Many of the jobs the virus has destroyed (an estimated 40% in the US) will not return. We have all cut back on consumer spending, travel and been forced to look again at our way of life. Simply going back to how it was does not make sense when that approach was not working well.

Put graphically, it was killing us – breeding mental ill-health, destroying our habitat burning our planet and not increasing our welfare. Simplistic goals aiming for higher personal or country income do not help us. Indeed, as another paper explained this week, the most successful people at this simply destroy our environment much more quickly (If you want a disturbing read on this, try David Wallace-Wells’ book ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’).

We need to set different goals for life and approach the realisation of them in a different way and we need it in the next decade. The challenge is that this needs all actors in the system to revisit their living – from governments and corporations to countries and individuals.

It has to start somewhere and where else but me?

This means that despite the encouragement to go simply go back out and spend I won’t do that – and I sense that I am not alone.

It means working out what really and sustainably makes life buzz. Deciding where to spend time and energy, as well as money and, of course, what not to spend them on.

I don’t have a plan – only places to start.  I know that certain goals, like decarbonising my life, are limited by our current technology and approach. But, having been forced into a habit breaking 100 days of life, now is definitely a good time to act.

lockdown learning: #12 An ironic trade-off

A short series of 2 minute observations…

For almost all of us at the moment, our biggest health headache is Covid-19. Especially those of us of an older disposition are seeking to avoid meeting the virus.

However, we are also of a generation that grew up being told year-in-year-out that smoking was really bad for your health: something that will impact not just your lungs and throat but also your heart -reducing your life expectancy and increasing your morbidity.

Smoking is a key cause of COPD, one of the big risk factors for the seriousness of Covid-19. As a result, in the face of the virus, both UK and US governments have stepped up their advice to give up smoking.

It is therefore somewhat ironic that quite a number of scientific studies seem to suggest that smoking may actually protect you from Covid-19!

The evidence is not definitive. But in the USA, France and China, where many adults smoke, the number of hospital admittances are heavily skewed to non-smokers. In multiple studies in China the proportions are 6.5% vs 26.6%. In the US,  in a study by America’s Centers for Disease Control,  for 7,000 people who tested positive for coronavirus, they discovered that only 1.3% were smokers vs 14% of the population.

These sort of results prompted Professor Francois Balloux,(UCL) to say that ‘the evidence for a protective effect of smoking (or nicotine) against COVID-19 is bizarrely strong… actually far stronger than for any drug trialled at this stage…’

There is even an understanding of how this might be the case – as both virus and smoking interact with the ACE-2 receptors which play a critical role in the infection.

This suggests a question – is it safer to smoke or not smoke at the moment?

Its an ironic question but a great example of a popular economics concept – a trade-off (and probably one a better statistician than I could answer at least in a probabilistic manner).

In this case the trade-off seems to be between short and long term. In the short term (before I become addicted and my health badly damaged) I might be better off smoking to protect myself from Covid-19 . However, if I avoid the virus and do not give up quickly I am likely to be killed and my health battered in the long term.

What will I do? … probably stick to not smoking.

I am sure I am with the majority. Even though, as perhaps our most famous economist, Keynes said, “in the long run we are all dead”, the high probability of the health impact of smoking is much greater than the low probability that I will get a serious dose of Covid-19.

… I hope.

Lockdown learning: #11 Choices and consequences

A short series of 2 minute observations…

I like having choices… but not always the consequences!

As we hit week 14 of lockdown I am reminded of how what seem like local choices that have led to our current situation.

How does hygiene in a Chinese market come to have such a profound impact on the whole world? Such small actions have led to a pandemic that has impacted the whole human race.

It is a stark reminder of our interdependence in this world. We live in a web of cause and effect and our choices shape this for good or ill or both!

Sometimes we like it: wielding a golf club successfully; when we make a job choice that works out well or hold that BBQ on a sunny day (rather than the adjacent wet ones).

Sometimes we don’t: when we carelessly drop a knife and damage our nice wooden floor ☹️ . When we don’t allow enough distance between us and the parked car and break a door mirror.  When we rely on someone and they let us down.

Bad consequences normally mean pain and hurt which we don’t like. We try to avoid them. Yet they play an essential role – feedback to help us to learn how to live and to stay healthy. Indeed there is a lot of evidence we rarely change our behaviour unless it stings or hurts – physically or verbally. A muscle twinge warns us off more serious damage. A bruised ego can  lead us to better decisions. The absence of this is disastrous: lepers become maimed, disfigured and can die simply because leprosy stops them feeling pain and infection in their bodies.

We rely on consequences. Our society and world would not work without them – but sometimes they are scary and often they are more significant and interrelated than we realise. Many things can’t be undone.

I love the story about archaeologists researching the Dead Sea scrolls. They realised locals had known about the caves containing these scrolls for years – fragments of parchment were all over the place. So they offered money in exchange for each piece of paper handed in and the locals obliged …with lots of pieces, many  ripped from bigger bits to earn more of a reward!

Good choices come from owning consequences – even if we make mistakes. That can be tough but its a big incentive to think round our decisions, look ahead and consider possible consequences – to people, events and our own options and wellbeing.

As I write this Siberia is experiencing temperatures 20-25 degrees above normal. Yet another consequence in a system reacting to our choices and actions.

Our ability to choose is a great gift but definitely one to be used wisely.

In big and little choices, we can often get what we choose but not what we really want.

Lockdown learning: #10 too much of a good thing…

A short series of 2 minute observations…

A consequence of lockdown is too much time on-line. The result is that you end up reading things that normally you wouldn’t bother with (…like this blog!). On-line feeds, facebook or linkedin offer a  snippet… and you decide to take a look.

But the articles that tend to be featured and clicked most are those of the ‘how to identify a smart person in 3 minutes’ or the ‘6 phrases that managers need to avoid in team meetings’ variety.

These are click candy but my lockdown time has reemphasised that I have reached a stage in my life when I don’t need these articles. In fact I think I reached this point sometime ago. Yet it is not because I don’t need to learn more, even about some of the topics.

It is that  another list of things to do when I get up or when I am at this or that task. Nope – it doesn’t work it is  impossible. I don’t have the time, memory or energy.  They simply become another thing I am not doing ‘properly’. My daily bucket is full.

I would need to run them like my bookcase – one in ~ one out. But then which one would I get rid of? My ‘8 tips for handling difficult people’? or my ’10 ways to stay fit and healthy’? It presents impossible trade-offs!(…back to my ‘5 ways to stay stress free’).

Life is not a game of performance, a series of tasks done well. Learning cannot be added by a new list in my knowledge base.

A simple checklist helps when you have a specific issue to address but too many is too much.

To learn I need to think. This needs a framework to integrate new lessons or even reminders into. I have to hook into that understanding and that is easier with clear overall goals into which understanding and insight can fit.

This normally means something longer and more considered than your average key points article.

What does help me?

Most useful – an in-depth piece on a subject,  or well-crafted case examples that I can mull on  or articles that offer an entirely different perspective on a topic. These are much rarer. Sometimes they help reshape my thinking but more often they let me act like a seagull at the beach – swoop in on a tasty morsel which is easy to integrate in my ways of thinking and working.

These build up the structure of understanding not just fill in some tactics.

Not so many articles seem to do that.

That’s another book then.