I just found out that I was definitely exposed to COVID-19.
So, yeah, that happened.
Might have exposed my husband and two other people.
Sitting with that knowledge for a moment.
I’m the only person who was exposed that day who hasn’t been sick for the last two weeks. That’s why I was the last to find out. Also, the test results just came back. It takes a while to even get the test, much less have it processed.
Can’t blame them
That’s what this is about, really. How do you feel the full range of feelings about something truly awful, while knowing there is nobody to blame?
Well, not my friends, colleagues, or neighbors anyway. Only a psychopath or a malignant narcissist would deliberately infect someone with a lethal pathogen.
Emotionally there are so many ways to deal with world events, with the unfair sickness or death of anyone you know, with your own incipient demise. I’ve been seeing and hearing a lot of them.
Denial - everyone on Nextdoor who keeps complaining that the whole world is “overreacting” - to something with a worldwide kill rate of 19%? This thing is killing more people than botulism. Come on, folks, get it together.
Anger - like that matters to a microbe
Disgust - see the neologism ‘COVIDIOT’
Fear - remind me to tell you about my coronavirus-themed night terrors
Sadness - this is where I have been over the past week, choosing what outfit I want for my memorial and crying over photos of separated families every day, and that was *before* I found out I was exposed
Embarrassment at being the kind of trainwreck who couldn’t see the future and who thought that following social distancing recommendations would be good enough
HEY, what gives? I followed all the rules to the letter, so why am I being punished?
The problem of suffering is a challenging one, a stumbling block that disrupts many philosophy students and spiritual thinkers. It’s related to the problem of evil, although of course we understand that evil and suffering are not the same thing, right?
Epicurus had basically this to say on the subject:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
Interesting point, not exactly the final answer. The tricky thing here is assuming that any kind of suffering is evil, whereas it seems transparently obvious to me that not everything that happens is... about us. A coronavirus, one of many, pops into existence, and it just so happens to cause illness and occasionally death to humans. Was this *on purpose*? Or was it just something that happens?
There’s no real law about stuff that makes humans sick. Technically there could be several competing pandemics circulating at the same time. We’re not all suddenly immune to measles just because this dog-toy looking round piece of junk showed up. Yeah, I said it, you look like a dog ball, nobody wants you, get out of here Covid and go crawl back up Batman’s... *ahem* sorry about that.
If there is a hurricane and people die, is it evil? How about it if happens in the middle of the ocean and only some fish die, is it evil?
How about if it happens on the planet Jupiter and no sentient beings were within four hundred million miles, is it evil then? Really really big storm?
Getting hung up on the problem of evil is basically saying that no human should ever suffer anything. But why? Says who?
I have trained myself to ask myself, because my biggest flaw is that I am violently prone to self-pity, Why *shouldn’t* I suffer?
Not like I’m asking for it or anything, but if anyone... why *not* me?
My neighbors across the street many years ago? One got meningitis, one had a quadruple bypass, one got brain cancer, and the other got to be caretaker for the whole lot of them for several years. These were nice people, so what the heck? Why did all of that land on one house?
A friend of mine? Her house burned down while her husband was being treated for prostate cancer, right after he got laid off from his job. Nice people. Why them and not me?
Or... you, for that matter? No offense, just for illustrative purposes...
I tend to hear these types of stories because I’m a sympathetic listener (and a bit of a gossip) and because I have the sort of gloomy disposition that records the dark stuff and saves it for later.
As a good Stoic, I consider the prospect of suffering before it happens: premeditatio malorum. As a medievalist I think about the prospect of dying a lot, memento mori, and the reason they did it is because they had a lot more experience with epidemic illness than we do. As a yogini I do my savasana, “corpse pose,” and I’ve done a certain amount of Buddhist meditation on the subject, marasati, as well.
In a way it’s been almost soothing for me, to assume that I know the manner of my death. I’ve been sick in bed before, I’ve had nasty respiratory infections and coughed up blood, I can visualize this. I can construct a counterfactual that helps me cope, such as, At least it wasn’t a shark after all, or, Thank goodness I won’t be taken by a serial killer, or, I’m so glad it wasn’t a fire. I’ve found this strangely satisfying, although of course I could just as easily go in a massive earthquake tonight.
I have no reason to expect or demand safe conduct through this world.
Nobody ever promised that we would carry our mortal bodies around for eternity - or if they did, wouldn’t we all be taking better care of ourselves? Especially our teeth? Wouldn’t we have been wearing more sunblock all this time? Of course we know that our time will come one day.
I used to pray that I would die like a Stoic, without whining or crying WHY ME? Now I pray that when I go, I go alone, and that I’m not responsible for taking 400 other people with me. At least let my conscience be clean and clear, knowing I tried my best to protect others and obey quarantine rules. Let us make it through this as best we can.
“The Afterlife tastes like chocolate chip cookies.” What does this mean? I don’t know. I woke up with it in my head after a dream a couple of weeks ago.
“He’s going to kill more people than Stalin.” What does this mean? He who? I don’t know. I got that from a dream too.
I can say, as an historian, that there remains no consensus on the final tally nearly 90 years later. If someone had asked me as a trivia question, I would have said “about six million.” It turns out that I may have remembered only one of several categories that need to be disambiguated. How many people died under Stalin? Well, that depends; do you mean specifically in the Gulag, do you count executions, or are you including famine?
How many people are going to die of COVID-19, all told?
That depends largely on the compliance of the vast majority of humans, excepting those currently in Antarctica or on the ISS. They can probably rebel away as long as they keep the doors closed. Actually, come to think of it, pretending that you are in either of those locations might be a great idea right about now. Maybe print out a picture of a rocket porthole and tape it on the wall. Or a blizzard. For that I guess you could just use a plain unruled sheet of paper...
Where I live, people are complying very poorly, which is to say, enough of them are aiming in the direction of extreme personal autonomy that it will continue to amplify our mortality statistics for weeks. Since we were given orders to Stay at Home, I have seen:
A young woman bicycling around playing music off her bike rack
People flying kites
A shirtless young man vigorously using the pull-up bar on the neighborhood walking trail
A group of young people playing croquet
A father bringing his preschooler to a play area festooned with hundreds of yards of caution tape, examining each piece of equipment, and then playing on the only piece that didn’t have tape
All within arm’s reach of other people, outdoors, in public
An argument sprang up on our local Nextdoor. Someone had posted a photo of a young man who broke the law by climbing over a barricade to work out at a park that had been formally closed due to quarantine. (Shirtless. Same guy I saw a few days earlier?) Almost immediately, someone commented that this was public shaming and we had no right to judge because we didn’t know why this guy was doing this.
Uh, the “honey, this isn’t what it looks like” argument doesn’t really fly when someone is dressed in workout clothes and doing pull-ups. Like, what the heck else could he be doing, looking for his contact lens? Donating blood?
What we have is a failure to understand the premise of the categorical imperative.
What if everyone did this? (Whatever it is)
Anything you do, has to be okay for everyone to do.
You endorse it as something that could be a rule for everyone in the world, all the time.
It’s the right thing because it is right in itself, not because it gives you a warm feeling, improves your reputation, you can write it off on your taxes, etc.
‘Categorical’ means always, as opposed to a “hypothetical” imperative. Like, hypothetically, if I donated blood I might meet cute nurses in the bloodmobile, and that might motivate me, but that motivation might not work on others.
‘Imperative’ means that it’s something we must do. It matters. For instance, it’s imperative to stop human trafficking.
Obviously it’s an imperative to stop a pandemic, even if hypothetically it might kill someone who once got away with murder.
The selfish people who are refusing to comply with basic social distancing and hygiene are doing more than being selfish, which is well within the range of ordinary human behavior. They are putting others at risk. They are doing it because they refuse to pay attention, to read, or to think harder. This is why I’m spending so much time on this abstruse philosophical concept, to help people explain morality to those questioners and rebels who aren’t getting it.
This is how I have been explaining the categorical imperative to children for years:
“If you brush your teeth, you’re saying that everyone should brush their teeth.” *nod*
“If you’re nice to animals, you’re saying that everyone should be nice to animals.” *nod*
“If you yell at people, you’re saying that other people should yell at you.” *blink*
What selfish people are saying with their actions when they break quarantine is basically, I am willing to take a risk that endangers almost every living human being. Breaking the rules isn’t just breaking rules now. It’s potentially infecting people who won’t even know it for as long as two weeks.
So that guy uses the pull-up bar, thinking it doesn’t matter because he is the only one to be that clever. What he doesn’t know is that there are 25 other guys using it as well, each one thinking the same thing. Coronavirus may be able to survive on metal surfaces for several days. Same with the playground equipment. Not only is a single user potentially contaminating the area and directly spreading a fatal and highly contagious disease, but his very presence is undermining the entire idea of social distancing.
The most dangerous diseases that we spread to one another are pseudoscience, toxic skepticism, and callous disregard for others.
People don’t always take something seriously until it happens to them, or to someone close enough to them in their social group. Texting and driving is a perfect example. Everyone does it even though they obviously know it’s both wrong and a bad idea. I think the most extreme toxic skeptics won’t take COVID-19 seriously until one of their close friends or family members dies from it. Or when they themselves are getting a ventilator hose down their throat.
You know me, and that means you are three degrees of separation away from three people who have tested positive. One of them died. Most people probably won’t be motivated by an anecdote like this. It’s just statistics until it happens to you.
Okay, now for the part that I am asking you to show to others. This is a list of links that I have been checking regularly. (I won’t lie; I check them several times a day). Ask them to scroll down to the trend lines and PAY ATTENTION.
COVID-19 coronavirus cases and deaths, US
COVID-19 coronavirus cases and deaths, global
Coronavirus cases, US map
Coronavirus cases, world map
The book that caught my attention was called Rats, Lice, and History. It sat on the shelf at eye level where I used to sit and study in the public library. I thought the title was hilarious. After a few years, it occurred to me that I could check it out and read it. To my surprise, it was not a dense scholarly tome but rather an engaging piece of darkly comic commercial nonfiction.
The premise: Epidemiology has a huge impact on history and human culture.
By that we mean the spread of contagious diseases. You know, like now.
I’ve been getting worried notes from friends and I thought I might as well share my perspective as an historian with a long-standing fascination with epidemics. It’s pretty bleak, I won’t lie, but humanity has bounced back from mass plagues many times.
Justinian plague - and now we have the internet
Black Death - and now we have, well, now we have streptomycin
Spanish Flu (actually from Kansas) 1918 - and now we have a Mars rover
Did you know that leprosy and bubonic plague are endemic? These contagions were absolutely terrifying in the past, and they are still here as pathogens, so what happened?
As usual, a number of things: increased knowledge, better sanitation, better nutrition, antibiotics... and simply the fact that we are descended from the survivors. Two hundred years from now, our progeny probably won’t even know what COVID-19 was. For them it will be weak sauce.
What about today, though?
I’m sorry to say that we have plenty of evidence available from living memory. (‘Living memory’ means that someone is alive right now who can tell you about something from direct personal experience).
At worst, an epidemic, just like a war, leaves a deep and dark stain on history. Every person loses at least one person from their closest circle, and sometimes an entire family can be taken out in days. Burials become a serious logistical problem. Supply chains collapse and it becomes very difficult to find food or any other material goods.
Britain did austerity for eight years after the end of WWII.
In the Nineteenth Century, tuberculosis was responsible for something like 30% of all mortality. (Depending on where and when). It mainly hit people in their youth, 15-44. That doesn’t include all the other contagious diseases like smallpox or measles. For most of human history, chances of a baby living to age 7 were so poor that a lot of cultures didn’t bother naming their kids until they were toddlers.
In many ways, we in the Twenty-First Century are wildly, unfathomably lucky. Not only did we survive infancy, but our lifespan is double what it would have been in the Victorian era. DOUBLE!
Nobody wants to hear perspective on forced gratitude, though, in general and especially not when everyone is in grave danger. History doesn’t really matter on the individual level. Your personal risk of dying from something is either zero or 100%.
Now for the interesting news.
Okay, an argument could be made that the Justinian plague plunged Europe into the Dark Ages (500 words, due Friday, cite your sources). Remember, readers of these words are not only literate but benefiting from the existence of the internet. We made it through.
Extra credit question: What made the Dark Ages dark?
There is another argument that the Black Death was what finally ended feudalism.
So many people died that labor became scarce. Survivors could negotiate for legal rights, higher pay, and better working conditions. Aristocrats who didn’t like it could either come to the table or start doing their own scutwork. Serfs up.
Here we are again. Service workers are either being barred from going to work, or required to go in even at mortal risk. We depend on them and we also give them the least rewards, such as access to health care, paid sick time, or financial security in old age.
That’s, ah, probably going to change.
Broad social currents are really only observable in hindsight. We can guess at what future humans will think about our era, if they think about us at all, but we can’t really know unless we’re there to experience it ourselves.
I can say right now, though, that Boccaccio would have recognized the blindingly foolish behavior of everyone who went out to go buckwild the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day during the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s what people do. They run amok like a bunch of morons, rioting, fornicating in the streets, getting falling-down drunk, running around naked. The wheels always fall off the party bus.
Again, though... we survive this stuff. Humans are resilient. Culture is too. Stoic philosophy, for instance, has been in constant use for millennia. (It’s what works in harsh times).
What am I expecting to see in my little household?
Ugh, I don’t even want to tell you, but I promised. It’s BS to wait until after the fact to say that you saw something coming. Future predictions are almost always completely wrong, nay, ludicrously wrong. Maybe it’s good luck to put my concerns into print?
Rationing (i.e. one per customer), including food, medical supplies, and other material goods
Total unavailability of certain categories of product
A thriving black market
People waiting in line all day for something like a single loaf of bread
Economic, um... opportunities? 😬
On the other hand, I also expect to see incredible resilience and feats of courage. Times of crisis are often the making of the greatest among us. There’s a strong correlation, for instance, between major achievement and people who lost a parent in childhood. Crisis deals out trauma with one hand and builds strong families and leaders with the other. Grit, resilience, and thrift could be ours.
Can’t trade them in for bread or toilet paper, but hey.
The other good news is that it looks like surviving childhood illness and/or famine may actually contribute to greater longevity. There are a record number of centenarians alive today, and they all survived some rough decades, including the Great Depression of the 1930s.
It could be that a month from now, we’re all laughing off what was a very scary first quarter of 2020. Or, it could be that this is just the beginning of a major watershed, after which everything will be totally transformed. We are in the middle of the Place of Uncertainty. Those who do not understand history will be condemned to repeat it. When we are prepared to learn our lessons, though, we can move forward quite rapidly.
The last few days have felt like 87 years, am I right? I’ve been doing what I usually do when I’m in the Place of Uncertainty, which is to gather as much information as I can. What I’m picking up right now is chilling me to my very bones. There is misinformation and highly dubious behavior everywhere right now.
What do we do about it?
Last week I found myself in the position of thought leader. We were having an emergency meeting, and I discovered, to my astonishment, that I was the best-informed person on the call. How does this even happen when nobody really knows anything?
I scrolled through my blog, trying to remember which day I posted that “We Prepped for Coronavirus.” (March 3) We... actually bought our supplies at the end of February?? Has it been that long already? It seemed simple and obvious for anyone who reads the news to be aware that the trend line wasn’t going in the right direction. Time to mitigate risk.
“Up and to the right, up and to the right” for INVESTMENTS, not epidemiology
As I started hearing from more of my friends and colleagues, and reading more reports on Nextdoor, and even scrolling through Facebook (which I haven’t done in several years), I started to realize that what is standard operating procedure in my household is actually very fringe behavior for our culture.
Start with deep background, supplement with updates from trusted sources and subject matter experts, apply critical thinking skills, and run scenarios with favored sounding boards.
Isn’t that how other people react to current events?
I’m writing about the problem of fake virus news in this way because a bulleted list of conspiracy theories and actual facts NEVER WORKS. That kind of thing palpably does not work on the people who need it. I’m writing for the benefit of my fellow thought leaders, because the designated “smart person” in your circle of friends is probably you, yes, YOU, the one who is reading this.
You have to look them right in the eye and talk them through their pseudoscience, piece by piece. Praxis. One at a time, patiently and with all the lovingkindness you would show to anyone you care about, if you knew they had only months to live.
I live in a bubble, not just of privilege but of highly educated and brilliant people. A bunch of people in my social group have PhDs and a couple of my dearest friends are actual professors in STEM fields. The smart people are staying home, partly because their employers sent them and mostly because they know higher-level math. They look at the data and nod and trust the experts.
Ah, but I also know people with advanced degrees who are *not* getting with the program.
I was talking one such friend who was trying to convince me that we have nothing to worry about, because there were “only about 320 cases” in “all of California! The entire state!”
All the blood drained from my face. The last I heard, it was... six.
I’ve heard several people repeat the idea that “it will go away when the weather gets better” because “warm temperatures kill it” when they are missing the obvious, which is that the inside of a person is almost always significantly higher than that.
Only about a dozen people in my acquaintance seem to understand the concept of social distancing, or how viruses spread. “For those of us who need a break from ‘social distancing...’”
I love you, and you know that’s not how that works, right?
Do you understand that you could be contagious for two weeks before you even felt any symptoms? And that’s why we have community spread?
PRETEND YOU HAVE CHICKEN POX
People have been panic-buying at the grocery store in our neighborhood. Store hours have been cut back. People are showing up at 5:45 AM every morning and standing in line for over an hour so they can stream in and buy toilet paper. Which is fine, but... People are bringing their entire families into the store and cramming themselves into these tight lines. Panicking their way into the exact opposite of what they should be doing. Can’t one parent go and have everyone self-isolate at home? Or at least wait in the car?
The way people are reacting is like they are preparing for a cross between a hurricane, a terrorist attack, and... werewolves.
Quick, buy bottled water before the storm hits land... NO
We have to keep shopping and going out or the microbes will win... NO
We have to stay together, hold my hand, we’re going in... NO
Y’all been watching the wrong horror movies
It breaks my heart to know how many families have already been impacted by this thing, and how it’s spreading farther because so few people are as educated about basic public health concepts as they are about, say, helping a dog that has been left locked in a car in hot weather.
We do gradually learn, as a species. It’s fairly rare for people to die in structure fires now, for instance, when it used to be a constant problem in the Victorian era. This is because we have worked very hard on institutional inputs like smoke detectors, fire drills, crash bars, EXIT signs, and fire codes. Same thing with airplane crash fatalities. Little by little, every time a disaster happens, people take notes and start trying to avoid it ever happening again.
At least we have the scientific understanding of germ theory. That was not obvious to past humans, not by any means. The first thing the medievals did during the Black Death was to cull domestic cats, not realizing that the vector was actually... rats and mice. Oops.
The silver lining to this pandemic is that it has everyone talking and taking it seriously. Pop culture is eventually able to absorb new ideas, like “stop the shooter” and “don’t let the terrorist take over the plane” and “don’t leave a dog in a hot car.” We start adjusting to new social norms. We aren’t there yet with basic public health concepts, like how viruses spread, but we’re, um, going to learn it now. On the fast track.
Please won’t you help me by using your social capital with your friends and family, and making sure they understand what is going on?
In times of trouble, it can be hard to remember that such a thing as “luck” exists. Janice Kaplan decided to research the topic from an analytical perspective, not being a natural optimist, with the goal of finding out if she could learn to be lucky. How Luck Happens is the delightful result.
The first thing that becomes clear in the research and writing of How Luck Happens is that Kaplan gets tons of help whenever she asks. People keep saying Yes to her request for interviews, giving her extra time, and connecting her with other well-placed people. She recognizes that this is her way of making extra luck. Over and over, these successful people list off how they’ve been lucky in their own lives and how they do their best to pay it forward, which is clearly a way to become even luckier.
This was an exciting book to read, because I see myself as a lucky person even though I have lived through some pretty serious misfortunes. There are a lot of tricks to it, and one of them is learning to think in counterfactuals. “If X had happened instead” or “If Y hadn’t happened.” For instance, last month my husband had a terrifying and very painful eye injury and we spent the night in the emergency room, where we both picked up either a bad cold or the flu and were sick for a week. Anyone would consider that bad luck; you wouldn’t even have to qualify as a pessimist. The counterfactuals, however, go on and on. We felt so lucky that we have health insurance, that this happened near home instead of in the backwoods or on vacation or overseas, that we have antibiotics in our century, that there were numbing eye drops, that his vision was saved and his eye healed completely, that we’re both able to work from home so I could take care of him, that we ranked so low on the triage list that a lot of people in much worse shape got to go in first. Rather this than the kidney failure...
THEN we realized that we were even luckier than that, because this happened early enough in the year that we got “the flu” (or whatever) and we missed COVID-19.
How Luck Happens does a great job of explaining the concept of luck, which includes what I would consider to be ‘good fortune.’ Kaplan does an amazing job of demonstrating how to create your own kismet and generate serendipity. I also loved how she started looking for ways to create lucky circumstances for others, something that my husband and I do all the time and which it is thrilling to see explained and encouraged. Nothing is more fun.
I hope this book is wildly successful and that readers start testing these ideas right away. Maybe writing this review will throw a little extra luck my way?
Sometimes the seed of opportunity that we plant doesn’t blossom into luck until weeks or months or even years later.
“Real luck occurs at the intersection of chance, talent, and hard work,” I said.
You have to believe you’re lucky to take the action that will make you lucky.
The real trick is to recognize those moments of luck moving forward.
The grit and fortitude and steely resolve that come with being passionate make positive things happen. Putting your desire out to the universe just means that you know what you want.
You get lucky when you admit what you want and go after it.
It was inevitable that I would read this book. All my favorite writers talk about Marie Forleo all the time. Most of them thank her in the acknowledgements. Who IS this woman? I thought.
Then I read Everything is Figureoutable and found out what the fuss was about.
This is an incredibly motivating book. It is packed with examples of Forleo’s students solving problems from their lives, and sharing the thought process they went through when they realized that they actually had the power to do something about their situation.
The book takes on skeptics, starting with the very concept that everything is indeed figureoutable. I like this approach. As a coach, I find that people on the low end of the readiness scale spend a lot of time venting, telling others that they “don’t know what it’s like,” and exclaiming that they’ve “tried everything.” Meanwhile someone who has resolved the very same problem in the recent past may be sitting right there, waving for their attention. Everything is Figureoutable but contrarians don’t want to believe it, or admit it.
Perfectionist? Procrastinator? Naysayer? Give it a look. Literally what is the worst that could happen?
If you’re hell-bent on looking for reasons why this won’t work, congratulations. It won’t. But neither will anything else.
No matter what you believe your limitations are, I promise that if you look hard enough, you’ll find someone with more challenges than you.
There are two kinds of people in the world: those with reasons and those with results.
Embrace the fact that if you were powerful enough to create an overcommitted and overstretched life, you’re powerful enough to uncreate it.
If you had to find the time, you would.
You never get stronger if you only do easy things.
The horns of a dilemma are no place to be. Whatever situation you’re in, feeling unable to make a decision will extend it and prolong the difficulty. The only way to be free is to figure out what you’re going to do.
This is exponentially more true if you feel stuck on a lot of undecided decisions.
Not everyone has an issue with being indecisive. It’s good to appreciate that. I think indecisive people can learn by example, too, and free themselves and the others around them. We have to lower the bar on most decisions and save our mental energy for the big stuff.
You know what I tell people when they’re having trouble figuring out what to do?
If it were obvious, it wouldn’t be a decision!
The only reason it feels hard to make a decision is if there are good reasons for each option, and choosing one cancels the other. The flip side of this is if there are negatives to each choice, if no matter what you pick, there will be some bad outcome for someone.
Not deciding does not, unfortunately, allow you to collect on all possible positive outcomes. Not making a decision also does not help anyone avoid the negatives.
Eventually, this crossroads will be passed, only visible in the rear view mirror... until the next major intersection, that is. The thing about choices is that the same type of decision comes up again and again.
Should we stay together or break up?
Should I stay at this job or leave?
Should I go to this party or stay home?
Should I spend money on this or not?
What should I order off this menu???
Personally, I refuse to bog myself down with petty decisions. I’m never going to spend more than two minutes choosing what I want off a menu, or deciding what to wear. The minute I realize that I’m caught up at a choice point and that I need to make a decision, I’m 90% of the way there. Why would I drag it out and make it worse on myself?
This is a benevolent attitude because nobody around me needs to waste time listening to me try to make up my mind, either. Nothing spreads like stress. I have no way of knowing what other people are going through, and my concern of the moment may be only 1% of the valence of anyone else in my social group.
I actually prefer talking to other people about their problems, rather than talking about my own. It’s a great distraction! Sometimes it gives me perspective or teaches me how to solve an issue later on. Sometimes I can help.
It may be easier to help someone else resolve something. Then maybe you still have your original problem, but you’ve made a difference to someone else, and nobody can take that away.
Everything we do to solve a problem reminds us that problems can be solved. Try to think of a completely unique problem, one that no human in the history of the world has ever dealt with before. If you can, DM me, because I’d love to know!
There are a few heuristics I use when making a decision.
One: Is this problem actually mine, or someone else’s? *drama detector ON*
Two: Is this an animal problem or a human problem? If my dog, a squirrel, or a crow would know how to handle this, then can I?
Three: Can this problem be solved by money? How much?
There are three other things I’ve started doing to preserve my precious mental bandwidth.
Status meeting. My husband and I save all our mutual pending decisions to discuss once a week at Status Meeting. We also share what’s going on in our personal lives, and we’re usually able to help each other make decisions because of our non-overlapping skill sets.
“Decisions” email folder. If it isn’t an urgent, Quadrant I issue, I immediately drag it into the *Decisions* folder. Default to no.
A “Decisions” list in my day planner. This list is the opposite of the email folder. Email comes from someone else and requests your time and attention. My list is self-generated and reflects my own priorities. These are Quadrant II questions, things that could be strategically important and valuable, but will only happen if I choose to put my attention, time, money, social support, and other resources behind them. They also need their proper timing. Often they need research, too, because if I knew how, then I’d already be moving ahead.
It helps to have policies in place for as much as possible. It saves time and makes it easier for others to get along with you, because you are consistent, they know what to expect, and they can plan around you. It also sets the example that they can set their own policies. Example: don’t bother to bring me a coffee, because I won’t drink it, but thanks for the lovely gesture.
A new situation can often generate a new policy. We may sometimes have to learn things the hard way, but at least that bitter experience can help us avoid it happening again.
One of those policies is simply to force yourself to confront your pending decisions. Is it time to change jobs or relocate? Is your budget working? Are you sacrificing your health and peace of mind for something that doesn’t deserve it? Has a relationship reached the end of its natural lifespan? Is a lot of your time disappearing into the ether when you’d rather be doing something more intentional?
Keeping a list of pending decisions is a way of putting your foot down. It’s a way of reminding yourself that if you don’t set your own priorities, someone else will set them for you. Are you getting the rewards of your efforts, or is someone else? Are you heading toward the outcomes you’ve chosen for yourself, or blowing around like a tumbleweed? Exert your free will and confront your pending decisions today.
We always have our reasons for doing what we do, and those reasons can change. While sometimes our situations and perspectives change, that may not always be a reason to change what we’re doing, too! Anything can continue to be a good idea despite whatever else is going on.
Weirdly, we’re more likely to hang onto our negative constants, like a toxic relationship, than we are to keep up our better habits. We believe in dark circumstances in a way that we don’t believe in good fortune.
The talented person who stays in a dead-end job out of total inertia, resisting the effort involved in a resume update
The former smoker who always starts up again under stress, as though an extremely expensive habit like that is going to help somehow
The family living in a run-down rental for years, never quite getting around to calling the landlord for routine maintenance issues
We probably don’t talk enough about the emotional reality behind positive change. Cynical people don’t want to hear it because they want everything to stay down at their frequency. Skeptics don’t believe it. Positivity always sounds like someone is selling something.
One of the most convincing testimonials I ever heard came from a friend who had all his teeth pulled to get dentures. He said he never realized how much chronic pain he was in from the inflammation of his infected teeth until they were gone. Sure, his mouth was sore for a while, but his entire body felt better. He said if he’d known what a relief it would be, he would have dealt with it sooner.
His original reason for finally seeing the dentist was to move past this cosmetic issue that was holding him back. He became a true believer when this massive amount of hidden pain left his body.
I originally went back to school because I kept seeing job listings for which I was qualified in every way except that they required a bachelor’s degree. I sat down with a calculator and estimated the monthly payments on my inevitable student loans, realized I could afford them even if I never got a better-paying job, and enrolled. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I understood how much advanced education had changed me. I felt that college taught me how to think, how to research an idea, and how to write in ways that would not have arisen from my previous life.
It paid for itself in the first year, of course, but that was beside the point. I was no longer the same person I had been.
We make decisions because they seem like a good idea at the time, because they seem like the obvious next step, or because “everyone’s doing it.” We don’t usually make decisions thinking: Yes, it is time to transform completely.
When I took my first pink collar office job, all I could think about was the money. Suddenly I was earning triple what I did at the convenience store where I worked the summer after high school. I had no idea that the years of boredom and drudgery would turn me into an efficiency machine. It never occurred to me that I would develop a solid foundation of skills that would benefit me no matter what else I did.
This summer I met a kid, a teenager. He was being homeschooled, and he was going around asking everyone what was the most useful thing they learned in high school. Calculus, said my husband the aerospace engineer. Typing, said I. My typing teacher was the bitterest, most sarcastic and pointlessly mean woman I have ever met in life. She would stand against the wall with her arms crossed over her chest and rant about how naive and lazy we all were. That class was terrible. I just wanted to get through it so I could type letters to my boyfriend. Now I type 100 words per minute and it’s possibly the only skill I learned in high school that I use every day.
Two adults in that conversation said they had never learned to touch-type, and they wished they had. It’s not too late, I said, you can get typing games where you shoot zombies or whatever. Ah, but how many people in their thirties through fifties are really going to set aside three weeks to do something that mundane?
Come on. When I started marathon training, I had to relearn how to tie my shoes.
If you think that’s bad, I’ve known at least three men who had to relearn how to WALK after one catastrophic accident or another.
We’re so, so poor at testing our limits. Everyone has a limit somewhere, but how many of us ever test them out? Have you ever worked a muscle to failure, where you send the mental command to move and your muscle does not respond? It’s tiring, but you can indeed move again the next day. We could all be pushing ourselves so hard and finding out what we’re really made of, but we don’t want to. We’d rather live in our comfy little incubators, snuggling under the heat lamp.
The first time I got on an elliptical trainer at a gym, I’d never seen one before and I just wanted to know what it did. My friends invited me. The next time, I got in a row with them and we pedaled our way on our gossip machines. I moved, I went back to school, I changed gyms. The elliptical became my homework machine, the place I did my reading for history. Then it was the “avoid my ex” machine. Now it’s the place I read the news, and also the place I reset my mood. I keep finding elliptical machines with different programming and different strides, different views and different background music, because although my reasons change, the habit continues to serve.
Our reasons may change for things we do, like journaling, saving money, or staying married. Often our positive habits get cast aside, just because we changed schedules or relocated. It can take five minutes to discard years of what supported and nurtured us, just like bad habits can seem to pop up out of nowhere. Every now and then, it’s good to take stock of what we’re doing, compare it to what we were doing at different points in our lives, and remind ourselves of what works and what doesn’t. No matter what situations we might find ourselves in today, our reasons can change and so can we.
Giving each other thinking space starts right as you walk in the door. This has nothing to do with the time of day or whether it’s a weekday or the weekend. If someone has just come in from somewhere, even a quick walk to the mailbox, this is when it starts.
Don’t say anything except “hi” for the next five minutes.
That’s it. If you only have one rule, let it be that one.
Five minutes is enough to start if anyone in the household ever feels burned out, frustrated, distracted, sad, angry, ill... really any other feeling than ‘elated’ or ‘enthused.’
Not everyone does this. It actually boggles my mind all the time, how I might be hanging out with someone in their home, and someone else comes in, only to be immediately barraged with a tidal wave of news and complaints and task assignments.
Whoa! I think. Do you people do this to each other all the time?
The answer is always yes. A household that doesn’t understand or respect transitions probably has no idea how it feels, or that there’s another way to do things.
Why is this important?
When we first see each other after an absence, even a brief one, we have no idea what the other person has been doing. We have no information on their state of mind or their physical sensations, and vice versa. It’s a bit like a poker game. Your news update might well be a four of a kind, but theirs might well be a royal flush.
I don’t know about everyone else, but when I walk in my front door, I usually have a lot going on. I have my keys in one hand, a dog leash in the other, a bag over my shoulder (and sometimes two), I’m listening to something on my headphones, and I probably have to pee. Anyone who is trying to get my attention is simply going to have to wait while I:
Unclip the dog
Turn off my audio
Put my keys in my bag
Set my bag down
And only THEN leave the room for ninety seconds.
Can’t you wait for two minutes??
That’s on a normal day. I may also need to turn around and leave for another appointment and have barely 20 minutes to get ready. It’s not that you’re not fully entitled to my attention, it’s just that I can’t give it to you. Not yet. I have none to give.
What we need is a buffer, a way to pause between one phase of the day and another. We need to make a mental and emotional transition, not just a physical one where we move from one location to another. Just because my body is in the room does not mean my attention is!
A five-minute pause is respectful. It says (without saying): I acknowledge you and your day. You have obligations other than me. You have the perfect and absolute right to collect your thoughts, put your stuff down, make a quick phone call, listen to the end of a song, take an aspirin, sort the mail, tap dance, get mud off your pants, or whatever else you need to do in order to feel ready to interact with me.
The reward for this natural pause is that your friend is now able to give you their full focus and attention. (Child? Roommate? Spouse? I hope you’re friends, in any case).
This pause may not always be reciprocated, because the other person may not realize you’re doing it. It can take time. You may have to spell it out, say, “Give me a minute,” and then explain why you were distracted. Like several hundred times. Eventually, gradually, anyone can be taught. Even pets.
Our rat terrier used to jump up on everyone, as a puppy and a young dog. After much practice, he started crouching next to someone instead. He could then avoid getting in trouble and simultaneously invite a nice rubdown. It’s pretty similar with people. If you start giving them a few moments to shake off the day, when they come in, it gives them time to want to come over for a hug.
There are a few other guidelines for giving and getting more thinking space. None of these are universal by any means.
One, no yelling from room to room. If you want to talk to someone, go to the room that they’re in. I don’t know about you, but if I’m in the next room, I can’t even hear or understand what someone else is trying to say. Raised voices are pointless. It’s worse when the person you’re calling turns out not to be there at all, or they’re on the phone with someone from work.
We avoid raised voices partly because we have both a parrot and a dog, and it tends to give both of them the wrong idea. She’s internalized this idea that there is a Quiet Time and a Noisy Time, so if you’re quiet then she’s quiet, too. But if you’re trying to watch a movie or talk on the phone then that is obviously Noisy Time. A free-for-all. She starts running through her full discography of electronic sounds, and then he stands underneath her and starts howling.
You think your house is loud...
Two, set aside your administrative discussions and do them all in bulk. This eliminates so, so much tedious daily choremastering. A lot of this can be done without discussion at all. For instance, I bought a four-way dishwasher magnet and we haven’t had to ask each other whether the dishes were clean or dirty ever since. (Clean/dirty/running/empty). We also have a shared grocery list on our phones. We do a status meeting every week to go over finances, travel plans, etc.
The idea here is that most of your conversations should be interesting, fun, relaxing... something other than vexing, boring, or infuriating. The time that was formerly taken up by discussions about the dishwasher or what to have for dinner is then freed up. Everyone can finally have a moment to think. This is how we build space in our lives for daydreaming and peace of mind.
In the urgent care examination room, I read a poster on the wall while the nurse took my vitals. There wasn’t much else to do while simultaneously wearing three pieces of medical equipment, trying to hold still for a pulse ox, thermometer, and blood pressure cuff.
This poster outlined the clinic’s policy for pain medication. It was pretty long!
I happened to be in a pretty distracting level of pain myself, due to a sports injury, and it had gotten worse during the hour I had just waited. As a routine part of the exam, the nurse asked me to rate my pain on a level of 1 to 10. I told her ‘4,’ on which I will elaborate.
Then I mentioned the poster and how it put things in perspective for me. I don’t like being in pain, but I also have no interest in a prescription painkiller habit.
“I’d have to be screaming on the floor before I would want painkillers,” I told the nurse. “I have enough to deal with right now. It’s like you walk in with one problem and walk out with two problems.”
She laughed ruefully. Nurses are prone to dark comedy. With her level of experience she likely dealt with patients trying to score extra pills on a daily basis.
I avoid painkillers for many of the same reasons that I avoid sleeping pills. I have a firm conviction that almost all medical issues originate in a person’s daily habits, and a prescription is a short-term fix for what most likely started as a long-term problem. I’ve had sleep issues since I was seven, for instance, and these issues are poorly understood. The most common medical solution for night terrors like mine is a prescription for barbiturates.
Okay, great. Two years later I’ll still have a sleep problem, and also a pill problem. Thanks. (No thanks)
I used to work at a drug rehab. The program was court-mandated, meaning that over 99% of our clients came in to avoid jail time. Many of them were clean-cut and looked like any other suburban business professional. They got busted by having multiple prescriptions at multiple pharmacies. It could happen to anyone, I’m convinced of that.
I had oral surgery a few times this year, and I was not offered painkillers. I didn’t take anything stronger than ibuprofen, even when I had sutures in my mouth and couldn’t eat solid food.
I’d rather spend a week thrashing around in mind-numbing pain than spend years fighting an addiction.
This is a philosophical position, and by no means something that I expect to appeal to anyone but me. Painkillers are there for a reason, and it is possible to die of shock. I don’t blame other people for succumbing to what is a built-in risk of a rational, legal, and standard choice. I know this is a neurochemical thing, not some... “willpower” thing or what-have-you.
I don’t believe in “willpower.”
I do, though, believe in the Pain Scale.
Sitting in a veterinary office one day, I saw a little poster on the wall. It was a pain scale for animals. It impressed me that veterinary science had worked out a way to rate the pain of animals who can’t speak or write. We can tell how they feel by looking at them, by the way they behave.
According to this poster, a ‘10’ for an animal might show up as loss of consciousness, convulsions, and possibly death.
Whoa! I thought. Good point. I know I have never experienced a 10 on the pain scale in my life. It occurred to me that few people probably have, even if they’ve been in labor or had major burns.
The pain scale I’ve seen for humans is subjective. It asks us to rate our pain according to what we have experienced before, or whether we feel it is ‘severe.’
A stubbed toe rates as a 1, according to one scale. Everyone has stubbed a toe at some point, and the universal reaction is to hop around swearing a blue streak. This is one of the three reasons I haven’t owned a coffee table for the past twenty years. We don’t call 911 when we stub our toes, though, because we know it will only hurt that much for a minute or two. Acute but brief and not dangerous.
Chronic pain is what tends to get us into trouble. I started getting migraines the same year I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a long time ago when there weren’t any reliable prescription drugs for either condition. Those were some tough years.
I figured out along the way, though, how to avoid flare-ups. Everything I ever did that worked was a permanent, often quite radical, lifestyle modification. I figured a lot of things out accidentally, coincidentally, and sometimes by trial and error. Problems like these are systemic, and they are hard to treat because they are the result of multiple inputs. Changing even three things might not be enough to make a difference, and they might not even be the right three things.
If I’d gotten some prescriptions, I’m convinced that I would not have pushed through and figured out how to leave the pain state. I would have thought of myself as a sick person who needed to take pills forever.
Pain is an invader, but it’s also a messenger. Pain tells us, Hey, whatever you’re doing, knock it off. Pain is an opportunity to learn something.
Not everyone is interested in receiving the message from pain. Emotionally - why do we continue to interact with people who hurt us or betray our trust over and over? Mentally - why do we dig in and double down on ideas after we’re exposed to contradictory evidence? Physically - why do we keep eating foods that make us ill, deprive ourselves of sleep, or ignore doctor’s orders?
When I’m in a difficult situation, I like to ask myself, What would an ordinary person do right now? Sometimes I can say, Okay, that’s what I should do, and other times the response should obviously be, Okay, definitely don’t do that. It depends on whether the standard response seems to lead to good or bad results. If the standard response to pain is to get a prescription for painkillers, and a common response to painkillers is to develop a tolerance, then I want to avoid that common outcome.
When I think of the pain scale, my personal version of it, it helps me to stay in my right mind and think about Future Me. The truth is that Future Me has probably already gotten over this.
1 - stubbed toe, paper cut
2 - headache, common cold
3 - migraine
4 - distracting pain
5 - “better get that looked at” pain
6 - “incapable of doing anything else” pain
7 - involuntary sobbing pain (antibiotic eye drops)
8 - cry yourself to sleep pain (losing a fingernail in a metal door)
9 - uncontrollable screaming
10 - unconscious, seizure, coma
I survived an 8, my personal 8, and that was a level of pain that made me believe that torture works. It also helps me to believe that there are of course worse levels of pain within human experience. Maybe I’ve already experienced the worst pain I will ever feel in my life! At that level, I could still speak, could still get up and walk, could go about my business without pain treatment. I knew that my body can heal, that my brain can eventually tune out pain, that this too would pass. Not a single one of the most painful experiences of my life is bothering me today.
I believe that there is a natural neurochemical response to pain, and that this neurochemistry can be permanently disrupted after even a short period of using various pharmaceuticals. I don’t trust them at all. I trust that I can handle almost any painful experience that comes my way, and that almost anything is easier than fighting an addiction.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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