Philosophies both profound and prosaic
Every now and again, I might share some of the various philosophical offerings and rather more prosaic pronouncements I’ve come across that might help us to derive, if not meaning, then at least some acceptance out of this current situation. I’m not presenting these in any particular order.
I must read a lot more about (and from) Oliver Sacks, the esteemed physician, writer and anthropologist. His partner, Bill Hayes – Oliver died some years ago – tweeted something from Oliver that struck a chord, which I try to hold on to, even amidst scenes of panic buying and rolling newsreel of bog roll flying off the shelves. Sacks, who had a resonant voice rich with smiles, once said “I think all human beings are essentially courageous, and maybe made more so by facing affliction.” About his own mortality, knowing he was living with a terminal condition, he once said;
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
A cause for hope
Living abroad, I’ve found BBC Radio 4 a huge source of comfort in these tumultuous times. There’s a soft cadence to Justin Webb’s utterings, something arch but playful in Nick Robinson’s. But its the ‘Thought for the Day’ and ‘Point of View’ offerings that have helped me most. You might want to listen to a recent Point of View on BBC Sounds from playwright and author, Michael Morpugo.
Morpugo’s been hunkering down in his cottage in Devon and while his account of Brits – indeed Britain – isn’t lacerating as such, at times it can feel wounding. Nevertheless, while observing the yawning gap between communities, he talks about the collective need for “unity” and an inclusive society. Further, he talks about how we’re all sailing deeper into the same trough and how we find ourselves in the same boat. No one is being levelled up or levelled down; all of us, farmer and financier alike, “are in this together” he concludes. The common good is as vital to us all as our own good, and each of us has our own part to play – how we rise to this challenge will define our lives.
Elsewhere, we’ve heard from clergy and other spiritual figures. My partner’s friend, the Venerable Liz Adekunle, often appears as the guest on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’. I especially valued a recent contribution of hers’ from earlier in March. She’s not alone in pondering what ultimate meaning we might derive from what now appears as chaos.
It’s been helpful to reflect on historic epidemics and pandemics and what has been common across the centuries and what has not. I valued Sarah Dunant’s reflections on the history of epidemics, from syphilis, cholera to polio and TB. She talked about sitting safely and watching disaster unfold when Coronavirus started affecting Hong Kong where her daughter works and lives. And fixating on bad news: ‘disease porn’ – the petrified fascination following daily infection rates. Or put another way, the ‘getting hooked on being hooked’. Rather unsurprisingly, she cautions us to avoid this most unsettling of addictions.
Dunant recollects the days when she lost friends because of her mother contracting TB, how other friends would bring their forks and knives to dinner. Similar to the days in the early 1980s when AIDS emerged, she highlights how the fear people felt exceeded their knowledge of the disease.
She questions whether global tourism will carry on just like before – can it? Should it? Will we really being giving into the lure of the cruise-ship? She tells us its not just China that needs to confront hard truths following this pandemic, but the world entire.
For something a little less highfalutin, maybe take a look at Marina Hyde’s satirical accounts of British politics in The Guardian. Her recent piece, ‘When Johnson says we’ll turn the Covid-19 tide in 12 weeks, it’s just another line for the side of a bus‘ is less satire in fact, but rather, a vivid account of the UK’s unforgettable past 30 days, and how March 2020 is one month we’ll find it hard to forget.
Surveillance versus citizen empowerment versus selfishness
Yuval Noah Harari is the go-to philosopher and social commentator many broadcasters are turning to, including CNN. After all, he wrote a history of humankind.
I valued his free essay for the Financial Times, on the world after coronavirus. He presents twin challenges – choices, in fact – we now face as a species, in terms of how we respond to renewed threats to our health, but how this can be managed in terms of preserving our personal privacy. He warns new technologies, harnessed in the wrong way, will change how we live our lives and our relationship with the state. Biometric technologies may indeed track who has a specific infection or other illness, but how else might they be used, capitalised or exploited is what most concerns him…
But if you can monitor what happens to my body temperature, blood pressure and heart-rate as I watch the video clip, you can learn what makes me laugh, what makes me cry, and what makes me really, really angry.
Elsewhere, I liked the simple reminder from academic, Richard G Wilkinson, focusing on the ‘new normal’ of social distancing.
It’s physical, not social distancing that matters. We need to enhance our social embrace while we increase our physical distance
All very well, but as many commentators are asking, how long can we all tolerate this collective lockdown? Are we even experiencing some form of collective neurosis? Won’t we all need to heed Trump’s advice, or Bolsonaro’s, and soon open up the economy again? (This is rhetorical).
As a Jew, I’m always fascinated in what sage Lord Sacks (the former Chief Rabbi) has to say. I don’t always agree with him, but perhaps there’s some truth in his view that “…we’ve been very good on individualism, but much less good on collective responsibility. It’s all been wonderfully liberating, but at the same time we are now beginning to count the costs…this situation of putting up with personal inconveniences for the sake of public safety is going to challenge and force us to realise that selfishness is not going to protect us.”
In an interview just two weeks ago now for Jewish News, he advised, “we have to work for the good of the whole if we’re to prevent this becoming an epidemic,” which is sobering. We all remember the moment this was declared not just an epidemic, but a pandemic – it’s really quite old news now.
Hogwarts and a galaxy far, far away
When we step back from all the politics and philosophy and platforming of different dogmas, there’s art. Literature. Music. Our imaginations and unconscious.
I liked the author Joanne Harris’s take on the antidote or at least the escape mechanism to divert ourselves’ away from the “C’ word. Good stories. She suggests a few possible destinations – Narnia, The Hundred Acre Wood, Middle-Earth, Hogwarts, Gormenghast, and yes, why not, ‘A galaxy far, far away’…
But that’s easier said than done, when you have stark reminders of the social, physical and economic impact of this virus. Torsten Bell from the Resolution Foundation reminds us following the 11 March Budget in the UK, that the growth forecast over the next five years is just 7.3 per cent even without Coronavirus. He adds, “when the inevitable downgrade to growth this year is added it’ll be the weakest official 5 year growth forecast EVER published” (his capitals).
But elsewhere, he’s reminded us the state – many states – are now flexing their muscles and demonstrating how agile and awesome they can be. British politics in 2020 is a place where the Conservative Chancellor has outlined plans for a bigger state than under Tony Blair and more borrowing than Gordon Brown. Let’s reflect on that.
Normalising the Abnormal
I loved British astronaut Tim Peake’s perspective having experienced isolation on the European Space Station. He said he thinks having some element of routine and control even in the most apparently bizarre or absurd of situations can be a great help; making a bacon sandwich on a spaceship helped him for instance. He talks about how we all need some degree of control to feel okay in life.
The solution? Normalise the abnormal – set up your daily lists of things to get done, whatever the craziness raining down on your window panes.
Other astronauts who have experienced some degree of isolation or quarantine talk about the flexibility that can enhance your sense of control, where this is available to you; so for example changing your menus, even if you have limited resources to buy food.
On the European Space Station, they’ve offered a greater degree of personalisation when it comes to what each astronaut can individually eat. The value and significance of that personalisation (as well as routine), can’t be under-estimated. That said, they do advise to have some degree of balance – ice cream for breakfast is the road to ruin…
One could go on and on. I may offer more musings in the coming weeks. I’ll leave you with this, from a recent blog from Ted.com
It’s about the need to be more compassionate to ourselves, to allow ourselves to make mistakes…and to be okay when difficult thoughts come up. Acknowledge them, they’re natural…
When you are self-compassionate, you’re actually doing something very specific for yourself — you’re noticing difficult thoughts, showing up for them, and creating a sense of psychological safety for yourself.