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Death and our growing need for safety

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While there aren’t many absolute certainties in this world, there is one thing we know for sure: none of us are getting out of here alive.

Despite a niggling awareness of our eventual but inevitable doom, death remains one of those conversation topics deemed unseemly for polite company. We don’t like to think about it. We don’t like to talk about it. And if we are forced to face the inconvenient reality of our own mortality, the experience is, for most, a terrifying one.

Perhaps we fear death so much because most of us harbour an inherent fear of the unknown. After all, at the moment of our passing, we literally lose everything we have ever consciously experienced. Boom! Gone. All in one fell swoop.

But if this is indeed the case, our stubborn opposition to consciously considering our eventual demise is a proverbial shot in the foot. Avoiding the topic makes it all the more enigmatic. And the more mystery-shrouded bucket-kicking remains, the more alarming it appears.

Interestingly, not all cultures are so deathly afraid of death. The indigenous Torajan people of Indonesia have a fascinating array of rituals in which they partake after a family member shuffles off the mortal coil. Deceased family members often continue to ‘reside’ in the family home for months or even years after their passing. During this time, their living counterparts offer them food, cigarettes, and even take them on outings.

Torajan culture: where death doesn’t mean the end of life

Relative to the Western approach, the Torajans draw a distinctly less distinct line between the concepts of ‘alive’ and ‘dead’. Death, to them, is a part of life. And I can’t help but wonder whether this dampens the associated fear factor.

In contrast, we in the West seem more distraught now at the prospect of passing away than ever before. Throughout the COVID-related pandemonium of the past 2 years, news media and politicians touted every death as a ‘tragedy’, regardless of whether it occurred in a 47-year-old or a 97-year-old.

Now, call me cold-hearted, but I don’t think it’s normal or healthy to view the end of life as a calamitous catastrophe. And I certainly don’t think it should be ignored. On the contrary, I imagine there could be a number of social and psychological perks to each of us tuning in a little more closely to the certitude of our own mortality.

Regular reminders of our own eventual doom might encourage each of us to live a little more fully each day. Periodic prompts that our partners and loved ones won’t be around forever may likewise lead us to truly value and appreciate the time we get with them. Might make us less likely to sweat the small stuff, or yell at our better half for not cutting the bread straight.

None of us expect to live forever. So why are we so distressed when, once again, someone inevitably fails to do so?

It wouldn’t be such an issue if our inbuilt aversion to maker-meeting didn’t have such significant implications for our way of life. But our attempts to defy death mean that we often employ extreme measures to prolong pain and make life-living a safer endeavour.

I would go as far as to say that we as a society have become a bit too preoccupied with the notion of safety.

We helicopter-parent our children to the detriment of their development. We obsessively swab our bodies and environments with alcohol, lest any pathogens be lurking. We deny nursing home residents access to their families in the name of prolonging their lonely existences.

It’s almost as though we are tiptoeing through life with the express purpose of arriving safely at death.

Now don’t get me wrong. I know that safety is pretty fundamental to Maslow’s good ol’ needs hierarchy.

And I’m not saying we should recklessly abandon sensible precautions. Strapping on a helmet or seatbelt is a pretty minor imposition, while failure to do so could be fatal.

But I can’t help but wonder whether maybe there needs to be a more nuanced discussion around the potential consequences of constantly erring on safety’s side.

You’re nothing more than a niche occupant

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bsh kitten cream colored british shorthair kitten relaxing in a flower vase cat in vase stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

I live in a niche.

Chances are, you do too – whether or not you’re aware of it.

Allow me to explain.

Many years ago, I used to jog several times a week. Occasionally, a running buddy would accompany me. And depending on who that running buddy was, my endurance and general levels of complainy-ness fluctuated enormously.

When running with my septuagenarian dad, I tended to adopt the role of ‘pseudo personal trainer’. Throughout the run, I would spur him on to ‘Push through the pain!’ and ‘Keep going!’

In hindsight, I was probably an absolute pain in the proverbial, and cannot comprehend why he put himself through the torment of jogging with me. But interestingly, on such occasions, I almost never noticed my own peripheral lactic acid accumulation or fatigue.

Running with fit, age-equivalent exercise buddies was often a different story altogether. In this permutation, I often adopted the role of pathetic, puffed out Sharon, and my workout whingeing escalated accordingly.

It was almost as though I was harbouring some sort of undiagnosed dissociative identity disorder whereby slightly different contexts elicited entirely different personas and fitness levels.

I resisted the urge to submit myself for psychiatric assessment, and opted instead to observe those around me in the hope that maybe I wasn’t the only one engaging in this weird behaviour.

To my relief, I soon realised that the phenomenon did not apply exclusively to me. And nor was it restricted to the exercise sphere.

I observed hysterically funny friends (known to induce milk ejection via nostril in passing conversation) adopt a passive ‘observer’ role in the presence of a stronger comedic personality. People I knew to be outgoing and bubbly in intimate settings presented as almost subdued at parties packed with inebriated extroverts. Millennial females – the go-to office ‘techsperts’ in their baby boomer-dominated workplaces – would automatically defer to their male partners for any computer-related issues arising at home.

It was almost as though, once a particular ‘niche’ was occupied, human nature would seek an alternative ‘vacant’ role to fill. Listener. Introvert. Damsel in distress.

If this niche-filling theory was valid, it could prove a useful psychological tool.

Simply being aware of the ‘niche’ effect could empower us to make different choices and consciously bypass less desirable roles.

Our millennial female could identify her propensity to activate ‘damsel in distress’ mode in the presence of a techy male. This in turn may spur her to problem solve her own computer complexities at home, elevating her competence and confidence in so doing.

On a challenging run, I could personally opt to adopt my powerful, positive persona in place of my pathetic one, rendering the exercise experience a more pleasant one for all parties involved.

There may even be some ‘niche theory’ applications to drive behaviour change in others.

Historically, we have been taught that modelling ‘good’ behaviours can help people be better. But what if we’ve been getting it wrong all along, and the opposite is actually often true?

Say you have a family member who’s feeling sad and sorry for themselves. What if, instead of cajoling them in an upbeat tone to abandon the 2L ice cream tub they’ve selected for their dinner, you tone down your own mood so that the ‘depressed’ niche is occupied and they’re forced to find an alternative one? Or how about occupying the ‘helpless/useless’ niche to encourage someone with a proclivity for passivity to take some initiative?

I’m not saying it will work in every scenario. Indeed, I foresee that certain niches may be large enough for others to squeeze into right alongside us. Some may even be so large as to suck others in. Like the ‘eater of everything in the house’ niche, the ‘angry/aggressive’ niche, and the ‘bitchy gossiper’ niche. These particular ‘black hole’ niches should be carefully identified, and occupancy avoided.

But black holes aside, I reckon that niches might just be a powerful well of untapped potential.

Which ones will you choose to fill?

How NOT to change people: why they never seem to listen to your awesome advice

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Here’s a free piece of unsolicited advice: don’t give unsolicited advice.

Wait! Don’t go! I promise that’s the last piece of hypocrisy I’ll be dishing out for at least 3 paragraphs.

In all seriousness though, advice-giving is a tricky, complicated business. And as such, it should be dispensed with the kind of care that might be afforded a pre-menstrual grizzly bear.

Because, like a flatulent old man after a hot curry, advice has a tendency to backfire. And not necessarily because it’s bad. On the contrary, almost equal proportions of good, ghastly and ‘meh’ advice seem to be ignored or even blatantly contravened.

Rather, it’s all about the approach and delivery.

Let’s explore a couple of the fatal errors we often make in our attempts to persuade our loved ones to do things differently.

Fatal error #1: Giving without asking

Many years ago, my sister and I were out at a bowling alley. The objective of the night was fun and frivolity, pure and simple. We were giggling away and having a whale of a time when, out of nowhere, a balding man in pinstripe pants materialised beside us and started giving us pointers.

He was obviously a tenpin pro and his tips would no doubt have been good ones. But becoming a better bowler was not the evening’s aim. So instead of lapping up his lessons, the longer he lingered, the fewer f*#!s we gave about anything he said.

This situation is unfortunately common. Many have had the experience of innocuously going about our business when someone takes it upon themselves to tell us what we’re doing wrong and how to do it better.

Needless to say, we tend not to be overly receptive to recommendations in such circumstances.

But what’s the alternative? When is it actually ok to dish out advice?

Well, like a good sexual experience, it’s all about consent.

Obtaining acquiescence before launching into a tirade of tips does wonders for rendering the recipient of the recommendations more open to hearing them.

Purrrlease can I give you some advice?

“Would you have any interest in what worked well for me when I had this problem?”

“Do you want to know what I’ve often found useful in this situation?”

“I reckon I know something that could help. You might be all over it already, but tell me if you want extra ideas.”

At this juncture, the advice-ee may indeed give us a red light. And that’s ok. Not everyone actually wants advice in every avenue of their life. And by finding out first, we save them frustration, and save ourselves a whole heap of wasted air and effort.

If given the green light however, they are obviously open to ideas.

Though whether they adhere to them or not may be another story…

Fatal error #2: Telling them what they already know

With a few choice exceptions, most of us have a pretty good idea of what’s good for us and what’s not. Anyone who possesses some semblance of insight already knows when they’re being lazy, greedy or just plain stupid.

And any of us who want to change said laziness/greediness/stupidity have probably also already given some thought to how that change could happen.

As a result, pinpointing the problem is rarely the problem. And identifying the solution is rarely the problem.

Rather, the problem is usually a lack of motivation to actually address the problem.

For example. I’m already aware that saying the word ‘problem’ six times in three sentences is a problem. I’m aware that the solution to the problem is to stop writing the word ‘problem’. But I’m still going to keep using it because I can’t be arsed expending the effort required to unearth an appropriate synonym.

In this situation, pointing out to me that over-using the word ‘problem’ is a problem is not going to help me. I already know that I have a ‘problem’ problem.

Telling me to stop using the word ‘problem’ is also not going to help me. I presently have no access to an alternative.

Even offering solutions may not help. You may try to convince me that a writing class will ‘fix’ my depleted lexicon, but I may not have the time, energy, money or motivation to actually attend.

As a result, advising me on any of these points will only serve to make me defensive as I seek to justify my shortcomings in the face of this attack on them.

Furthermore, with the problem and solution already articulated for me, all that’s left for me to add to the conversation is why I can’t change. And in doing so, I inadvertently end up psychologically augmenting the barriers and further persuading myself that change is indeed impossible. The result? A doubling down on the ‘problem’ behaviour.

Obviously, dispensing advice with reckless abandon doesn’t work. But never fear! A powerful alternative exists in the form of extracting advice.

The ‘extraction’ approach is the difference between telling someone they need to abandon their couch-confined sloth-like lifestyle and activating the defensive response (“I’ve tried but I can’t!”) and asking them how they feel their health is going (“Well, truth be told, I’d like to lose a bit of weight”).

It’s the difference between telling them to hit the gym (“But I can’t afford a membership!”) vs. asking them whether they’ve considered how they might kick off their journey to better health (“I was thinking maybe I could start going for a walk at lunchtime each day”).

When we help them to focus on the underlying motivation for change and help them generate the potential solutions, we elicit more ‘change’ talk and less ‘sustain’ talk.

Even if barriers are brought up, the exact same extraction approach can be used.

“Those 600 chocolate bars stashed around your house sound very tempting. Have you given any thought to how you might deal with that?”

Most people in most situations are quite capable of coming up with solutions to their own problems. Most fixes are fairly obvious when the focus is appropriately directed.

And helping to guide that focus where we come in.

So instead of summing up here with further advice on giving advice, instead let me ask you this:

Why might you want to change the way you give advice?

And next time you want to help someone change, how do you think you might go about it?

The worst word in the English language, and how it’s ruining your life

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I have great respect for words. As a speech pathologist by day and a blog writer by (occasional) night, it would be problematic and confusing if I didn’t.

But I don’t think all words have a place in our language.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m no linguistic purist. My utterances are often peppered with not-quite-right lingo; my writing regularly riddled with suspect syntax that would have Chomsky thrashing in his literary grave.

But words hold more power than we often give them credit for. And as such, lexical selection is best made with at least a sprinkle of discretion.

Most of us are already aware of the profound differences in meaning that word choice can create. Describing an act as ‘freedom fighting’ rather than ‘terrorism’ conveys a less-than-subtle indication of political perspective.

But this is not an article about politics. This is an article about a word that the world would be infinitely better without.

The word ‘should’.

It sounds innocuous enough. It’s not even one of those offensive terms that lends itself to chronic mispronunciation or misspelling. But the impact it has on the human condition cannot be underestimated.

‘Should’ is the word we use when we know that an action would probably be healthy or helpful, but we don’t want and probably don’t intend to follow through on it. It’s the cop out word. The word we use as our ‘get out of jail free’ card, while still maintaining the illusion that we genuinely care about said jail.

I should do my tax tonight. I should start meditating. I should not sit on my expanding backside and eat this enormous family-sized pizza in my unwashed underpants while binge-watching an entire season of The Bachelor.

(Subtext: but I’m gonna)

Once we do what we said we shouldn’t, or don’t do what we said we should, the result is almost always guilt. And guilt is not a healthy emotion.

While some may see guilt as a means of motivating positive behaviour change, the converse is often the case. After downing our family-sized pizza, we are often riddled with self-loathing. And to soothe the self-loathing, we tend to turn towards something comforting. Like a nice big tub of triple chocolate swirl ice-cream, for example.

This guilt also serves to strengthen our self-image as a discipline-deficient human. It reinforces the belief that we are lazy or greedy or incapable. And this belief then – whether consciously or subconsciously – drives our future decisions.

“I’m just a lazy person; what’s the point of even buying gym gear? I may as well use the money to renew my Netflix subscription instead.”

Further, when we engage with ‘should-ing’ language, we suggest to ourselves that the behaviour of interest is an intrinsically unappealing one. It insinuates that we are acting merely out of obligation, rather than because we actually derive any benefit. And in so doing, we inadvertently augment the downside while simultaneously spurning any perks or positives.

This negative neurolinguistic programming thus serves to perpetuate our view of the target behaviour as being a chore. And nothing viewed as a chore is ever going to feel easy or become habitual.

So even if we manage to drag ourselves through the task this time around, we’re going to feel just as jaded about it the next time it needs to be done.

Evidently, ‘should’ is not a helpful linguistic choice.

But what’s the alternative?

The way I see it, there are two options: ‘will’ in place of ‘should’, or simply say nothing.

‘Will-ing’ carries the same sense as ‘should-ing’, but with an important difference. When we ‘will’, we exclusively emphasize the action. Opting to say ‘I will call my mum’ rather than ‘I should call my mum’ erases the complaining, ditches the painful procrastination process, and we just get on with it. And by bypassing the ‘should-ing’, we subconsciously perceive of the task as less of a chore.

Heck, we may even end up enjoying the parental chin wag.

However, sometimes inaction wins out. Exhaustion outweighs inspiration. We all have those days when we just know that we won’t make it to the gym because our afternoon will be fully occupied creating a butt-shaped indentation on the couch.

And that’s fine. We all need a hot date with some trashy TV from time to time. But don’t spoil the fun by ‘should-ing’ all over the place, and tainting your enjoyable night in with unproductive guilt.

Silence is sometimes ok. The gym isn’t going anywhere.

And who knows?

Maybe tomorrow you will.

Keeping your cyber stuff safe: the one thing you’re probably doing wrong

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The other day, I received a rather scary email.

It addressed me by name and politely informed me that it had successfully hacked one of my accounts and here was my password. In order for my private particulars not to be shared with the wider world, here were the details for a Bitcoin account into which I could deposit $1,500. Thank you, and have a nice day.

Not ideal.

The me of 6 months ago would have freaked the f*@! out. Not because the hacked account was of particular importance. Indeed, the email didn’t actually specify which one had been hacked. But it didn’t have to. The exposed password happened to be same for most of my six squillion odd accounts.

Fortunately for me, my security-savvy better half had schooled me on the dangers of duplicate passwords not 6 months prior. And even more fortunately for me, it was one of his lessons I had elected to act upon.

It went something like this:

Hackers are constantly trawling websites, probing for weaknesses. Some sites have pretty good security. Some do not. The ones that fall into the ‘do not’ category will probably get penetrated.

Knowing that most users tend to repeat-use the same password across a whole bunch of their accounts, the information gleaned from this single penetration event can then be plugged into more potentially damaging domains – bank accounts, email accounts, online shopping accounts…

This opens up a much wider drain down which they can and will suck your money, private/personal content and identity.

Your best protection is to make your passwords long and complicated. ‘Password’ is not an acceptable password. And for goodness sake don’t reuse the same one across multiple accounts!

Thus the lesson ended, and we went off to eat cheese and biscuits. But the message hit its mark. The risks were clear, and the ‘don’t re-use the same password’ argument was compelling.

But how on earth could I ever retain tens or even hundreds of different, complex codes, let alone remember which one was for what account? I, like most people, had no confidence that my already over-crowded brain possessed the mental bandwidth to master such a cognitive feat.

Enter the role of the password manager.

Password managers are encrypted, often cloud-based systems whose sole role is to securely store all of our passwords together. When using them, we literally have one job – to remember our single ‘master password’ – which unlocks the gate to all of the other passwords we have recorded.

While this centralised setup may itself seem a little dicey on the risk-front, the likelihood of a password manager being penetrated is pretty minimal. Like us, they also have only one job; to not get hacked. As such they tend to have pretty tight safeguards in place. After all, no one would use them if they didn’t.

At any rate, it seemed safer than what I had been doing up until that point. So I created an account with the free password manager LastPass and set about changing every one of my six squillion identical or semi-identical passwords.

Now, I’m not going to lie; it was a veritable pain in the proverbial to log in to every single account, change every single password to something long, complicated and distinct, and add each one to LastPass.

But within a few days I was done.

My brain felt clear and at peace; relieved of having to remember which of my passwords had exclamation marks at the end, which ones included numbers, and which ones started with capital letters. And I felt smugly secure in the knowledge that my cyber stuff was safe.

So when I received that scary email last week, I didn’t feel scared. And instead of transferring $1,500 into some cheeky hacker’s Bitcoin account, I bought my better half a big block of chocolate instead.

Surviving coronavirus: it’s probably not what you think

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While debate has raged around many aspects of our pandemic, there’s one thing we can pretty much all agree on: the whole situation has been one protracted series of emotional d*ck punches.

About a week ago, a large portion of Australia’s population was downgraded from Stage 3 restrictions (severely limited fun) to Stage 4 restrictions (fun is cancelled).

Thanks to our almost year-long lockdown (with a few short weeks reprieve in the middle as some sort of cruel ‘psych’), we have become – nay, instructed – to become incredibly isolated from one another.

Access to the people we love is forbidden. Recreation is forbidden.

It’s little wonder that many of us are riding minute-to-minute emotional rollercoasters, or simply being sucked progressively into a downwards spiral of mental messed-up-ness.

According to the Black Dog Institute, a whopping 78% of people have reported worsening mental health since pandemic onset. More than half have reported feeling lonely. More than half have reported stress about finances. More than half have reported drinking to excess.

Chillin cat!

It seems that in our quest to not catch coronavirus, we have created a very unwell world indeed.

But fortunately, this is not (entirely) a doom-and-gloom blog. This is more of a ‘let’s talk about how to fix everything’ blog.

Let’s get into it.

Maintaining incidental connection

Lockdown 2.0 feels rather different to Lockdown 1.0. The first time around, people frequently took to their local streets on foot or bike-back, drawing rainbows on sidewalks and smiling at the people they passed.

Thanks to mandatory masks coupled with our newfound fear of each other, the whole ‘smiling at people on the street’ thing is kind of no longer a thing. And as insignificant as that may seem, the ramifications are potentially pretty big.

When we can’t access our family and friends, incidental encounters with randoms are almost all we have when it comes to connection. And when even those connections are cut off – when we are no longer able to perceive passing smiles in the supermarket aisles – we feel more alone than ever.

So excepting the rare individual who has been blessed with ridiculously smiley eyes, the time has come for all of us to be more overt in how we acknowledge our fellow humans.

It could be a simple ‘good morning’. Perhaps a subtle wave. Maybe even just a wink, or one to two exaggerated eyebrow elevations.

youtube eyebrows GIF by SoulPancake

However it happens, we need to let our fellow lockdown-ees know that we see them. We need to let them know they are not alone. And when they give us a wink or a ‘hello’ back, we’ll know it too.

Make yourself feel better

In the western world, the concept of self-care has garnered a ton of traction in recent years, particularly in the context of maintaining a healthy mental state.

The problem is that most self-care exemplars tends to trend towards hedonic pleasures. Massages. Bubble baths. A glass of red (or six) and some raw cookie dough to wash it down.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like cookie dough as much as the next girl. But hedonic highs are unfortunately short-lived. And as soon as the pleasurable stimulus is gone, the feel-good feels fade away again.

Fortunately, there’s a longer lasting way to maintain a happiness high. And shockingly, it doesn’t even involve cookie dough.

What it does involve is doing something nice for someone else.

nice surprise

Oxymoronic as it sounds, selflessness is an amazing way to satisfy our own selfish needs, and can provide a powerful distraction from our own woes. When we go out of our way to make someone else’s day, our serotonin systems fire up, giving our brains a satisfying squirt of happy chemical that lingers like a fart in a poorly-ventilated room.

It doesn’t have to involve anything enormous. It might be as simple as cutting some flowers from your garden to leave on a colleague’s desk or surreptitiously paying for the coffee of the next person in the cafe queue.

Even a small gesture can be enough to brighten a day and pull someone back from an emotional precipice. And unlike curves and quarantines, it’s one thing that is within our control.

So forget ventilators and hand sanni. Connection and kindness are the true keys to weathering this COVID sh*tstorm, and emerging intact on the other side

Compulsory masks? Time to ban alcohol.

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It’s a mad time right now. Making it through a single conversation without encountering words like ‘unprecedented’ or ‘new normal’ is an almost insurmountable challenge.

In the current cray-cray climate, almost every new day seems to herald a new list of things that we must or must not do in order to be socially responsible citizens.

This week, mandatory masks are the new thing.

dog in a mask
Photo credit

For the lucky, corona-infested populace of metropolitan Melbourne (where I live), masks will be compulsory as soon as we step outside our front doors as of midnight tomorrow. And if we fail to fully shield our lower facial orifices, the heavy hand of the law will be poised, ready to slap us (with a fine).

Many people have accepted the impending mandatory masking as an unfortunate necessity born of our far-from-over coronavirus crisis. Others have taken their acceptance a step further and become vocal champions of the mask, decrying anyone selfish enough to dare show their shnoz in public.

nose and mouth
Photo credit

But others are less sold on the hiding of our face holes.

I find myself with a foot in each camp. On one hand, I get it. If a disease is both very virulent and crazily contagious, taming transmission is probably a good thing. And adding extra barriers will probably help to prevent us from uncontrollably French kissing and spitting in each other’s faces.

But there’s something that doesn’t quite compute for me.

If it’s so necessary for us to each take a personal hit to protect the health of our fellow humans, shouldn’t we be extending our endorsement of restrictions a lot wider than mass mask-wearing?

By the same principle for example, all alcohol consumption should also be banned from midnight tomorrow. After all, intoxication is one of the most common precursors to violence, road accidents, and a bunch of other antisocial behaviours that harm humans and society at large. Our indulgence places others at risk… just like our indulgence in a bare lower face. Yet we won’t land a fine for ordering a wine.

Smoking anywhere in public should likewise be prohibited. Secondhand smoke has enormous potential to harm the lungs of proximal innocent bystanders in much the same way a bare lower face has now been deemed to pose a secondhand respiratory risk. But we haven’t and probably never will outlaw public smoking.

While these are just two examples, there are a whole host of other possible prohibitions we could declare in the name of protecting each other. Consuming junk food while pregnant. Forcing junior doctors to pull 20 hour shifts. Offering jobs that require a person to sit on their bum staring at a screen for 9 hours every day.

mask
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All of these behaviours harm others. But most of them are scarcely frowned upon, let alone illegal.

So if we need to wear masks to protect the people around us, fine. But let’s be consistent with that concern when it comes to other harms too.

Coronavirus has cured the flu

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So far, 2020 has seemed like some sort of bad joke. The kind that, once cracked, earns you long, withering looks from anyone in earshot.

In Australia, it started with the bushfire season from hell. Our air quality levels plummeted to among the worst in the entire world. Our landscapes were transformed into apocalyptic scenes with smokey, blood red skies. Zombie dingoes prowled through the flames, chewing on babies*.

Bush fire

Then it got worse. 

Our already sh*t-stained fan was bombarded by a second fecal load in the form of a coronavirus pandemic. People started dying in droves. The living were locked up, scared and isolated. Toilet paper supplies were rapidly dwindling.

But in among the disintegration of life as we knew it, coronavirus seemed to bestow an interesting perk. And I’m not talking about the extra Netflix binge time.

While the news media religiously delivered ‘breaking news’ every time another person bit the proverbial coronavirus dust, the usual suspects that snuff us out in more typical years seemed uncharacteristically silent.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), influenza-related deaths in the country totalled 3,102 in 2018, ranking the flu as the number 12 most effective killer of Aussies. This was not an unusual flu season, representing only a slight uptick from the 2,497 influenza-related deaths recorded in 2013.

This year however, the flu seems to have suddenly run out of puff. And not just in a small way. So far, there have been just 36 influenza-related deaths in Australia. 

flu
Photo credit

Now sure – we’re just over a month into winter. There’s certainly time for the flu to gather a little more mortal momentum. But even if we were to quintuple the current numbers, the total influenza-related deaths would still stand at less than 6% of the numbers experienced in preceding years.

There’s no denying it; coronavirus has cured the flu.   

The next question, of course, is why. Why are our influenza death digits so drastically lower than their historical averages? 

Iso is why.

Evading our fellow humans eliminates the opportunity for us to pass our pathogens around. Not just SARS-CoV-2 pathogens, but any pathogens. No germ sharing = no germ spreading = less germ-induced dying. It seems to be that simple. The numbers speak for themselves.

It’s clear that being social beings is inherently risky business. Being alive, likewise. As soon as we leave the relative safety of our homes and interact with the outside world, we necessarily put ourselves at an increased risk of death.

But being social beings that interact with the outside world is also precisely what makes us human. It’s what gives us meaning and a reason to get up in the morning. As J.A. Shedd once said; ships in the harbour are safe, but that’s not what ships are built for. 

So what does this all mean for our current situation?

All around the world, we are seeing second coronavirus ‘waves’. Infection rates improve, lockdowns lift, infections spike and lockdowns are reinstated to get it all back under control again.

Lockdown1

Realistically, this cycle is likely to be a long term thing unless we either change our management approach or get our hands on an effective vaccine. And finding a vaccine that effectively targets respiratory viruses is notoriously challenging… so we probably shouldn’t hold our breath for that to happen anytime soon.

Which leaves us to weigh up the merits of risk vs. reward.

We need to determine how much potential danger we are prepared to weather in the interests of preserving our way of life. We need to work out how long we are prepared to forgo our freedoms in the interest of safety. And we need to know far we will go to protect ourselves before we’ve sacrificed everything that was worthy of protection in the first place.

For everyone, the tipping point will be different. But our pre-COVID world was not a risk-free world either.

At some point, we may simply need to acknowledge that being alive carries an inexorable risk of death.

And shutting ourselves away from an interminable storm, merely to arrive safely at death’s door a little further down the track, doesn’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense.

 

*This may or may not have actually happened.

Lifting of lockdowns: navigating a return to pre-iso life

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The first half of 2020 has been a sh*t-storm of fairly monumental proportions. The kind usually reserved for bathrooms following dodgy third world street food feasts.

But to those who have weathered the COVID-storm and emerged on the other side, clearer skies are on the horizon. Our iso-diet has worked. The curve has become less curvaceous. Restrictions are being relaxed. The light at the end of the lockdown tunnel is aglow.

As anticipated, many are champing at the bit to race out for that long-awaited haircut… er, I mean family reunion. Particularly those who have been trapped in tiny apartments with housemates of whom they’re not enormously fond.

Lockdown
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But not everyone is super keen for a return to regular ‘pre-iso’ life.

Sure – at the start it was scary. But once we all worked out the optional background for our video calls and got our hands on the required rolls of toilet paper, things started to settle down. And as lockdown life became the new normal, many of us started… well… kind of liking it.

Introverts around the world rejoiced; finally free to spend long, luxurious weekends legitimately avoiding hordes of other humans. Extroverts, while less predisposed to thrive in such situations, enjoyed not needing to waste time commuting between their innumerable Zooms and House Parties; allowing extra time to squeeze in even more socialising with even more people.

Many replaced their pre-pandemic activities with more meaningful alternatives. Family bike rides were substituted in place of retail therapy and fine dining. We abdicated  our need to be constantly out and about doing. Started acclimating to simply being. Allowed ourselves to enjoy the slower pace of life.

Relaxing
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And almost everyone smashed through at least a few home improvement tasks that had been lying dismally dormant on the ‘to do’ list for months/years.

It therefore comes as no great surprise that, with iso easing and lockdowns lifting, more than a few of us are reticent to relinquish the solace we have found in this seeming impingement on our freedom.

And so, as we prepare to transition into less isolated isolation, and less lockddown-y lockdowns, the conversations have begun.

‘Do we actually want everything to return to exactly as it was before? Or do we maybe want to hold onto a few elements of this new lifestyle once the limitations lift?’

On this front, everyone will no doubt have differences of opinion. But personally, there are a few features I wouldn’t mind perpetuating post-pandemic.

The intentionality of iso-interactions
In my book, catch-ups organised deliberately with people I’m genuinely hanging out to see trump en-masse invitations dished out by distant-ish acquaintances any day.

Hanging onto that newfound skerrick of extra alone time
Much as we’re all programmed to crave companionship and connection, there’s a certain freedom found in the occasional absence of our fellow humans.

Substituting the odd video call in place of in-person meet-ups from time to time
The emissions, effort and road rage saved by avoiding extensive commutes over the past 2 months has been rather heavenly. And ‘big nights’ are certainly less exhausting when they wind down a mere 15m from bed!

Continuing to find joy in life’s more simple pleasures
In the absence of extravagant adventures and experiences, lockdown life has re-taught me how to see beauty in the mundane. The fragrant delight of a home-cooked meal prepared with loving care. The excitement of spotting teddy bears in windows along a suburban stroll. The delicious relaxation of a Sunday morning home yoga session.

Meditating
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So has lockdown life been easy? No.

Do we want to be locked down forever? Of course not.

But outside of a Marvel movie, nothing in this world is ever entirely ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Every disaster offers opportunity and potential for learning and growth.

What will you carry on into post-pandemic life?

The true culprit of our toilet paper crisis

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Over the course of the past week, Australia has lost its collective mind in a frenzy of corona virus-induced fear.

In stark contrast to our standard ‘She’ll be right’ approach, Aussies have begun genuinely prepping for the apocalypse. 

As one might imagine could occur in conjunction with end-of-world arrangements, there’s been a definitive up-tick in the supermarket sales of canned goods, bottled water and long life milk. And fair enough. If you’re buckling down in a bunker to wait out the wiping out of humankind, you’re probably going to need some sustenance to keep you going while you’re down there.

The bizarre bit is that supermarkets across the nation have been completely cleaned out of toilet paper.

It sounds like something out of an Andy Griffith’s book. But I kid you not; I have visited 4 supermarkets in the past 3 days, and there’s not a scrap of loo roll remaining. Entire aisles are eerily bare. Heck, the first store I tried had even been emptied of tissues, paper towel and serviettes.

Coronavirus meme

Given the total dearth of bum-cleansing materials, I felt acutely relieved at discovering I still had nine loo rolls stashed under my laundry sink. But alongside the relief was a whole lot of confusion.

Why toilet paper? Where was it all going? And when would it be back?

It occurred to me that while some people were comprehensively losing their sh!t over the corona situation*, such individuals were likely in the minority. After all, most people I encountered weren’t shirking work to batten down the hatches in anticipation of an impending apocalypse.

Rather, like me, most were simply noticing the lack of toileting supplies and starting to mentally calculate the approximate number of bum-wiping days they had left before their own dwindling supply might start to become problematic.

In response to this increased awareness, such individuals were loading up on loo roll preemptively when they happened upon it. This proactive purchasing further drained the standard supermarket supply, perpetuating the problem which would likely have otherwise resolved itself.

In summary, the toilet paper problem was not being caused by cataclysmic corona concerns. It was simply a secondary symptom driven by herd mentality and FOMO. 

This is not the first time FOMO has been to blame for major crises. Poo-paper quandry aside, fear-driven herd behaviour has underpinned a whole heap of other irrational man–made disasters.

Rapid, unforseen stock market crashes, for example, are rarely due to any true change in fundamental stock value. Rather, they typically occur in response to anticipatory anxiety that fellow shareholders will imminently stock-dump.

Bank runs likewise typically take place as a herd-style fear response; ironically often causing the feared disaster (bank insolvency and evaporation of savings) to come to fruition.

Stampedes in which people (or Lion Kings) are devastatingly crushed to death often also start when a crowd senses there is something to be scared about despite not necessarily knowing what that something is, and surge together en masse. It might be a loud noise that frightens a herd of buffalo into a stampede. Or it might simply be fear of missing out on a particularly good department store deal at 8.00am on Black Friday.

In every case, the situation is the same. Fear is more contagious than a cruise ship full of corona virus. And reacting to that fear can actually cause the worst of it to be realised.

So next time you feel the urge to flip out because everyone around you is flipping out, just stop.

Take a breath.

Put your 6 tetra-packs of toilet paper back on the shelf.

And remind yourself that a little bit of calm can go a long way when it comes to preventing true disaster.

 

* The irony  of losing one’s sh*t at a time when there’s nothing to wipe with is not lost on me.