It can be hard living in modern times. Though of course, that has been true for many humans regardless of the point in history.
More specifically as I was sitting at a cafe with a friend reflecting on “what to do” or “what to recommend” in the face of the stress, confusion, and anxiety of a pandemic (in our case COVID-19) I reflected on the interconnection of individual care and work, the value and importance of community, and the effects of environments on us. All in relation to helping us get through it and do better, from what helps us be our best selves, to communicating with each other, and co-creating systems that support that.
I reflected on what can help us in Pandemic times, when the space around us may push us to not be our best selves, but rather resort to our reactive selves. This is information that has helped me as I move in this world. Consume responsibly as you wish.
Ah to be Human…
Here we are, a phenomenal collection of atoms scaled up to cells in human form. Adapted for survival through thousands of years of evolution with a capacity for reasoning that has allowed us to shape our environments in few ways any other creature on this planet can. A piece of the Universe able to reflect on itself as it gazes out seeking to understand it all.
Yet therein lies the amazing capacity of us to be living proof of a paradox incarnate; for while we may be walking with a quantum computer brain, we are still often very much led by caveperson thinking in times of abundance that test our availability to do better and not resort to rudimentary evolutionary programming.
For example, our appetite was borne in times of scarcity, when hunting and gathering limited our ability to consume. If we encountered vital and essential food elements, such as fat and sugar, then our brains were primed to act on it. “Quick, eat that and as much as possible because who knows when we’ll next be able to get more.”
That was highly efficient and needed — our brains developed the heuristics, mental shortcuts, to deal with such scarcity. But we managed to change our environments faster than evolution could keep up. Scarcity thinking was helpful when we were not sure when the next high-fat high-sugar meal would come. It can be counterproductive when we have abundance and ease of access to say Twinkies (especially so if we have constructed a system that has commercialized food and prioritizes subsidized agro-industrial flooding of high-calorie low-nutrition “food” such as high-fructose corn syrup over healthier options, especially in highly impacted communities).
It can then also become easy to simply blame the individual over their “unhealthy choices” if we do not also look at the infrastructure (social, cultural, physical, etc) that affects such decision-making.
Such can be the case with information.
We have developed the reasoning to engage with information efficiently, although not always reasonably, and rarely rationally.
This is where implicit cognitive biases come in, to deal with information, for example:
- When there’s too much information — we filter to avoid information overload and decision paralysis.
- Not enough information — we still want to construct meaning so we fill in gaps.
- We are primed to act fast — we jump to conclusions to act on the present.
We’ve done this to construct cognitive models of the world, a “picture” to predict and make sense of how the world works. This is confirmed and challenged through socio-cultural interaction — our lived experiences, new information that comes our way, and how peers praise or punish us in reaction to our thoughts and actions.
Still, we are gifted with much, and we did not get this far by simply relying on our “evolutionary programming.” I would argue that by being attentive to some of that which does make us “our better selves,” we can continue to thrive in the adversity and challenge of “modern living” and ideally look at how we can redesign and co-create the future we want — or we can refuse learning and stumble into repeating mistakes of the past. For we are definitely good at making it worse. Our blessing and challenge is in making it better.
A Reasonable Person Model Approach
It is not enough to simply have the best information available. That is definitely important and we do need to ensure that we do not constantly degrade and devalue the importance of credible and factual information. But if all that was needed was simply the best information for us to make the best decisions, then the Rational Choice Theory would suffice to explain our decision-making. It doesn’t. We must also account for the effects of our environments — this is where the psychological framework of the Reasonable Person Model (RPM) can be helpful. The main argument of RPM is that people are at their best when their informational needs are met through a supportive environment, and we can approach this with three considerations:
- Model Building — we have a need to build and maintain those cognitive maps, mental models, to function effectively in our worlds. How we support and challenge these models matters.
- Being Effective — being effective is not innate, it requires support to build competence in a way that is not demeaning. It requires developing necessary skills (knowing what to do and how to do it beyond just having information) and keeping a “clear head” and focus to function effectively.
- Meaningful Action — we have a desire to make a difference, to be heard and supported in making a difference, and to have opportunities to engage and do better.
We build our mental models through repetition and association, as the phrase goes “neurons that fire together, wire together.” If we experience something multiple times it can build an internal representation and then we look at how that connects to other things. We can certainly build mental models that are inaccurate, incorrect, and wrong (going back to those biases) so there is a need to pay attention to how they are built and how they can be changed. Because these cognitive maps are important to how we see the world, we may protect them when challenged, so it is important to understand how to engage with them in a way that opens them up to correction rather than shutting down in defensiveness. Being told “you’re wrong” and made to feel dumb does not help. It may even be the case we are snapshot viewpoint-dependent, thus being even more narrow in how we remember and navigate environments, and more fragile and reactionary in how we protect things “we know to be right.”
To be effective it is important to know what we are trying to accomplish and have feedback loops on progress, along with being supported in how we are managing that information. That requires a “clear head” as well, meaning that we have to be in a state where we are not easily distracted and we can keep focus. As humans we can do this, but that directed attention can be taxed and if it’s not restored we are prone to acting and reacting in ineffective ways. Attention Restoration Theory applies here to know how we can do that. The easy answers are: sleep and spend time in nature, along with intuitively fascinating environments that do not tax your directed attention (watching TV and social media are not restorative environments).
Our desire for meaningful action is powerful in our ability and quest to make a difference. When this is compromised or not supported, it can put us in a state of feeling hopeless or lead us into learned helplessness, where we lose our sense of agency or externalize it (we say things like “why does this happen to me” rather than “I did not expect that consequence as an effect of my action/inaction”). Experiencing those feelings and such a state in the face of chaos, confusion, and seemingly insurmountable challenges hamper effective human functioning. So the most effective strategies are those that help people feel like they can make a difference.
This can all tie together by starting with some simple questions in regards to the environments we are in. These are not only physical and natural environments but also informational environments.
We can ask questions like “how does this environment support or challenge our mental models?” If the mental model is incorrect, how are we approaching supporting that change? We have to be wary of the “arrogance of expertise” that simply “expects” people to know better, or worse “if I know it, what’s wrong with them? Why can’t they just simply get it?”
We can ask questions like “Is the environment taxing their directed attention? Is it a restorative environment? Are we providing clear procedural information and not just declarative information? — — being clear on how to do something besides just being told to do it?” Environments like social media platforms, for example, are taxing in that they are designed to capture your attention with reactionary information (LOOK! Danger! Pleasure! Concern! Scarcity! etc) and keep you there.
We can ask questions like “How does this support agency and build internal power? What kind of difference are people looking for? What are the fears people are expressing?” We may not always be able to change the world at large, but if we are clear in how our actions are a part of a larger change, it matters. It also matters how we can change internal worlds, both our own and someone else’s. Yes, it feels good to do good.
It takes a Village…
We like to say that “it takes a village to raise a child,” as a reminder of the importance of community, and the value of interdependence and collective responsibility. I would say that similarly, it takes a village to care for each other. So what happens when the village begins to disappear? It is not often enough to practice self-care if we do not also concern ourselves with community-care.
We hear how we are “social creatures” and adapted to thrive through interdependence and support for one another. We have evolutionary roots that have left us wired for empathy, compassion, and even altruism. While it may seem to certainly serve self-interest (“we do better if we are surrounded by healthy, capable group mates. Taking care of them is just a matter of enlightened self-interest”) there is evidence too that we can respond better to the needs of others than our own.
But this wiring, both internally, and externally in the form of relationships, requires tending and care to sustain.
In many ways, it was clearer in the past what “constituted our village.” Our scope and scale of villages and towns were smaller. Even as cities grew, we had a better sense of what defined neighborhoods. We also had roles that supported our abilities to make a difference, from the “butcher to the baker to the candlestick maker.” Even well before that, our Shamans (i.e cultural guides and influencers) held a role and information in trust for the community, and we were better connected and attuned to the natural cycles around us. We had a stronger sense of how to trust information and who to trust it from (In the U.Ss for example, trust in government has been readily declining since the 1960’s from 73% down to 17% today). Relationships “felt” and in many ways were closer. But as we stretched out and relied more on externalizing many facets of our daily lives (globalized markets for example) along with dehumanizing community spaces (continuing to tie worth and value to capitalist consumerist productivity measures) we did not necessarily extend the idea of community — we broke it in many ways. First by increasingly disassociating from nature and implementing a narrow mechanistic framework that “otherized and objectivized” the ecosystem community with which we evolved (yes, this leads into the conversation on settler-colonialism). In modern times we can walk into a supermarket and not truly connect to the lifeforce from which such “products” came. We don’t know the farmer, we don’t know the land. We don’t know the worker, we don’t know the laborer’s hands. Or we might…but not easily and willingly face the facts and consequences that bear the ease with which we expect consumerist abundance. Our community does not stretch as far as the production supply chain…
But it can.
And it can start within our circles by thinking with Community in mind.
This is where our practices of compassion and empathy come in. Where we pay attention to the relationship tending rather than the “othering” and bifurcation of what makes us different from each other as a source of fear and danger. This is not about being Pollyannaish and magically all simply knowing how to get along. It takes work. It takes interrupting our biases, challenging incorrect mental models, thinking beyond ourselves to see ourselves as part of an ecosystem, not an “egosystem.” It also requires us to build trust, as “relationships grow and move at the speed of trust.”
The village did not appear out of thin air. The village was built.
Building community builds the resilience needed in challenging times, so we can turn to each other, not on each other. And it encompasses caring for those most at risk, not simply ourselves in a bout of toxic individualism.
Needed and Necessary Nature
I mentioned how Nature can be a source of restorative environments. In many ways research has been doing better to document the many ways in which Nature is good for us. It helps with happiness and connection. It supports us being kinder and creative. It supports our overall health and wellbeing, including reducing stress. Thus the movement from “Nature Rx” to “Healthy Parks Healthy People” and “Vitamin N.”
I like to think that in a larger picture, connecting to Nature can help us in restoring and healing severed connections — from reminding us how we can be part of a larger whole to the importance of interdependent relationships. Many of these values and reminders also come to us through Ancestral and Traditional Ecological Knowledge, which remind us of how to exist as part of nature in connected and reciprocal relationships. Many ancestral practices and ceremonies are a way to communicate with Nature in addition to and beyond our Enlightenment-era derived Scientific Method. That in itself is a whole topic.
As we moved to build and create “more efficient” environments in the name of “progress” we stripped the natural elements out to our detriment (along with also simply destroying natural habitats and communities). Many of these human-made environments are actually designed to bring out the worst in us (as noted in the Reasonable Person Model) and they have. We also recreated many of these physical environments into informational and digital form (this leads us into how some online environments can be so toxic as well).
We can create differently, and many people are. From paying attention to the “Pattern Language” that we can incorporate into new community design, to interrogating the frameworks we use to value (or devalue) community in response to a crisis.
It can start by getting out in Nature.
And simply enjoying it. Then, if you are ready, we can examine what framework you are overlapping on that experience. Are you there in a reciprocal and sacred relationship? Are you there perpetuating a colonizing ideology?
This is also a reminder of the importance of continuing to ensure equitable access to healthy natural experiences for all, as it is essential to our wellbeing.
Pa’lante Siempre Pa’lante
To summarize this into what I hope are clear actionable steps, here are some reminders to implement as PRACTICES, knowing that it requires doing. That doing means it will be imperfect, so we must be gentle with ourselves, and know that we are going to make mistakes (the gravest of all would be to not do anything at all in the call to do different to do better).
So what to do? In the face of stressful, challenging, and confusing times, here are some ways in which we can start:
- Care for Self as Self Interest Not Selfishness — It is ok to ensure you are caring for yourself, as it is one way to ensure that you are in a position to support others. The problem is when you are driven by Ego in such a way that you begin to impact others negatively without awareness, or worse, without care. It can start with an affirmation such as “I care for myself so I am able to care for others” and with an action such as donating to a food bank or supporting another type of community support structure. Go for a walk, pay attention to your body and support what it was designed to do: move and heal.
- Care with Community in Mind — Elders are Sacred. Youth are Sacred. They hold the knowledge of our past and the hope of our future. If this is new to you, it points at the ways our culture has shifted to not think about how a community exists beyond self, or how such roles are to be discarded. It can start with an affirmation such as “When you heal, we all heal” and actions such as bringing awareness to knowing your neighbors, checking in with elders, donating to orgs that are helping most impacted, or helping directly. Ask how others are doing.
- Support Supportive Environments — Get out in Nature. Turn off media for a while. Do something you enjoy that engages you in fascination (pay attention if that comes at the expense of another). Play with friends. This can begin with affirmations like “Our healing medicine is within us” and a practice such as mediation, going for a nature walk, drawing, and talking to loved ones. As ready think back to the structural changes that may be needed — changes in policies, behaviors. Leverage your vote. Help the helpers.
- Wield and Yield Your Power and Privilege — In our current system, some of us have more privilege and resources than others. Think about how you can share that with anyone more impacted. You may be able to afford staying home from work a few days. Others do not have the privilege. In pandemics and outbreaks, just because you are not sick does not mean you are not a carrier. Practice precaution not just for you, but for others as well, especially those most at risk.
- Be Responsive and Responsible Over Reactionary — it is important to be precautionary and preventive, that is not the same as panicking. We can prepare for trying times but do not have to fuel the flames of chaos. In reactionary mode we are not taking the time to pause and reflect on how we can best serve ourselves while in support of the community. In reactionary mode we tend to only think of ourselves. This can begin with an affirmation such as “that which I focus on grows” and actions such as getting the rest and restoration you need to be as focused as possible and critically engage with information. Be aware of how you may be sharing misinformation — you can become a trusted source in your circle of friends and family.
- Practice Gratitude and Appreciation, Notice Awe and Beauty — We all start at different places of anxieties, we are all fighting our own internal battles. Be grateful for what you have and practice appreciation so it keeps you grounded as much as possible, and supports compassion for others, especially those who are more scared and looking for support. The world and life is still beautiful and full of wonder and awe, if you notice it. This can begin with an affirmation such as “I am part of a beautiful ecosystem, I am able to manifest love” and actions such as taking care of your plants, your pets, modeling behaviors for kids (they are looking to you in how to respond to these times). Maybe you have a garden, go bird watching, or simply sit in nature. Express appreciation for the land and those who love you.
- Move with Pain, Be Self-Compassionate — None of this is to make it sound easy or be dismissive of how hard it is to hold this space. But there is a difference in staying stuck in pain and moving with it, to know that there may not be immediate answers at times, to sit with uncertainty, to not have things be “fixed” right away. As you are kind with others, be kind with yourself, for few of us “get this right.” This can start an affirmation such as “I am a Blessing, You Are a Blessing” and can look like paying attention to the present, saying “yes” to what is at the moment and letting in (especially if “letting go” brings about triggers”) and practice visioning which brings your focus into the moments (present and future) you want to bring into existence.
If you are in the role of sharing and relaying information, especially for communicators and elected leaders, the same applies to you, along with these:
- Communicate clearly and consistently — especially as people are “looking for answers”
- Pay Attention — Instead of dismissing fear, work to understand where it is coming from and how you can help people tune into their sense of agency for self-care and common good
- Do not lie, it erodes trust — look at how you can build trust in institutions needed for a common good. If you don’t know, do not make it up.
- Communicate a common good — tap into people’s sense of purpose and meaningful action while providing mental models that connect with where people are and where we can go
This is why Science matters. Why Ancestral teachings matter. Why factual information matters. Why caring matters.
Be well, be a future Ancestor, in community we are strong.
Specifically to COVID-19, some reminders:
- We are still dealing with and acting on uncertainty — we do not have enough information, including being limited in our testing. As testing is more available and improves, it will help our modeling, and we can learn from how other countries are tackling this.
- This is unfolding in real-time, with current actions influencing immediate future states — more will unfold over the next 11–14 days as we move into where Italy is now and China before then. This will affect how the next 3–8 weeks will look like, from #FlatteningTheCurve to economic impacts at the individual and systemic levels.
- People are suffering and will continue to do so — this is a NOVEL virus so people are dying, people are losing jobs, people are scared — this will not disappear overnight. It is also asymptomatic transmission so many people (especially younger ones) are carrying it around without knowing, thus the call for “social distancing.”
- It tests us, and I would say invites us, to be our better selves, and for a common good, to sacrifice as is appropriate and within our privileged identities.
- Current systems (capitalism, consumerism), policies (lack of paid leave, healthcare), and dominant cultural norms (hyper-individualism) will fracture — it will call us to notice (if we haven’t already) why and how these are issues and what we can co-create differently for better
- To start, continue with thorough hand-washing and good respiratory hygiene, examine how you can wield and yield your privilege in support of a common good, social distance as you can (focus is on physical, not socioemotional isolation), and vote the bastards out who make this more difficult than it needs to be for the professionals and helpers to do their job.