Care and Community in Pandemic Times

Photo: Aaron Byrd.

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:



Chicano/Mexicano teacher by training, artist by practice, conservationist by pursuit. Art, Education & Environment- UC Davis, SNRE Michigan

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
José G. González

Chicano/Mexicano teacher by training, artist by practice, conservationist by pursuit. Art, Education & Environment- UC Davis, SNRE Michigan