The interconnectedness of all things (via a pint of water).

Okay, you’re going to need to stick with me on this one. It’s been one of those ideas that has rattled around in the back of my brain for as long as I can remember, and over the years I keep coming back to it and trying to explain it to people a bit and then getting a bit self-conscious about it and letting it tail off. 

Thankfully, in the last couple of years I’ve found a couple of willing (by which I mean captive) listeners who have kind of got into it… or at least pretended to because a) I’m driving and they’re in the passenger seat and can’t escape, and b) they know that by humouring me they may get to stay up a bit later than usual. [Clever boys!] Of course I’m very aware that you’re not one of my children, so if at any point you want to hit the figurative ‘eject button’ then feel free. But I do think there’s something in all this, somewhere.

With all that said, I’ll give you the overall theme and see how we go from there. It is, quite simply:

WATER.

Still with me? Great. You’re already doing better than some people.

Some water

On a macro level, we really have no concept of water – or only a very, very basic understanding which really isn’t all that connected to anything we actually get.

For a moment let’s set aside the metric vs imperial measurements – whether we’re talking about a teaspoon or a half a pint or half a litre is less relevant than an idea. And because I was born in the 70s in the UK, I dance happily between the two without really noticing, like a bumblebee flitting from lily flower to lilac flower without ever really getting the difference. Or something like that.

So here’s the thing. I know what a pint* of water looks like, and I know what it feels like to drink one. It’s not an unusual thing. Yet what never fails to be shocking is just how very wet you can be when what looks like a relatively small amount of water is knocked into your lap by one of the aforementioned passengers. You’re totally soaked. Like, ‘ruined meal’ soaked. Trust me on that. If I had a pound etc etc…

A pint* of water

So let’s take it up a notch from there. How many pints in a sink full of water? Depends on the sink, obviously, but you could probably have a guess, right? Maybe 20, or 30? But it’s already pretty vague. Now imagine a nice, steaming hot bath. How many in that? 100? 150? One hundred and fifty times the thing that gets you totally soaked and ruins the meal? Maybe double that??

Get to a garden pond, let alone a swimming pool, and unless you happen to know then you’re just guessing. How many pints in an Olympic swimming pool? A million? A billion??*

The point where this always gets me is when I go to the seaside. I’m lucky enough to live only 40 minutes’ drive or so from the beach, and we’re often drawn there of a weekend. And looking out at that huge expanse, as far as the eye can see, creating the very horizon, I can’t help thinking the following:

It doesn’t just go unimaginably far… it also goes down.

A lot of water

As far as the eye can see. And down further than the highest mountain. And I can’t work out how much there is in a pond. It’s a level of incomprehensibility that frankly I find hard to comprehend.

We have a strong connection with water which we also don’t really understand. Countless studies have shown that being close to water increases the levels of hormones that make us feel motivated (dopamine) or calm and safe (oxytocin) whilst reducing our stress hormone (cortisol) [If you’re interested in this bit then check out the book Blue Mind available here and at all non-globally monopolistic bookshops.]

Who knew that “Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside” was actually a tune about hormonal balance and psychological welfare?

We humans are about 60% water. Our brains are more like 80%. Perhaps there’s something in that? That we feel connected to water because… well… we actually are connected. At a molecular level?

[Right, this is where I’m going to go for it. Strap in compadre]

From the macro of the depth of the sea, the micro of our molecular structure then drags me inexorably into my own mind.

Our planet, the place we call Earth, is effectively a closed system. Stuff just moves around within it. So every molecule of water that has ever existed, and will ever exist, is on Earth right now as you read this.

More water, this time really really small and close up

Some of it is in you. Some of it is in me. Some of it is in the tree just outside. A decent chunk of it is in the seas and oceans of course. If you look up, you can see some of it in the sky, tiny drops condensed into clouds, which will continue to grow until they can’t float any more and fall out of the sky as rain.

You know when you go outside in the winter and you can see your breath? What you’re seeing there is water. The water coming out of your body as a vapour which cools and forms little droplets of water. You are making a personal cloud of your very own.

Your own little cloud.

So come with me on this little journey…

Imagine you go outside on a crisp winter’s morning, and your breath pours out as this little cloud. As you watch it drifts up and dissipates and you think no more of it. In time one of those little water molecules in the air drifts up and become part of a bigger cloud, high up in the sky, buffeted by the wind. This molecule travels in the wind for hundreds of miles, over land and sea and eventually over to Spain, where it falls on a lemon grove. Taken up by the lemon tree, it travels through the roots and the trunk and the branch to end up in a lemon.

Don’t ask me how, but by incredible coincidence, 6 months down the line I’m sitting with my wife after a long day considering the universe, and we decide that we deserve a little gin with a little tonic. A couple of pieces of ice and we’re ready to chink glasses and go. But no! We are not heathens after all, and we know that a drop or two of lemon will turn good into great. So I reach for the lemon we bought at the weekend, cut out a couple of chunks and with a squeeze there we have it.

You and me

Yes, my wife and I are living the dream. But also yes – a molecule that was once part of you is now part of me.

We are connected in a way that neither of us can ever really comprehend, but trust me: this is as real as the hand at the end of your arm. It’s not an idea, or an ideal. This is science, and the great thing about science is that it’ll be as true in a thousand years as it is today.

If you’re still with me all this way down into my psyche [and bless you for your perseverance if you are] then you’ll be glad that we’ve arrived at the point.

On a molecular level we are, subjectively and scientifically speaking, all one.

You, me, them. Us. Every person on Earth, every animal, every plant and flower. The people you love and the people you don’t even like. The fish in the ocean, the birds in the sky. Insects in the garden and every blade of grass. Like it or not, you could have a bit of Piers Morgan in you right now and not know anything about it apart from a vague sense of nausea.

Once you get into that, suddenly the interconnectedness of all living things isn’t just some kind of spiritual, sitting on a mountain top, crystals and horoscopes level of bullshit: it’s biochemistry.

And once it’s true, and real, and scientifically accurate that we are all connected like this, then surely the idea of selfishness or conflict or division just disappears, just like your breath on that cold day?

I know, I know: I have just massively overcomplicated the concept of a body of water, and then followed that up by just massively oversimplifying the solution for world peace. Not bad for a couple of pages eh?

But there we have it. All the stuff that goes on in my brain to do with water. My brain which is, lest we forget, basically a load of water held together by the odd bit of something else.

Now we’ve come all this way together, through macro and micro, I think that rather than leave you hanging, I should probably leave you with a couple of suggestions…

First, get yourself down by some water in the next few days. Doesn’t need to be the coast – a lake or pond or even the “dirty old river” Thames will do. And stop for a moment, to consider how you feel when you’re doing it. Perhaps you might get a little boost of the ‘feel good’ hormones and a bit less of the stress one if you’re lucky.

And second… just take a moment to look around at the people and things around you – the water going into your morning cuppa; the tree you always go past on your commute; that bloke on the train – and consider how that maybe one day a little piece of that might be a little piece of you. It might just give you that little feeling of connectedness, or the idea of it, if only for a second.

And lastly, just forget about that thing I mentioned about Piers Morgan – I’m not sure any of us need to think too much about that.

[Incidentally, Buddhist teaching came up with the interconnectedness of all things thousands of years before anyone had heard of a molecule – if you want to learn more about that then I’ll share the book I read a while back which, alongside a modern understanding of psychology, discusses Why Buddhism Is True with a good dose of common sense and wit along the way]

*In doing the “research” [pushing it a bit there] for this, I found out that a pint is different in the US than in the UK***. For our purposes here, I am specifically thinking of an “imperial” pint of 568ml, not the freakish and frankly unnecessary US version which comes in at a paltry 473ml.

**In case you won’t be able to sleep for wondering, an Olympic swimming pool contains almost 4.5 million (UK) pints of water. 2.5 million litres to be precise.

***I also found out that the US have more than one kind of pint for liquids and dry stuff. From the website Britannica: “a U.S. dry pint is 33.6 cubic inches (550.6 cubic cm), while a U.S. liquid pint is 28.9 cubic inches (473.2 cubic cm)”. I know, right? No wonder they can’t make their mind up about gun laws.

Death of a brother

I’m not sure about writing this. It feels a bit… I don’t know… self-indulgent somehow? But then I can’t help thinking that the fact that we don’t talk enough about this could even be one of the reasons why it happens so much. Plus, there are things I want to say. So, here we go.

We buried one of my oldest friends yesterday. He had taken his own life.

First, I’m really not sure if that’s the best phrase for it. “He killed himself” feels too blunt and visceral. The idea of “committed” suicide brings with it the idea that it was a crime for much of history. I don’t know what to call it, but you get the idea.

He was someone I’d known since I was 8 years old. We were close friends right through high school. Played rugby together for years, and then even ended up (coincidentally) at the same university. One of my close gang from then right into our 40s.

“Never dull” is how I’ll remember him. In some ways he was always a bloody handful to be honest. The one who would get lippy in a bar or club and get us into a scrap or two. Not a hard nut – just cocky and never backed down.

But God, he was good company. A force of nature. Irrepressible, high energy and energising to be with, and full of love. Part of my life for as long as I can remember.

In the same way as you don’t choose your family, you don’t really choose your school mates either. They just happen to go to the same school as you at the same time and you end up with them. So over the years the ones who stick around end up more like family than friends. So he was kind of like a pain in the arse brother who was kind of exhausting sometimes… but a brother nonetheless. And did I mention bloody good company?

Looking back, I think he was always quite erratic, and always very intense too. But he was most intense about his friendships and about his love for them. He was someone I knew that if I called, in the middle of the night, and said I needed help, he would drop everything and come anywhere in the world. That’s quite special, isn’t it?

Over the years, we’d not seen each other as much, particularly since I’d been married and had kids. He was still free and easy (or seemed so to those who didn’t know him) and our lives were very different. He was buying a new Porsche when I was buying a new buggy. But he was always “there”. Whatever that means.

Shit happens, right? Sometimes you can control things, and sometimes you end up in the middle of things you never wanted to be in the middle of, and didn’t want to get dragged into. I won’t go into the details, because to be honest I don’t really think I know the real details, but suffice to say I’d been sort of “estranged” from him for the last 4 years or so. Shit happened. Complicated and painful for everyone involved. We’d had a couple of touchpoints along the way, but always strained and difficult. I cut myself off in self-protection in a way. I couldn’t be what he wanted from me.

I know that hurt him. I know that he really wanted everything to just be okay. Like it used to be. And maybe one day it might have been, after the dust settled. But the dust hadn’t had time to settle.

In a weird kind of self-flagellation, last week I looked back at the last messages I got from him, from a couple of years ago. I said he needed help, and that I couldn’t be the person to give that to him. I told him to take care. He said the same.

As I sit here, I’m feeling guilty as hell. Guilty that I cut myself off, and guilty that I could have done more. Before you think “oh you mustn’t”, I’ve learnt in the last few weeks that actually it’s okay to feel whatever I feel. Guilty, sad, angry. Fucking angry actually. But mostly sad.

That’s the point of writing this I think. Not to just unload, but to acknowledge the feelings.

As men, we’re conditioned not to feel things. We’re taught resilience from the moment we fall and skin a knee and are told to be brave. Boys don’t cry, remember? As a result we don’t talk about our feelings or address them. The only feeling men are “allowed” to have is anger, and that’s how so many things come out.

It’s a commonly quoted statistic that suicide is the leading cause of death for men under 40. As someone who studied statistics that annoys me a bit, because for all the shock factor of it, I can’t help wondering “what else would be??”. Too young for heart disease or cancer really. Maybe road traffic accidents? It’s information without context or insight.

But when I’ve put the pedant in me away, it’s still real.

In the last couple of weeks, there are so many men I’ve spoken to who have told me about a friend of theirs who killed themselves too. Most times we’d never spoken about it before. Everyone had an element of guilt for what they didn’t do. That feeling again.

I’ve mentioned Grayson Perry’s amazing, life-changing book, “The Descent of Man” previously in these pages. I encourage you to read it. It’s about all of the expectations of masculinity and all the issues they create for individuals, societies and ultimately the world. But one bit sticks out for me:

Grayson Perry – The Descent Of Man (read it)

I am all these things. The last one is the most difficult of course.

I told my 2 sons that a friend of mine had died, and that I was going to a funeral. After a silence, my eldest son (11) asked how he died.

What to say? Do I tell them or do I hide it? I really wasn’t sure, and I looked over a my wife who was sitting with us. Without breaking gaze with me, she said that he’d taken his own life.

We then had a conversation about how people get to a point where they think that is the best thing for everyone. How talking about how we’re feeling is so, so crucial. How being all the things above takes guts, actually. A massive part of setting them up for success in life is in giving them the rights of man – that they see them in me, and see that it makes our relationships stronger.

By all accounts, the last couple of years have been extremely tough for my friend and those around him. Those who didn’t let go, or refused to be pushed away. And honestly, talking about feelings was never a problem for him. But fuck, if he’d seen the sadness in the faces of the people who came together at his funeral, he would have known that it wasn’t better. For him, or us, or anyone.

So there we are. It would be arrogant for me to think that me being connected would have made the difference, so I won’t put that on myself, or on you as you may think of the person you have lost touch with, for whatever reason.

What I will say is that, as men, the more we talk and share the better we will be.

And however bad things may seem, you have ‘family’ who love you. Even if they aren’t there to tell you.

Time waits for no man – part two

A good while back* I talked in these pages about my first trip into London since before all this happened. How the familiar felt so alien, and how whilst so much had changed, so much other stuff was just as it always had been.

And the thing that I really can’t stop thinking about, which keeps on popping back into my mind, is the thing that felt like it hadn’t changed at all. And that’s the homeless guy I mentioned, sitting in the place he always sits, just along from London Bridge station, next to the back entrance to Guy’s Hospital.

His stop is by the building on the right, and he’s only there until mid-morning.

Every day for as long as I’d made the trip to our office near the Tate Modern, this guy had been there. Always sitting on the floor, surrounded by old copies of the Big Issue in plastic covers, talking to himself a bit and occasionally saying hello to the regular people who walked by. Sometimes people would stop and squat next to him to talk, but more often than not he was there on his own. Every day.

And there he was when I went into London for the first time… and there he’s been on every day I’ve been since. sitting as he always has, like nothing has changed, still asking passers-by for if they can spare some change for him.

He’d been there every day for years, so why was it so surprising to me that he was there again on the day that I decided to come back into London for the first time in 14 months? Just because I hadn’t been there, why wouldn’t he? Yet it did surprise me, because whilst the whole experience was so very different for me his presence was so very familiar, like the gap from then to now simply didn’t happen. Like Covid was some kind of dystopian daydream I’d had on the train.

And now, it’s become less surprising and is becoming more and more an expected part of my journey to our office. I think I’d be more surprised if he weren’t there. But I’ll never forget the surprise of that first time for as long as I live.

I’ve talked in these pages before about the way that your time and mine aren’t necessarily the same – that perhaps we experience time differently to each other, and even our own experience of time changes depending on what we’re doing. You think this cricket match is fascinating, I think it’s taking longer than the whole of history. This day doing something I love has flown by… this day doing something I find dull will seemingly never end.

On a micro level, that’s self-evident to me – objectively something we all experience.

But this was different. Time was playing with me here, surely. How could time fly and stand still at the same time? Make it feel like yesterday, but with the knowledge that the last time I stood here I was two birthdays younger.

And how did the last year feel to him? Did time drag or did it fly? Did it feel any different to any of the other years he’s had?

Time flies. Yet some people have time to spare, but never any spare change.

We have time and we spend time. We waste time, and we save time. It’s the same language that we use for money – hell, “time is money” remember? Precious time. We recognise its importance.

And you can tell from the phrases we use that unconsciously we understand our one-sided relationship with time too – our reliance on it but lack of control over it. Time flies. Time waits for no man. We’re on borrowed time, and ultimately only time will tell.

It would be conceited and condescending for me to begin to suppose anything about this man’s life, or about his experience of the last 20 months. Like so many of us I’ve worked out my recent history based on lockdowns – how far I could go from my house; what places I could visit or shop in; whom I could see or hug, how many could be where at any time – and all of those denote privileges and freedoms that this man does not have. For all my insignificant worries, I know where I am sleeping tonight. I know who will hug me in the morning.

What I do know about this man is that it’s doubtful that the few quid he might get from the throngs who pass by will change anything other than the few hours ahead.

Even more than that, I know he doesn’t need my pity, or the thousands of embarrassed half shrugs which mean “sorry I don’t have any change” he gets every day. I know that every time I catch his eye I give him a nod and a smile, and he does the same back, and every time I feel like I should do something more fucking useful, but besides giving him money every day I have no idea what that might be. Maybe the smile is that thing?

Lastly, I know that if there’s a better demonstration of how you might consider someone else’s experience of the world and measure it against your own to see an impossible myriad of differences then I haven’t come across it before, and I’m not sure I ever will.

Perhaps to give myself a purpose from this whole thing – to give it context, beyond just contemplation – I’ll commit to consider other people’s experience of the world even more than I have. Because there’s no question that however they experience the world, it’s unlikely to be anything like the world of which I’m in the middle.

*With noting that yeah it’s been a long while since my last post. If you’re a regular reader then I hope you haven’t missed out too much. If you’re new to the show, then I feel like there might be lots to come in the coming weeks so stay tuned!

Not drowning, but waving

There’s a wonderful poem by a British poet called Stevie Smith called “Not Waving, But Drowning”*, about a man swimming out of his depth and his friends on the shore thinking he was mucking around. The feelings of the man in question are too horrific to think about, but imagine for a moment the feelings those friends they must have gone through, waving to him as he panicked, laughing to each other about how daft their friend is, then realising one by one that they had it wrong. We can all imagine the blood running cold, the hole in the pit of the abdomen which seems to have some kind of gravitational pull for the rest of the body.

That feeling of realisation – specifically realisation of something negative – is something we’ve all experienced. Forgetting someone’s birthday gets you a little hit of it. Remembering you promised to do something or [in the olden days] actually physically be somewhere [remember that??], it’s all part of the same realisation. When the brain catches up, the body stays still and cold and heavy. On varying levels of seriousness, in my mind it’s the “oh…bollocks” [Please feel free to insert your own geographic or linguistic alternative here] moment.

Okay, let’s park that for a moment.

This time of year is always a weird one for me. My mum died nearly seven years ago, and it’s this time of year when the empty space she left in my world is felt most keenly. Actually, perhaps not ‘felt’ the most, but certainly brought to mind the most.

My work anniversary lands on March 8th, and I know it’s then because it was meant to be the 1st but I moved it back a week so I could go back home to go with Mum to a hospital appointment. Then her birthday is (was?) March 13th, and Mother’s Day [sorry to my arch pedant father for not calling it the “correct” title of ‘Mothering Sunday’ but I do not give enough of a shit x] is usually around the same time, then my birthday on March 20th [very nice thanks, my second in lockdown yet I had a lovely time and felt very spoilt], and then my wedding anniversary is April 5th and that’s the day she had her first round of chemo and then after that we’re on to May 4th and that’s the day she died, and the reason I remember that date so clearly is because it’s my wife’s birthday on May the 5th.

I can’t help connecting those dates, any more than you could. Take a moment and say your mum’s birthday out loud. We both know that if someone happened to say that date, your brain would automatically, without you asking it to do anything, pop up and go “that’s my mum’s birthday”.

[While we’re on that, isn’t it funny that you simply cannot help saying that very phrase out loud if someone else happens to mention that they have their birthday on that day? “Really?” you exclaim excitedly, “That’s my mum’s birthday!”. And they always say “really?!” and somehow from that moment on you’ve got a little connection with that person that you didn’t have before.]

So for around 8-10 weeks of every year, there’s a constant little reminder round the corner. Those are the dates and every day they will always be connected to a time in 2014 when my Mum went from a bit ill to very ill to very not here any more in the space of 3 or 4 months.

Okay, let me guide you back to the waves.

When my mum died, a friend of mine who runs another healthcare agency [hi Ed!] called me to “offer his condolences” [what an odd phrase we all use there. It’s the only time, just like the only time we talk about “legal tender” is when we end up with a Scottish tenner], and in our conversation he said that in his experience grief was like swimming in the surf. As you go out from the beach you jump or dive through each wave, but occasionally the waves are too close together and before you’ve got your feet or your breath you’re hit by another, and suddenly you’re under the surf and the bubbles are in your face and BANG you’re panicked and your heart rate shoots up and you just get your breath before the next one and so on.

But if you keep going, the further you go the smaller the surf becomes, until bit by bit you feel calmer and more able to ride the waves as they come. And sometimes a big one will hit you, but you have time to adjust after and so it’s not as overwhelming.

It was almost a “by the way” story, but I found it incredibly helpful in enabling me to believe that what I was in the middle of would get easier. No, wait, that’s not right. Not getting easier, but me getting more used to it and thus better at understanding it and riding the wave. It’s been so helpful that I’ve also shared it with friends who have lost someone [through death or also through break-up – the grief that comes from the end of a relationship is just as real and just as powerful as any other].

I’m talking about grief here, but honestly I think this is true for most things we’re going through. Churchill said:

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

And whilst that may seem a little glib, there’s damn good advice in there too. This too shall pass, and if you keep going out the waves will calm.

But here’s the hack for you.

Because I’ve learnt that at this time of year there are some chunky looking waves building on the horizon, I’ve also learnt to tell people I care about, and who care about me, that they’re coming. Not to excuse any behaviour, but because talking about the waves actually makes them a bit smaller when they arrive.

The people around you, who care about you, would want you to talk to them about your struggles, just as you would listen with love and care and consideration if they were to talk to you. It’s not always easy, but then nor is getting smashed by waves.

As for me, well I’m doing okay thanks. Surrounded by the right kind of people.

Definitely not drowning, but waving.

[*If you want to hear Stevie Smith talking about the poem and then reciting it (and I encourage you to do so), then you can find a recording here. It’s also in Loyle Carner’s recent album which shares its title with her poem, and if you like poetic, socially conscious hip hop then I also encourage you to check that out too, here on Spotify (and available on your music streaming choice too I’m sure) as I seem to be in the encouraging mood.]

We are all animals

Imagine the situation – you’re in a whimsical conversation with a group of people, and someone asks “If you were an animal, what animal would you be?”. It’s a classic question. What’s your answer? A bear, because you’re strong but cuddly? An eagle, because you’d like to float over the world seeing things from on high? A sloth, because you’re incurably lazy and haven’t cut your fingernails for a year?

Well when I’m asked this question, I’ve developed a habit of saying “I’d be a 40-something male human”.

Partly I give this answer because I’m a clever-dick/smart ass [delete as appropriate for your geography] and take a kind of weird pleasure in being pedantic and low-level irritating [a trait I inherited from my old man along with various other things including gout – thanks so much Dad!], but partly I give it because it reveals a simple, irrefutable truth that we often choose to forget about ourselves:

We are animals.

And that’s what our current crazy situation has reminded me. That when you strip it all away, in a way that we tend not to do, you land on perhaps the plainest truth of all.

We are all just animals.

We are strategically shaved monkeys, and despite everything we have built up around ourselves over the last few thousand years we’re at the whim of a miniscule little virus. We can’t see it, we can’t fight it.

We have little computers in our pocket which can tell us any fact on earth within a minute or two [just think about that for a second – it really is incredible isn’t it?] and we’ve developed a society where we all know where to stand on the escalator and how to order a very, very particular kind of coffee with a particular kind of milk and even a particular way to make that milk hot and put it in the coffee.

But all of that means nothing in the face of that fact that we are the same animals we always were, just as vulnerable to a tiny little virus as our ancestors were thousands of years ago. As our descendants will be in thousands of years to come.

And as animals – simple, needs-driven animals – Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tell us we first need food and shelter, then safety (personal, economic, psychological) and so on.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs | Simply Psychology
Maslow, A.H. (1943). “A theory of human motivation”. Psychological Review. 50(4): 370–96.

But in a developed country today the lower levels are, for most at least, all ticked off. Not only do we have “shelter”, we have spare rooms, underfloor heating, an app to turn on the heating before we get home.

So we create a new world of needs around us. We convince ourselves that we ‘need’ a pizza with cheese in the crust, a haircut, that new pair of Nikes, a phone with a better camera. Faster wifi, better holidays, a bigger house.

And then it’s all stripped away, by a tiny little invisible virus that closes our society down within a matter of weeks. Can’t get the pizza delivered. No point in the new Nikes if there’s nowhere to go and no one to show.

If this weird time has done anything for us, it’s taken us back to basics, exposing the real needs in our lives.

The need to get out of our homes, if only for an hour a day, to get our fix of fresh air, exercise, nature.

The need to connect with friends or families, virtually as we can’t do it in person.

The need to show our support for each other, be that through clapping into the quiet night air or by singing across balconies or by picking up medicines for those who can’t get out.

Think about these – they’re all, in their own way, a little rebellion against the feeling of having our freedom curtailed. Like any animal, we’re not happy in a cage – even an imaginary cage made of social responsibility and societal peer pressure which is protecting us from potential danger.

As animals, there’s no question that we’ve got too big for our boots. Drugged by the intoxicating idea that we are special – as individuals and as a species – and have some kind of right to have whatever we want.

So this is a unique time to reassess what is really valuable to us, and re-evaluate how we’ve been living our lives. To really establish what our true needs are, as communal animals. Because we’ve been shown that we only function as part of a wider society.

And we all need that society. In its true sense: the word comes from the Latin ‘socius’ meaning companion. Companionship, togetherness, collaborative association with others.

Surely we can come out of this with more balance than we came into it, right?

Less hubris, more humility. Less ‘me’, more ‘we’.

Yes we are all animals. Yes, individually we are vulnerable, weak, susceptible. But together, we have shown we can love and protect each other and build civilisations the like of which our ancestors could never have imagined.

And what we build from here? Well, that’s down to us to decide from this point on. Let’s not forget what feels important to us right now.

Take care. Be safe. Stay inside. Stop touching your face.

A new normal?

We’re all feeling it. That feeling that the world has got smaller. All it takes is a couple of weeks of self-isolation and suddenly the idea of meeting some friends, or out to see a gig, or even to go further than walking distance from your house… it all seems like a wild dream after too much blue cheese [true story – started happening to me about 5 years ago].

The restrictions on our lives, the lack of human contact, the worry about what might happen if we were to venture out: it’s all-consuming and there doesn’t seem like there’s an end in sight.

Week one was all about adjusting to the “new normal”.

Week two and the novelty has worn off a bit as we realise that we’re going to be like this for a while.

But there’s no way it can last more than a few weeks, right? I mean, people just won’t put up with it for much longer, right?

Every high street in Britain, every day

That’s the narrative we’re hearing. Even if leaving the house might endanger people’s lives or the lives of the people they love, it’s become an accepted truth that those people simply will not comply for very long at all. They’ll get bored. Stir crazy.

Just a couple of weeks into all this, with the prospect of many, many more to come, and we’re all going nuts about a situation which some people have to deal with all the time.

Millions of people around the world are effectively house-bound for all kinds of reasons – old age, chronic illness or injury, mental health – all the time. Not for a couple of weeks, but for weeks and weeks and weeks on end. Even for ever.

That’s isolation.

Some people don’t ever get visitors. Some people can’t ever go for a walk. Some people can’t ever even face the idea of human contact, or even going outside at all.

Here’s what this made me think of…

A couple of years back, the New York office of the agency for which I work (CDM) did an amazing project for a young boy called Peyton. He was 10 at the time, and because of a rare skin condition he couldn’t go out in sunlight without developing skin cancer. Imagine that, for a 10-year-old kid, unable to go outside with his friends? Never able to go to the open-air swimming pool with everyone else?

What they did for this kid was incredible. Working with all the residents of the small Midwest town in which Peyton lives, they “turned night into day” – without him knowing, they organised the whole town to come out as a sun went down to show their support for this one small boy – a huge barbeque, a marching band, high fives from the local pastor [feelin’ American Midwest enough for ya?] an announcement from the mayor, and the swimming pool floodlit and open to Peyton and all his friends, playing up to the camera just like every other 10-year-old in the world.

Once you’ve finished reading this [and not before – I am watching you] I urge you to go and watch the film of this here – it’s just beautiful, heart-wrenching stuff and if you don’t shed a single tear whilst watching it you have no soul.

They did this to highlight that people living with rare diseases – people like Peyton – have restrictions every single day. They will have for his whole life. We can’t go to the shops for a couple of weeks and we’re freaking out.

This crazy time has changed a lot of things – about how we’re working, how we’re connecting, how we’re becoming part of our communities.

If someone had said they wanted to work from home because of a disability a month or two ago I know for a fact that most employers would have totally discounted it as completely unworkable. Today we’re all doing it.

If someone had said that we should be looking out for the vulnerable in our community, checking in with them, offering to shop for them or just ring for a chat, I know that most of us would have thought “yeah, but I don’t really have the time myself”. Today, we’re creating community WhatsApp groups to make sure everyone’s covered.

Maybe, just maybe, this shitty little virus will have left us with something more than antibodies. Maybe we’ll be left with a new sense of empathy, and even some important new ways of working and connecting along the way.

Maybe when all this eventually blows over – and for sure, this too shall pass – maybe we’ll remember the feeling of having our lives, our choices impacted by something we couldn’t control.

And maybe we’ll give a little more thought to those for whom this isn’t the “new normal”: this is the same old normal as ever, just without being able to get a food delivery or any bog roll.

Now go watch “Good Morning Peyton”, and y’all stay safe now, y’hear?

Going viral

Last week as a birthday treat to myself [yeah, last Friday actually – not too late to send me a thoughtful yet expensive gift – I also accept PayPal] I got the new book The Rules of Contagion which has (totally coincidentally) just come out. It’s about how viruses spread. I know, right?

[In fact, it’s such a perfect time to publish a book like this that you can’t help wondering if it’s either a) someone very very quickly cashing in on a global pandemic/panic or b) that they actually started coronavirus in order to ensure people bought their book. But apparently neither are the case.]

Anyway, the book focuses around the concept of the R value, standing for the ‘reproductive value’, which basically mean the number of people that a single person with an infection will subsequently infect. Once the R value is below 1 – so that each infected person infects less than one other person (on average) – the virus starts to disappear.

For our new chum the coronavirus, that number is apparently somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5, the lower end of which is about the same as our normal seasonal flu. One seems to be that people can have mild (or even, as in the case of Idris Elba, pretty much no) symptoms which makes it more likely to get about, and old or infirm people get it really bad. But all in all, 1.5-3.5 is where it lands. There is a massive impact in the difference between those numbers, but that’s for another time…

[It does make me wonder about that guy who managed to infect 28 other people in New York – what was he doing, licking their eyes right after playing with his pet bat?]

The other part of the book – the part that gets really interesting for a behavioural scientist like me [posh name for a Psychology degree but hey, it’s my blog, right?] is that it’s not just a virus itself that will spread through contagion. So can information (or misinformation) about that virus can too, just in the same way, this time not through handshakes but through our “social” connections online, leading to worry and panic and eventually supermarkets being stripped clear of toilet paper like a corn field after a plague of locusts.

This got me thinking about the “super-spreader” of harmful misinformation that is Andrew Wakefield the ex-Etonian [really, again? What do they teach in that bloody place??] now disgraced and struck-off doctor who published a paper in 1998 claiming a link between the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine and autism.

It’s now claimed the whole thing was a money-making scam (he allegedly had his own patent for a ‘rival vaccine’) but regardless of his motives his research has been totally discredited and outside of a weird anti-vax bubble he’s a pariah… and yet the anti-vax movement is still raging, 22 years later, with overall vaccination rates (which need to be at 95% to protect us from outbreaks) down to 90.3% in 2018-19 in the UK. In some communities – more middle class and supposedly educated – it’s way lower. And guess what? Yep, measles is back. Measles can leave kids blind. It can kill. For immunosuppressed adults, it’s bloody dangerous. Well done dickhead.

Disinformation is a virus.

So is hate, abuse, division. And now our “social” networks spread these just as a handshake might spread coronavirus.

Look at Twitter (and Facebook to some degree, but as it’s less anonymous it’s less poisonous) and you’ll see the viruses being spread. They infect our world based on someone’s R value.

Which is why the Donald’s and Piers’ of this world are super-spreaders too. In their own selfish little way.

But wait…

If these “social” places do spread these negative feelings like viruses… couldn’t they also be used to spread something positive?

Over the last few days, Facebook has been full of people looking out for each other, setting up groups to offer help to strangers, sharing links to resources. As well as the cesspool which will always be full of shite on Twitter, there are pockets of love and kindness and connection between people who’ve never met.

This is community. This is society. There’s no time for division when we’re under attack from something we can’t see.

So let’s connect more, care more, include more than we ever have before. Isolate, sure, but do it with open arms and big hearts. Build bridges. Build connections. Seek to understand, to empathise.

See how compassionate you dare to be today.

What’s your R value? Go, spread love.

This too shall pass

Since Tuesday of last week, I’ve been in “self-isolation”. It started with having a high temperature on Tuesday morning, followed by generally feeling pretty crap for the next few days, including an annoying [dare I say “persistent”?!] cough for a couple of days too as well as feeling ridiculously tired all the time. It went from just ‘having a cold’ to “being in self-isolation” on about Thursday when the advice from the UK government around coronavirus changed…

So, have I had coronavirus?

Honestly, I haven’t a clue. If I had to put money on it I’d say ‘no’ because I really don’t think I’ve been that ill. But if this new virus chum of ours isn’t that bad for [relatively!] fit and healthy people under 60 then maybe I have. But I reckon probably not.

But suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, we’re in the middle of a disaster movie from the mid-noughties, where things seem to be changing so quickly and really no one knows what the hell is going to happen.

Suddenly it doesn’t matter who you are or where you live. It doesn’t matter how much hand sanitizer you haven’t got or how much toilet paper you have. It doesn’t matter whether you think this is all going to go away like bird flu or smash through us like Spanish flu, because you’re going to be on the receiving end of what happens. Just like me, just like everyone.

[I’m sorely tempted to go down a rabbit hole where I point out that the virus doesn’t discriminate between gender, race, sexual preference, etc etc and that this show’s we’re all fundamentally just people, but I think that could end up with me celebrating a killer virus for its inclusivity credentials and whilst somewhat entertaining and whimsical I’m not sure that’s helpful for anyone…]

Okay, before I get too nihilistic, let’s consider something else, shall we?

The very first of the three Universal Truths in Buddhist teaching* is that everything is impermanent and ever-changing. To me, that seems pretty irrefutable for every possible subject: societal, social, biological, ecological, intellectual. Everything is changing, and will always change. Nothing is permanent.

Yet we wander through this world like we’re the end of evolution; like this society we’ve created around us represents civilisation is at its peak.

We’re not. And it’s not.

In evolutionary terms, our wonderful, fascinating, challenging civilisation doesn’t even register.

One day all the cities we’ve built will be found by the archaeologists of the future. Don’t believe me? Ask the Pharaohs, or the Greeks, or the Aztecs.

In fifty years the idea of social media will be laughable. I mean, we already raise a smile about MySpace or AskJeeves and they were only a few years back.

And next year we’ll look back at coronavirus, or COVID19 [sounds scarier but less interesting to me] and say “that was crazy, wasn’t it”.

“So what’s the point of all this Bartlett”, I hear you cry, “are you saying all life is ultimately futile because we’re all just dust in the wind?”

No. No I’m not.

I’m saying that whatever difficulties lie ahead – and difficulties there will be, of that we can be certain – you should just remember that impermanence, summed up so beautifully by one simple old Middle Eastern saying:

This too shall pass

This too shall pass – in Persian [apparently – blame Google if this isn’t right]

There will be a day when we look back at all this.

Perhaps we’ll sigh and say “remember all the fuss and nonsense about how it was going to end the world?”. Perhaps we’ll say “do you remember when we thought we’d be starting up sporting events in just a few weeks?”. And there will definitely be people who say “we’re never going to get through all this toilet paper”.

But until that day comes all we can do is remember to look out for each other, trust each other, care about each other. It’s how we’ve all got to where we are, and it’s how we’ll get from here to wherever the hell we’re going from here.

Take care x

*If you’re interested in learning a bit about Buddhism, you couldn’t do much better in my view than reading the fascinating book Why Buddism Is True by Robert Wright. It’s all about how ancient Buddhist teachings about the idea of ‘self’ align with modern neuroscience and psychology, and gave me an interesting perspective that’s allowed me to let go of a little of my personal angst along the way. Yes, this is the kind of shit I read for fun. Yes I know that’s a bit weird.

Time flies

We all know the feeling of time just flying past. Every year, around September, offices all over the world are filled with conversations about how they can’t believe that it’s September already and hasn’t the year gone quickly and it’ll be Autumn/Spring soon (deleted as geographically appropriate).

And I know I’m not alone feeling like this January went way beyond 31 days. When asked, a friend of mine claimed it was the 87th of January with everyone around giving a “I know, right?” sigh or tut or roll of the eyes.

A meeting about the timeline for a project which seems to go on FOR EVER.

That same project a month later when there’s suddenly a week to go and where the hell did all the time go?

And it’s something we’ve all experienced since we were kids – the extra half an hour before bed that goes by in a split second; the car journey where it feels like you’re going to get to bloody Greenland before you get to the next motorway junction on the way to the Highlands of Scotland from Cheshire when your dad piled you into the Vauxhall Carlton before dawn to “beat the traffic” [sorry got carried away for a second there].

So how come we all still have an unshakeable certainty in the “fact” that time is this constant, steady, objectively measurable thing? When every single one of us has personally experienced something different to that? It’s the exact opposite of faith – rather than believing in something we can’t prove, here we are disbelieving something we have personal proof of, in our own lives…

I know that according to Einstein time is relative (see here for proof that he was actually right) but I’m talking about a more personal relativity here – time being related to an individual’s own experience of a situation.

[By the way, I do believe that one day people look back at our beliefs about constant, linear time with as much derision as we look at the idea of the flat Earth – as something that people used to believe before we knew more and left such fantasies behind us… wait, what? Seriously?? Oh. Oh dear.]

And here’s the thing – my experience of time isn’t the same as yours. Your hour isn’t the same as mine. It depends on what we’re doing. That’s true even if we’re in the same room.

If I find the subject fascinating and wide-reaching and challenging, then the time we’ve got to talk about it goes way too fast. If you’re thinking it’s all bullshit and you’ve got something more important to be doing, then you can’t believe we haven’t ended yet.

It all related to a single, human truth – something that defines every interaction we have with the world in which we live and the people within it:

Perception is reality.

If I think it’s difficult, it’s difficult for me. The fact that you get it really easily doesn’t change that (and you telling me that really doesn’t help!)

If I think it’s hot in here, I’m hot. The fact that you are cold doesn’t change that.

[If anything, it probably reflects that I’ve spent the last twenty-odd years surrounding myself in a protective layer of fat just in case I fall into the North Sea. Always prepared, that’s me.]

If I think it’s boring, then I’m bored. The fact that you think it’s interesting doesn’t change that

And lo and behold if I’m not silently judging you for not thinking it’s boring when it clearly is because that’s my perception and [all together now]…

Perception is reality

I’m not sure that’s getting us anywhere. So let’s rewind, shall we?

Instead of accepting our own, personal perception as the only reality, how about accepting that everyone has their own perception. Their own reality.

Then how about considering what someone else’s perception might be? Trying to see the things from their perspective, understanding their view of the world?

You have to stop for a moment. It’s not always easy to take a step back from your own reality. It’s not always easy, and it takes a good deal of imagination.

But that’s the start. The start of of connection, of empathy, and ultimately of trust. It’s the start of inclusive thinking, and seeking out diverse perspectives on the world. Not less challenge, but more.

So here’s a call to action for you.

Think of a conflict you’re in at the moment. Find that person and take a minute to ask them to share their perception of the world – without judgement. Accept that, for them, that perception is 100% real and, to them, 100% right. Then share your own.

I can’t promise that it’ll solve things in a minute. But I can promise that it’ll open up a much better conversation than the one you were (or more likely weren’t) having.

And I reckon that’s worth a minute of anyone’s time, right?

My generation

I’ve worked in pharmaceutical and healthcare advertising for 20 years this year. It’s a funny niche of advertising that I sort of stumbled upon, and ever since I did, I’ve been excited and engaged by the challenge of having to create impactful, surprising, charming and beautiful creative advertising and communication… AND do it whilst telling the truth. In a highly regulated market you can’t say you’re “The Real Thing” without proving it, and that intellectual rigour is something that has kept me interested all along the way. 

It’s also meant that over the years I’ve met some of the most fascinating people I could imagine – people who can balance deep understanding of science on one side of the brain and passionate creativity on the other. Working with people in whom the left brain and right brain work in harmony has been one of the great pleasures of my working life.

Twenty years is a long time, and yet it’s always surprising when I realise that somehow I’ve gone from being part of a new up-and-coming generation to being part of the establishment, to the point that now many of the leading agencies are led by my contemporaries and former colleagues. 

Just as you don’t notice your own ageing process until you look down at your hands and for a second you see your father’s hands [true story], the shifting of the work generations is imperceptible and gradual but inexorable nonetheless

My actual hand

[Wow that was an unnecessarily complicated sentence wasn’t it? I must squander less time perusing the thesaurus]

It occurs to me that the people I knew from ‘back then’ were people I spent many a long hour chatting with in local pubs putting the world to rights, saying how we’d do things differently when we were in charge.

And now we’re in charge. What are we going to do with that… well… power?

We call it seniority, or authority, or influence, but these are words we use because we shy away from the word… POWER.

We shy away because it’s a word which feels bigger and somehow darker than it should; that it’s more likely to be abused rather than be put to good use. That’s because we know that throughout history, as long as stories have been written, those in positions of power have been intoxicated by it, only thinking how they keep their power, increase it, use it for their own gain.

But you ask my young sons about great power, and they’ll tell you the truth:

Now the idea of “With great power comes great responsibility” probably didn’t start with Spider-Man (if you’re interested it likely dates back to decrees from the French National Convention in 1793) but it’s been repeated over the years by Presidents, Prime Ministers and more recently superheroes because there’s inherent truth in it.

Now I don’t have any superpowers [that I’m going to admit here, anyway] but I do feel the responsibility keenly.

I think we all do.

It’s something to be respected, and lived up to. Now we have that responsibility. There’s no excuse not to do the right thing if the right thing is there to be done. We said we’d do things differently if it were down to us, and now it is. Let’s make these places into the places we’ve always wanted to work, shall we?

I look at my contemporaries and see the leaders of our industry in the future. I see the people coming through and I know they see the value of an inclusive, caring, supportive environment where individuality is celebrated because that’s the stuff we all talked about back then.

And I don’t just mean the people I personally spent time in the pub with (although there are a fair few of those) but the people of my generation.

We are coming through and we are bringing with us new thinking and new ideas that are coming, slowly and surely, just as my hands turn into my father’s and his hands turn into his father’s [again, true story].

An idea whose time has come eh?

That’s quite some responsibility.

One I’d be happy to chat over any time.