Fighting fires

When I was a kid, I watched my father [hi Dad!] walk into a burning building. I was maybe 8 I guess? Our house backed onto a farm and (so the tale goes) some local kids had been smoking in the barn in the evening and it caught fire. Next to the barn was a little cottage where an old lady lived, with a load of cats – like a dozen or something – and she had refused to leave the cottage before all of them were found and she couldn’t find one and “what if it’s still in the house??!!”…

My dad wouldn’t claim to be “brave”, I don’t think. I imagine he’d consider himself much too sensible for daft ideas like that [he reads The Times, for crying out loud] but on that evening [probably with an “oh for fuck’s sake” under his breath if I know him] he walked into the burning cottage to ‘convince’ the lady she really should think about making her way out of the building sometime soon if turning into a roast old lady wasn’t in her immediate life plans.

Anyway, you’ll be pleased to hear that he came out, jostling the old lady in front of him. You’ll be delighted to know that all the cats had, of course, left the cottage some time before, because as we all know cats only care about themselves. My old man [who, come to think of it, would have been younger then then I am now: what a mind fuck that is!] was coughing and his face was black from the smoke and soot and my mum was really cross with him which at the time I thought seemed a bit unfair, because, you know, he was a bloody hero and all that.

And then the fire brigade turned up and we got to watch them putting the fire out, and it was very late and very exciting and I think I got to wear a fireman’s hat [although I might have imagined that because I’ve watched too much TV in my life and that’s the kind of thing that happens in a montage at the end of a TV program about a fire isn’t it?].

My fake memory

Up to now, I haven’t had the opportunity to save an old lady from a burning building [although I did have my bravery tested once – perhaps one for another time!] but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had fires to put out in my own way over the years. Oh no!

Because that’s what leaders have to do, right? Solving problems, making things better, fixing things. Filling gaps, plugging holes, and “putting out fires” [See what I did there?].

To be honest, I’ve never really liked the phrase “fire-fighting” when talking about work problems. It feels too reactive to me, like you’re forced to jump from the hottest, most urgent thing to the next, constantly on edge, constantly turning to find something else threatening to burn out of control. And so I think the phrase actually makes things worse, somehow.  But I do get the association of course.

Because we know that, left unattended, problems are more likely get bigger and less easy to deal with, just like a fire, until they’re totally unmanageable. And because we know deep within us, through thousands of years of generations upon generations from our earliest times on our planet, that fire has huge power and fearsome energy. Not just in what it does – how it destroys all in its path – but in what it does to us as people.

Just like our ancestors before us, we’re drawn towards fire. It’s deep within us to fan it or fight it, and so all too often we find ourselves simply gazing into it, transfixed, lost in its dancing light.

Nature’s cimena

And just like fire jumping from tree to tree and house to house, the closest possible proximity in which we’re forced to work in our overstuffed offices mean than even the smallest spark can catch, and grow and draw people in to fan or fight or stand and gaze once again.

But as much as we are mesmerised by fire, no matter how wondrous and fearful we find it, what we tend to forget is that the following day the ashes hold only a memory of the fire that once was, and hold no one’s interest for more than a fleeting moment before the winds of time disperse them.  Every fire that ever was ended up as ash in the wind.

And so perhaps one positive thing that I’ve experienced through the maelstrom of Bloody 2020™ is that the forced virtual nature of work has meant that when problems do arise there’s more space for consideration.

I don’t mean there’s more time, of course; not when the line between home and work has completely blurred to the point that it’s not actually visible any more, and I’m working earlier and later than I have in many years because it’s not like I’m going anywhere, and yes it’s getting physically and emotionally exhausting, as the stark sharp split between the imitation intimacy of a video call and the silence when it ends is jarring in a way that as simple, social animals we were never designed to be able to comprehend so we feel somehow empty in the moment, like we’re mourning the human connection that felt so real just a few moments before… [shit, sorry, where was I?]

No, I mean that there’s more physical and emotional space between us – space between the trees, if you like, so fires don’t spread so inexorably. With a watchful eye, some even die out all on their own.

Because with that space, people can consider their actions and consider what they might have done differently. The shared experience of lockdown and everything that’s gone with it means there’s more space for considering what someone else might be going through as well.

And so it seems people find it harder to hold a grudge from afar. People realise that they miss each other, individually and as the office buzz in the background as they work.

Starved of the oxygen of incidental interaction, disagreements become distant, irritations become irrelevant, niggles become nothing. And thus the flames of conflict are dampened, free to fizzle out naturally, quietly, simply.

There’s a lovely quotation I saw recently from a French writer/Aristocrat which goes:

L’absence est à l’amour ce qu’est au feu le vent. Il éteint le petit, il allume le grand.

Roger de Bussy-Rabutin

Which (as I’m sure you know) means:

Absence is to love what the wind is to fire: it extinguishes the small, it inflames the big.

I think that’s true, not just of romantic love but also of the companionship we all miss from our working relationships. The wind of absence has made the ones that were important to us before even more important now.

But perhaps the very same wind can blow out a lot of little fires of little inconsequential problems, too.

All without a fire-fighter to be seen…

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.