Empathy in the Time of the Coronavirus — Circles of Rationality and Understanding Fear in America (VII)

Getting older, but still running the shit – Lochsa River, 2018

One of the things I’ve noticed since I’ve started writing about asymptomatic COVID-19, which has implications that the pandemic may not be nearly as bad as we think it was going to be (numbers-driven here, folks — the death toll re: our models has been continually revised downward, and I’ve been seeking to understand why) is that this is one of the most upsetting things I could write for a number of people. Note — for any of the people reading this that thinks this is about them, well, there are lots of you. COVID-19 certainly isn’t the flu, but it’s also not Ebola, or smallpox, or any of a number of diseases that have swept through populations in the past.

What it is, from a systems perspective, is a Dirac delta function. And what is that? A Dirac delta, or impulse function, is a bell-ringer, what we use in systems dynamics to excite all the modes of a given system at once. It’s better than metaphorical in this context, when applied to social systems. It’s a value set resonator — it showed up relatively quickly, across the globe, transported by our air transport system. And the response actions we’ve seen are indicative of the value sets/v-Memes of the respective countries. It really can’t be otherwise. Adoption speed of any given tactic is going to be directly resonant with the empathetic development of any society. It was easy to implement something like contact tracing in a country like Taiwan, dominated by its deep Survival v-Meme fear of its northern neighbor. A real epidemic could endanger the survival of the country itself, and Taiwanese didn’t take the individual testing and quarantine policing as persecution of any one citizen. Rather, it ran its societal interpretation through its Legalistic/Communitarian filter — we care about each individual Taiwanese citizen, and because of this, we’re going to make sure every individual is safe (very Communitarian!) But you’ve got to follow our rules (Legalistic) and the Taiwanese largely have.

At the same time, in the U.S., as I wrote before, we have a far more incoherent society — a true Precariat — where no one is actually sure they’re going to make it through all this alive. A Survival state can be alternately a powerful good value set to have — it can make one become far more rational than they normally would be. But as with all Survival v-Meme situations, the risk of trauma is real, and unfortunately ongoing.

And that messes people up. People with lesser developmental perspectives (down there in the Authoritarian value set) are going to respond to their authorities when dog-whistled. They’re going to be quick to assume that the elites, who can afford to sit in their houses for an indeterminate lockdown, are once again at best inured to their pain, or attempting to finally starve them out and terminate them.

But it also messes up the response of the more stable. Because there’s really no part of American society under the mean income of $90K/household that actually is. To be middle-class in America today means you feel entitled to NOT live in the Precariat — even though there’s no real grounding that indicates you’re in a safe boat on a slow river. And this confluence of emotional violence is a sad, and scary thing. Whether you have money or not, you’re confronted on a daily basis with loneliness and isolation, which just drives home the vulnerability you had been suppressing for the longest time anyway.

The other thing that it does is open up the use of lots of more sophisticated thought-tools for justifying one’s fears. I see this especially prevalent in my friends that are single parents with children under the age of majority. It’s honestly terrifying thinking about your children becoming orphans, because what would realistically come of them? We’ve destroyed the social safety net of the extended family. And becoming a ward of a primarily dysfunctional state is no option at all. At least some of those single parents have been through messy divorces, and don’t trust their ex-spouse in the least. A smaller percentage have been down the rabbit hole of Child Protective Services, and know intrinsically how deeply flawed that process is. It is a perfectly rational response, therefore, to be afraid of any COVID-19 mortality.

And when we have fears, if we were raised in the context of a rational paradigm, we have an extended ability to go hunting reasons for those fears. There is no black-and-white, of course — the research and understanding of the disease is too limited. It’s not like cholera and dirty water. But probabilities are real, if not constantly shifting and you can find some authoritative source to tell you either that we’re past the peak of this pandemic, or just ramping up to mass death. All you have to do is ignore a few small facts as inconsequential parts of the narrative to believe, rationally, that the Angel of Death is coming soon to a neighborhood near you. My brain may indeed be attempting to piece together long-term narratives of epidemics and their effects across continental or island ecosystems. But it’s no surprise to me that that’s beyond unsettling to most, and the only way my perspective can be explained is through logical monstrosity and a collapse of empathy — the very thing I write about.

From where I see it, though, the way one approaches coronavirus is strongly indicative of how we, as a country, have vanishingly little experience with unexpected death. But lived trauma? We’ve got that in spades. It hasn’t killed us. But it hasn’t made us stronger. We do have experience with the threat of poverty and devastation. Medical bankruptcies are a constant reminder of the fact that we live in a country that has devolved to the point on not caring about basically any of its residents, save those at the very top. And that does not facilitate a longer, potentially happier worldview when we come out of this.

The coronavirus also opens up our rationality to any scale of fear we wish to pursue. I’m fond of saying most people are rational, all the time. What varies is the temporal and spatial scale. If you rest your hand on a hot stove, regardless of your value system, your hand will take in the data and pull back from the heat. That’s rational. The spatial scale is small — the length of your arm from your hand to your brain, and dependent on how hot the stove is, the time is in fractions of a second.

But what happens if someone else is in the room with you, and they’re pointing a gun at your head, threatening to shoot you if you take your hand off the stove? Now, the scales for rationality have changed. You may not automatically jerk your hand back (time scale has gotten longer) and obviously, your spatial scale now includes how close the threat is (if he’s across the room, you might take a chance and roll!) This is an extreme example, of course, but it makes the point well. You’re going to act rationally within the context of your tool set, and at some level, take in enough data, coupled with enough tools in your mental possession (maybe you’re a Navy SEAL with a Glock tucked into your belt!) to make a decision – at some timescale from automatic to carefully reasoned from your prefrontal cortex.

The problem with COVID-19 is that no one really knows the time or spatial scales. Or rather, you can find the evidence you need, if you’re traumatized, to justify whatever action you think is appropriate. And if you’re threatened at the core level — your child being orphaned, which is about as intense a Survival feeling you can have — there’s no way your empathy — especially that part working higher up on the pyramid and making you rational — isn’t going to suffer. Those couple of hundred right-wingers out there screaming to re-open Baskin Robbins are an existential threat. So, irregardless of the actual size of the action, or the fact that they’re basically out there seeking approval from Big Orange Daddy in the White House, they’re in the Out-Group, and they’re coming to kill either you or your child.

This is especially challenging for me to talk about, largely because in so many aspects of my life, I’ve moved beyond that fear. The How and Why of getting past it all are really bottled up in my chosen sport — whitewater kayaking. I’ve been boating now for at least 40 years, and it’s been a fascinating journey. As I age, I’ve had to reflect back on how it’s affected me — and it most definitely has. Andrew Embick, a famous Valdez, Alaska doctor and river explorer famously said “the beauty of whitewater kayaking is it gives one the opportunity to die in a beautiful place.”

Death, and the places it occurs, as well as the modalities by which one dies, are well-known. Everyone who has seriously practiced the sport has had a bad swim. There are even rituals around those swims (drinking a booty beer) and after each one, one must make a choice — do you keep kayaking, or do you quit? The sport could kill you — you just received a reminder of that.

Yet we look at the odds, or even the places where a friend may have drowned, and you sack up and go again. Reducing the odds of death, if you practice the sport at the highest levels, is part of it. Working out, improving your mental clarity, practice that roll, develop better team rescue technique. I can still remember my first real kayaking whitewater trip on the relatively benign Lower Youghiogheny river in Pennsylvania. The run is essentially a Class III carnival ride, with rafts and kayakers bouncing down through the fun rapids. In a time even before widespread neoprene wetsuit use (I had the bottom half of a SCUBA wetsuit on) I swam three times. The water was a crazy chilly 55 degrees, and I emerged at the end shaking and hypothermic. A choice appeared. “This is going to kill me,” my brain said. But instead of next saying “I have to quit,” my brain said “you’ve gotta learn how to roll.”

There may some part of it that is a young man’s attitude of “death can’t happen to me.” But for any of us that have participated in the top end of the sport (now so relative with the next generation of paddlers out there) there was a consistency of practice, and an awareness of odds. I think that having probability beat into my brain in the company of friends, in some of the most beautiful places on the planet, has helped me navigate life. It’s certainly made me realize that I can trust, within limits, all sorts of people. Degrees don’t mean much on the river.

One thing it has done is force me to take data, and make a consistent narrative of actions and potentials as I’ve gone down the river of life. It is pointless to think one can run a rapid through magical thinking. If there’s a death trap, you better make sure you can miss it. And you better make sure that when you show up above it, you’re in the right place in the river, and in your boat. If you can’t, you better be carrying that sucker. As I’ve aged, I’ve been forced to reflect on my own personal calculus. Because if you don’t clearly assess what’s going to happen, as well as who you are, on that day — not who you were 30 years ago, the river will gladly run the audit.

For so many of my single parent friends, it’s the first time that any potentially unexpected, knowable statistic of death has shown up on their door. And considering the catastrophe of your demise, I want you to understand that I do get the balance given between risk and consequence. But it really depends on how we draw that circle. I’m not making light of smaller fears to note that an asteroid could be heading toward us and ending all of us, coronavirus included. It’s just that we live in a risk-laden landscape.

It might be nice if we emerged out the end of this thing determined to create a social system that at least attenuated some of the elements that are so deeply anti-evolved human in the first place — like the notion of chronic isolation in the name of individualism. It’s not just bad in the U.S. In Japan, I read an article that old people had taken to committing petty crimes so they could live in prisons, because they found the loneliness of their apartments too much to bear, and they would rather pass their remaining years in a cell block than go back to the normative alternative.

I’m honestly at a loss on how to end this piece, considering what I do know about the personal pain so many people are feeling during this time in crisis. I do want people to know that who you are, as well as your value set/v-Meme structure is driving your behavior, whether you accept it or not. None of us are really in our conscious minds, no matter how we try. If you think all those Authoritarians out there are following lockdown to the letter, you’re wrong — that’s you’re law-abiding value set responding. And as I’ve said before, all actions dictated are leaky sieves. You can take this as a dismissal of an existential threat to you and yours. But it’s not meant to be. It means that any action we take resonates on many different levels — social distancing and mask wearing included (and I’ve advocated for both.) Coronavirus is whacking the entire bell. There’s a lot of stuff we just can’t know.

But we can know that most of you will make it out the back side of this whole mess. As well as your kids. And we’re going to need to get busy with the real lessons. Which are going to take evolution of everyone in our country — not just those in our respective in-groups. It’s going to require a big shift from hierarchy of status, to what I’ve taken to calling a new “hierarchy of responsibility.” You call the line, maybe you go first — and everybody ought to be better off at the end of it.

But hey – don’t worry about who will go first. I’m getting in my boat. I think I can make that first move. Haven’t done that one, but I’ve executed a bunch of similar sketch. Watch – and hang on. I’m counting on you, too.

3 thoughts on “Empathy in the Time of the Coronavirus — Circles of Rationality and Understanding Fear in America (VII)

  1. I’m in a different situation. So far, COVID-19 hasn’t personally affected me or anyone I know. I have no spouse or children. My family would be sad if I died and I’d be sad if someone in my family died. But we have no major worries. We all have have good jobs in government with healthcare. Also, we live close together with my brothers and their families in nearby towns. No matter what happened, someone in the family would take of my brother’s kids.

    I can’t say all of my family is in great health. But I’m healthier now than I’ve been for most of my life. Even when I was younger and fit, I never ate as well as I do now. My dietary and lifestyle changes a couple of years ago was perfect preparation for infectious disease. As such, my concerns have not been personal. I have zero fear of getting seriously sick, much less dying, from COVID-19. And living in Iowa, a rural state with a small population, it’s hardly felt like a pandemic around here, though most things are shut down.

    My perspective on the situation has been as an observer. I did initially worry about becoming a disease vector, though. I live in Iowa City where the first cases appeared in Iowa. My job is as a parking ramp cashier. This town is one of the leading medical centers in the Midwest and so there is large concentration of healthcare workers. In the last week I worked before the ramps were shut down, I had a lot of nurses coming through my lane. But the only reason I worried about becoming infected is that then I might become infectious to others, such as my aging parents.

    I never thought this was going to become like a plague. I was somewhere in the middle of concern. One of my brothers has a germ phobia and his family has taken all precautions. Whereas my other brother doesn’t take it seriously at all, despite his kids having compromised immune systems as they get sick all the time. Still, I tended toward the cautious side, as it is better to be safe than sorry. I’ve thought we should’ve started off with a stronger response and then, as better data came in, we could ease off. The immediate worry was overwhelming the hospitals and some people took the threat too lightly.

    I don’t know why it wasn’t recommended at the very least for everyone to wear masks right away. As my mother notes, there are approximately millions of people across the country with seamstress skills who could make enough cloth masks for the entire US population quite quickly, assuming they had the materials and pattern to work with. Yet, most people, even in restaurants are still not wearing masks. I’m only now starting to see this change in certain stores.

    The biggest issue people debate are the mortality risks. One thing that doesn’t get enough attention is the comorbidities and the public health crisis that has been going on for generations at this point. If we didn’t have such a sickly population, COVID-19 might not even be a worry at all. The pandemic is really about the widespread pre-existing chronic diseases. COVID-19 probably mostly kills people who were already in the last years of their life, whether or not the individuals realized it.

    Here is something to keep in mind. We don’t know how bad this pandemic would’ve been if we had done nothing. The death count could have been several times higher. We simply don’t know. But the other thing isn’t only about those who might die. That could end up being the least of our worries. Once someone is dead, that simplifies matters and the rest of society will eventually move on, including the families who experienced the losses. Death is death. We could argue how much each life is worth, in whatever terms we or according to whatever calculations. That is a debate to be had.

    Still, there might be an even greater risk beyond the immediate accounting of death and it is simply not on the radar of politicians, media, and the public. The largest costs might be long-term consequences we aren’t thinking about now. One of the reasons we seek strong containment is to buy time for the development of better treatments. If we are suddenly hit with a large wave of infections all at once without being able to offer an effective medical response, there will be many people who survive with permanent health conditions: damage to lungs, organs, nervous system, brain, etc — all the areas the virus attacks.

    Even if a smaller number dies than expected, a larger number could be severely harmed than expected. What if we had millions of Americans and hundreds of millions worldwide with major coronavirus-caused debilities that would equate to decades of disability payments, lost income, medical bills, and strain on families and public resources? The short-term prevention of a significant number of those cases could pay many dividends over the long-term. It’s a possibility to be considered. For example, we know that the drugs used to sedate people on ventilators can cause permanent brain damage. The person’s life is saved, but they might end up with dementia or some other neurodegenerative disorder.

    Right now, we simply don’t know how to treat the severe cases. This is why we want to delay the majority of infections for a while longer. Even a month or two delay could make an immense difference. New treatments will be rolling in and it could make a immense difference. We have to think carefully about the full consequences of how this might play out over the coming years and decades. The precautionary principle, often spoken of in relation to environmental problems, would apply here as well. If we had used the precautionary principle in the first place by preparing for a pandemic and for improving public health, we wouldn’t now be in this potentially dire situation.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Waaking the entire Dirac Bell. As my physics is so damn week I only learned that Demi God last week. Great Article – read it a week ago


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