What You and the Pandemic Virus Have in Common

What can the COVID-19 virus teach us about philosophy?

With any virus – but particularly with an especially infectious one – we get a perfect working metaphor for the relationship between individual actions and society.

Namely: the only thing that spreads as far and as fast as a pandemic are the consequences of your moral actions.

If you contract a virus – say, for instance, the COVID-19 coronavirus – you immediately become a member of a great chain. Someone before you had the virus. Now you have it because of them. And more likely than not, someone else – multiple people, really – will have it because of you. When you become a carrier for a virus, everything you do becomes a potential vector for infecting people. And you alone can infect hundreds or thousands of people if you do things badly enough.

As a member of a chain of infections, though, your contribution to a pandemic can be far worse than just infecting a dozen or a hundred or a thousand other people. Those people you infect aren’t just sick because of you – they’re carriers too because of you. They can now infect dozens or hundreds or thousands more.

It is in this way that a single human being – a “patient zero” – can be responsible for infecting hundreds of millions or billions of people.

This viral example brings home the significance not just of personal hygiene but of all personal ethics and personal action. We live in networks and chains, and all of our actions “transmit” something to the people around us. If we transmit fear, that fear “infects” the people around us, then the people around them. If we transmit

These networks are how an abusive father’s actions can lead eventually to mass prison camps, or how a friend’s faithfulness can lead to the defeat of a great tyrant. The content of our actions transmits virally, and at scale it can become something very dangerous and destructive, or beautiful and healing.

Take time during this time of pandemic to reflect on the vast significance of your own actions and your connectedness to others – not just in health, but in everything.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Do Your Goddamn Duty During the Goddamn Pandemic, Dammit

“In the name of Goddo your duty.” – Atticus Finch, To Kill a. Mockingbird

In case you missed it, we are now living through a pandemic. COVID-2019 (AKA “coronavirus”) is a highly infectious virus known to infected more than 128,000 people (but due to lack of testing, probably many more) and killed 4,720 people in dozens of countries.

The virus spreads through contact as well as through the air. The contagion estimate (R0) is that a person with this virus is likely to infect 1.5-3 more people. The real twist? Symptoms don’t appear for days, or may not show up at all. So you may be carrying coronavirus and not even know it.

Why does this matter?

Because you have a job to do in this pandemic.

You may not be old. You may not have a weak immune system. You may think that you are healthy enough to recover from coronavirus. And so you may not be interested in taking precautions to avoid becoming infected – doing things like cancelling travel, cancelling events, and avoiding public spaces. You may decide to go on your merry way and pretend like this isn’t happening.

If you want to risk your own sickness, that’s fine. The problem is that you won’t just be impacting yourself. If you get infected and continue to go to public places, you are causing the pandemic to get worse. You are infecting others who will put additional burden on a healthcare system which is (at this rate) going to be overwhelmed. And you are infecting people who may die from this virus.

Imagine being the jerk who brings the flu to your office for no reason – and living with the possibility that you spread it to multiple colleagues, including some who died from it. You wouldn’t feel so good about that. You would realize that you were responsible.

Now put that same responsibility into the context of a pandemic. Your actions matter even more. Even if you don’t mind getting sick, by practicing “social distancing” you can prevent further unnecessary spread of this disease, reduce the burden on the medical system, and ensure that more people continue to live and work through this. That’s good for you and good for everybody you care about.

So for God’s sake stop going to big events, stop going to restaurants and movie theatres and the like, start washing your hands and wearing gloves, cover your damn mouth if you cough or sneeze, and prepare yourself so that you won’t need to burden hospitals with your sickness when the time comes.

Do that, and you will have done your duty in a major crisis. And that’s about one of the best things you can hope to do.

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Danger Is Temporary: Cowardice Is Forever

Who pays the greater price and takes the greater risk – the brave man, or the coward?

The man who volunteers to defend his village against the dragon only experiences pain and danger momentarily. He either dies (temporary pain passing into nothingness) or lives (temporary danger or pain), but his negative state is temporary (exception: physical and emotional wounds).

Stack this up against the price the coward chooses to pay.

The man who – from fear – shrinks from his responsibility to defend his village still experiences the same anxiety of danger (it’s why he refuses to fight), but he does avoid physical pain and physical danger. However he has one negative state now which will follow him forever: the internal feeling or the social reminder of being a coward. This persists well beyond the time when the danger is past.

Danger and pain are external: you feel them and experience them, and then they are gone. Your own conscience and your society discharge you.

Cowardice is a state of mind – and the memory of it lasts forever. Your conscience and your society hold you captive.

Which would you rather have?

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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None of Your Business

My generation may have been the last one born in which privacy was the default rather than the exception. Of course, it didn’t take long for that to change.

In my younger years I saw the birth of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat – just about every social media tool there is. As more of these platforms gained popularity with me and my friends, our default attitude about life changed.

Once upon a time we might have asked: “will I share this with someone?

Now we go somewhere on a trip, hike some mountains, have some interesting days at work – and the default mode is to think that we’ll share it somehow. Sharing is inextricable from the activity. Every photo taken is a memory we want to show someone else. Every life change or major event is publicly accessible within minutes, hours, or days. We post the photos on Instagram, or Facebook, and the news is out – perhaps to most of our network of friends and family and random people – in one fell swoop. We don’t demand anything of anyone for profound access to our lives.

This is a very interesting change. And it’s not necessarily bad. We’re humans: we like to share things, and we like to look cool. That is not going to change.

But it’s still worth noticing – and worth understanding how strange it is in the grand scheme of history.

Most of our predecessors got to experience what is was like to have anonymous or private experiences that people never found out about – or at least found out about later. People had to actually ask them what they were up to: “where are you moving?” “What are you doing for work?” “Do you have a girlfriend?”. And our pre-digital predecessors had to make the decision on a case by case basis about whether to share and how much to share.

What if things were still like this? What if you didn’t broadcast everything out to a wide audience? If you don’t know or can’t remember, it’s probably a sign.

Privacy is not everything. But we shouldn’t deny ourselves the experience of being the only one “in the know” (about good stuff – not just bad stuff) for a while. We might want to get more comfortable with the phrase “none of. your business.” We might expect people to earn more trust and more respect before we tell them our plans, hopes, dreams, and doings.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Being Your Own Man Doesn’t Have To Mean Rejecting a Legacy

People leave the family farm. Sons go to college instead of going to work into the plumbing business. It has a thousand faces, but there’s this American idea that inheriting a vocation is “settling,” so you’d better go off and find a new one.

I know I feel it. It’s why I probably couldn’t have been satisfied just taking over the reins of my father’s successful landscaping business – and why indeed that wasn’t even something he tried much to encourage.

This same idea has killed many multi-generational businesses – and seems to have killed much hope for this one kind of intergenerational wealth transfer possible to most people. The result? Each new generation of men are poor and alone, and therefore at the mercy of the lenders and the mercy of the state.

Ironically, the mythos of dreaming-big and independence may be contributing to the destruction of both.

But “being your own man” doesn’t have to mean rejecting the legacies people try to leave you – including the legacy of training, capital, and vocation. Indeed, accepting a good legacy in these things can help to ensure that you remain as much your own as possible.

I’d look at the character of Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies* as my model. He comes from a long line of kings yet struggles with his legacy – particularly with the less than wonderful parts (like when Isildur keeps the Ring of Power for himself). So he wanders the north alone, fighting bad guys. Yet he only comes fully into his own when he accepts his legacy – but also transforms it through rejecting the evil of the Ring and Sauron for himself.

Aragorn becomes “his own man,” yet not from traveling footloose and fancy-free and deciding he doesn’t want to be king. His individuality established, he comes back and accepts and redeems his legacy.

We live in a mythos right now of “leave and never come back” – from a lot of things – family, life, work. This may be better than the ethos of “never leave” – certainly for some people it is. But the right ethos is “leave and then come back different.”

*It’s worth noting that (to my knowledge) this is not a conflict or at least not a major conflict for Aragorn.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Coronavirus and the World As You Know It

Yesterday I went to a gorgeous, clean, brightly-lit, colorful, fully-stocked grocery store. I found just what I wanted (free range eggs were even on sale!), brought it to an express aisle, chatted with a smiling and friendly cashier, and went on my way.

I dropped the old “how are you doing today?” with the cashier and got back the simple but wise “We’re here, aren’t we?” I added “We aren’t sick yet.”

It’s a strange thing, knowing about the oncoming coronavirus. I realize it will infect a great many people. And I realize that it may make things like convenient grocery runs a thing of the past. I realize this bright beautiful place of commerce and civilization may be emptied, or may be shut down.

This made me appreciate the trip that much more. It’s true what they say about not knowing what you have until you lose it. And we have the unique opportunity to know that we are going to lose things beforehand – so we can enjoy what we have while we have it.

The world as we know it may be about to end – at least for a little while. Going to parks, going to movies, going to classes, going to the gym – some of these are already bad ideas (given viral spreading), and others just won’t be possible for a while. Some businesses and institutions will close down – some for a while and some forever. Some practices will change (no more handshakes?) Some people will die.

We should be preparing for that. But we should also take this time to enjoy the miracles of life all around us. If we don’t realize now that we have abundance, we’ll realize when it comes crashing down. And hopefully then we’ll be wiser in building it back up.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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