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My 900th column: notes from a pandemic

A few months into the lockdowns and slowdowns caused by a pandemic, perhaps we should pause.

This is my 900th column for the Sunday Nation, so let me commemorate the occasion by sharing some personal reflections from my own experience of recent reversals; of isolation and distancing; and of thinking about the world to come.

First, simple humility. Perhaps there are some of you who warned, as the New Year dawned last December, that 2020 would be a global shutdown year – but I doubt it. Most of us got it completely and utterly wrong. By March we sat and gaped at the news pouring in from every corner of the world, flummoxed, bamboozled and discombobulated. 

And that’s OK. We are human, and humans are fools. We pretend we are not, but really, we are. We are easily misled, even by ourselves. We think in groups, even when the groupthink is nonsensical. The most logical amongst us are equally driven by emotion rather than reason. We can pretend otherwise all we like; I have seen enough of humanity (and of myself) to know that foolishness is our lot.

The point is to not deny it. The point is to not keep uttering those false words, “I know that.” The point is to be in a state of childlike wonder about the mysteries of our lives, and to accept the many surprises that come our way.

The point is also to learn. As the @TheTweetofGod recently pointed out on Twitter: “Intelligence looks in a mirror and sees ignorance. Ignorance looks in a mirror and sees intelligence.” Is that not just a more modern take on ancient wisdom? 1 Corinthians 3:18 put it thus: “Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise.”

(This is exactly why I founded a grouping called The Wise Fools Club. More on that another day.)

Every surprise, every reversal, every setback is a signal to learn. It is a sign that we need to refresh our knowledge pools with new springs. It should give us the impetus – at any age – to say huh! It turns out I did not know this. It turns out I need to learn some new stuff. And then, with a new wind behind us, we must set forth on new learning journeys.

(For me, those journeys are: viruses, where they come from and how to deal with them; the human mind and its flaws; history and its forgotten lessons; and the coming world of virtual learning experiences. More on all of those in days to come.)

My second reflection is about human adaptability. I am in a completely different place now than I was in the ides of March. I suspect you are too. That’s because our species is supremely adaptable. We wail and complain for a while, sure, but after a bit of that most of us knuckle down and deal with our new realities. 

I have watched this happen with great delight with my own team, and also with the best of my clients and alumni. Initially, many were dumbstruck; now, many are teeming with new possibilities: new ways of getting to market; new ways of working in teams; new ways of coping with health and safety challenges. Already, they are in a different place.

A final reflection: we absolutely cannot carry on like this. The pandemic has exposed the deep faultlines in our societies. I have the privilege of writing these notes in this column; you have the opportunity of reading them. Most people in the world have neither. Most people in the world are left out, left behind, left helpless. Most crises are created by the privileged; most crises are borne by the poor. 

For too long we have convinced ourselves of this bromide: that there is no other way. That somehow the poor deserve what they get because their poverty is their own fault; that there is no other path for humankind to advance except to structure the world so that a few can engorge themselves and the many should just wait for the crumbs.

Watching governments saving stockmarkets rather than livelihoods, and saving the affluent while throwing the indigent to the wolves of lockdown and infection, has really struck in my throat.

(More rage on that will also come.)

Meanwhile, what have your learned about yourself and your world? And what will you change?

(Sunday Nation, 21 June 2020)

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