Back to Better

It’s been quite a couple months. How are you doing?

My little family has been a microcosm of the larger discussion that’s happening: should we stay in lockdown to continue to slow the spread of Covid-19, at the cost of triggering economic collapse? Or should we end lockdown and return to the fully interactive society in order to prevent a Depression, at the cost of overwhelming our health care system and risking deaths due to lack of treatment?

Both are very bad. Unfortunately, they’ve both been framed poorly in media and social media discussions. Continuing social distancing is unlikely to reduce the number of cases of Covid-19 – you are probably going to get it – but it slows the rate of new cases each day. You’ll get Covid-19, but will you get it today or in a couple months? That makes a difference. The best metaphor I’ve seen is the public restroom. There are a limited number of stalls; if everyone has to use the restroom at once, the restroom gets overwhelmed. But if the same number of people go to the restroom, just spread out over the whole day, everyone gets a stall.

Go outside

So the “stay home” part of the message (which, by the way, isn’t literally stay home. It’s OK to go outside. Go for a walk. Go pick up take-out. Go for a drive, even. Just stay 6′ or more away from people you don’t live with.) is about spreading the need for health care out over months, rather than everyone hitting the hospital at the same time. We’re still all going to get the virus.

The economic part, on the other hand, has been framed as something for corporations and the extremely wealthy, when in fact, when the economy collapses, it’s the lower income and middle class that suffer. The Rockefellers made it through the Great Depression okay, even with four-fifths of John D. Rockefeller’s fortune evaporating. Everyone else had to watch their children go hungry.

So the “open up” part of the message is really about forestalling the coming food shortages, homelessness, inability to pay for needed medicines, and the violence and crime that come with those.

When neither option is a good option, look for alternatives

I don’t believe these are the only two choices. I know that people are familiar with one, and have learned to do the other…but there are so many more options and opportunities!

I’ve been saying to basically anyone who will listen that this situation is a gift. We have slowed down enough to take a long hard look at what we want and what we need from life, society, our nation. We have a chance to build it up from scratch and leave out the toxic parts, keep the valuable parts, and improve quality of life for ourselves.

We don’t have to go back to the way things were, either now or when we fully lift lockdown. The only people who want that are the people who were benefiting from it and didn’t care about the cost, or the people who can’t imagine anything better and didn’t care about the cost. The rest of us have been suffering a whole lot of anxieties: are our kids getting a good education? Are they going to be murdered while at school? Will they have a future or will the planet be toxic to human life? We’re working far too much for far too little (money but also results). We may be missing the idea of travel, but not the reality – let’s face it, air travel had become a special kind of torture, and car commutes are dangerous, take hours we could be using for important stuff, and kill our souls.

This video gets directly at our desire for “better” in 4 minutes.

But how do we get there?

I suggested that public health, a healthy planet, and a healthy economy don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I believe we can find a way of being that balances all three. One of my friends agreed, but asked what we could do right now, in lockdown. Here’s what I think:

  1. Mindfully and thoughtfully determine what your personal values are.

Literally keep a list or a journal, or write these to a friend or family member. Mine range from “getting enough sleep” to “doing projects together as a family” to “gaming with friends.” What have you really enjoyed while on lockdown? What have you really missed? I can tell you that no one in my family has missed school – my son is still learning and still chatting with friends, but his mood and general state of being is SO MUCH better without school (and yes I have thoughts on why). I have missed going to work, but I don’t miss sitting in traffic.

2. Go into the darkness: what have you hated? What scares you?

What are your biggest worries? What parts of lockdown have caused the most friction? We’ve had to set rules about how often we can read the news, and we absolutely don’t watch it ever. None of us need to be emotionally yanked around by that shit. We are doing the “hope for the best but prepare for the worst” planning: the US can’t afford to pay people to stay home forever, and may cut federal pensions. They did that during the Great Depression. We have dramatically altered our expenditures and behaviors to prepare for a time without income, because that’s scarier for us than Covid-19.

3. What brings you joy? What are you good at?

None of us are going to be able to create a better world alone – we need everyone to help, and everyone has different skills and gifts. If you could spend your time any way you wanted, what would that be? For me it would partially be work – I really do like my job and I feel like I’m contributing something by doing it – but it would also be doing arts and crafts and spending time with my family. And sleeping. I’m really good at it, and it brings me joy.

4. Start adjusting your daily and hourly behavior.

I bet, if you look at your lists “losing an hour dicking around on social media” isn’t something that brings you joy, something you want to spend your time one, or something you value. So stop doing it. If you can’t quit cold turkey, schedule a time every day and do it then and only then. Same with any app, honestly…I’ve made progress curtailing my addiction to puzzle games (bathroom games) but it’s hard.

Schedule a daily family walk, or a daily video call with loved ones. Be fully present when you are with your kids. It’s okay if they aren’t learning the Common Core for maths right now, but what can you teach them? We’ve been teaching our son carpentry, home maintenance, and auto shop.

If you are concerned about getting Covid-19 and getting a bad case or dying, the best thing you can do is strengthen your immune system, which, honestly, helps with basically everything. Obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure compromise your immune system, and now you have time and space to address those. If you can’t do anything about your immune system, due to age or an auto-immune disorder, I hope you and your contacts are already taking precautions.

5. Do some system sketches.

The big complicated stuff is harder. How do we ensure food security and avoid the global shortages and local famines that are coming if we stay on this course? How do we slow or stop or reverse climate change, aka total planetary collapse? How might we completely redesign education, which is the foundation of a healthy and prosperous society, so that it is accessible to everyone and lifts everyone up to the best they can be? How might we redesign work so that it supports life, rather than being a conflict with it? How should we change the way we handle childcare, elder care, food production? What would happen if people moved away from urban areas? What would motivate them to do that?

As you are sketching out (and I mean sketching, on paper, with arrows and lines and boxes) one of these systems, you will find a lot of things you don’t know, or questions that you have. Draw these in as part of your sketch, then do research on them. Teach yourself about this topic. Talk to people. You may not be the one to solve it, but if you start talking to people about it, pretty soon a whole lot of people will be learning about it and thinking about it and one or more of you will come up with an idea that’s better than what we have now.

6. Be the change.

When that happens, sketch out what it would take to make that real…and start doing it. Should we each have a little kitchen garden? Should every community have a neighborhood garden? You can work your allotment while social distancing. Should there be a common livestock area, where neighbors can go in together on chickens, goats, a pig, a cow? What needs to happen? Zoning changes? Sanitation infrastructure?

Any one of these large, wicked, complex problems has tens or hundreds of parts, and one or two of those parts are small enough for you to do. Don’t be put off by the people who say there’s no point to change because of something else that’s bad – that other bad thing is almost never a rule of nature that is immutable and can’t be changed. A plant-based diet does not have to mean buying from agribusiness. Universal conscription does not have to mean the year right after high school. Education does not have to mean collecting up the kids that live near each other and were born the same year and putting them in an institution.

You have the power.

In the last few weeks, you have already changed your life and done things you never would have thought possible. You’ve listened to and understood the science on virology. You’ve changed the entire pattern of your life. You’ve started using technology you might never have otherwise used. You are resilient and you are proving that every day.

It’s not much of a stretch for me to believe that you are going to make more changes, and that some of those will help far more people than you can imagine.

You don’t have to wait for someone else to solve these problems: you know what you value, and you are human. Make your little part of the world better, and let people see that, and it will spread.

(All images are from Pexels)


  1. When our kids were mostly out of the house and mostly self-supporting, my mom was living with us and it was obvious she needed care. My job was absolute nightmare hell; I only stayed because my job paid for our health insurance. We talked it over and became a one-income family without health insurance. We changed our lifestyle to improve and maintain our health, and spent more time together, doing things we enjoyed. It took me a year to stop shopping to compensate for being miserable at work, but once I realized I didn’t need to do that anymore the habit was broken. We downsized our belongings,donating much of it, and replacing what we really needed with used things that worked better. While retirement brought renegotiation of responsibilities, it also freed up more time to spend as we liked, most often together. We’re now used to making do, to seeking simpler alternatives, to combining services and tools with our neighbors. I’d like to go further as far as gardens and small animal farming, but so far no luck there. But I just want to say that we don’t feel we lost anything when we changed our ambitions and scaled back our lifestyle and its costs. The only thing we’re suffering in self-quarrantine is the loss of spending time together with family and friends. The rest, we’re already familiar with, and find it much less stressful than our previous life. I hope everybody can find a level of sufficiency they can sustain, feel pride in, and enjoy.

    1. Thank you for sharing that. If everyone scaled back I believe it would bring our health, our economy, and our planet into better balance. It certainly helps at a personal level.

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