Sand in the Hands

I sit in the kitchen in the morning sun and drink coffee. Some asshole is riding his moped down the street. How the noise of those mopeds annoys me, I think. And then I look at the thought. What is it about that noise that bugs me? Could I love that noise too? I dig a little in my memory.

Was it Italy or Greece, whatever, an apartment or maybe a room in a bed and breakfast? In a seaside resort not far from the beach. Roof terrace or balcony, or just an open window? Outside, the sound of a moped. The smell of coffee, breakfast, hard-boiled eggs. Yes, I can remember hearing the same engine noise and how I liked to hear it. How I listened to the sounds and how beautiful the moment was.

When I was a kid, all that was, was what it was. It was only with language that I began to judge the world, that I began to divide it into good and bad. I can’t remember ever crying. Sure I cried, like every child, I just don’t have a memory of it. But I can remember moments of happiness and those moments were nothing special.

When I think of moments of happiness in my childhood, I remember the sand in my hands, the tiny little red beetles on the asphalt but not the Carrera track that I got for Christmas and which I had to defend against my brothers until one day it was forgotten in its box.

So what distinguishes the sand in your hands from the Carrera track? The sand in my hands is a moment, a moment, meaningful only because I remember it.

The Carrera track is also a memory, but it is not the memory of a moment, it is the memory of a story that had its beginning (Christmas), drama (the fight with the brothers) and an end (the box in the cellar). A story with a timeline, a connection of moments to a unity. I don’t remember the moments, I remember the story, which, like any story, is connected to suffering. A story in which there is no suffering does not exist, it does not function as a story.

Are there also moments of suffering? I do not have to search long in my memory to find an example. In my early thirties I had a slipped disc. I had never had such pain in my life and never since then. I lay on the floor alone in my apartment for many hours and could not move because the slightest change in my position caused even more pain. But the strange thing is, when I think back to this moment there is no wound. On the contrary, it is an experience that I do not want to repeat, but I would not want to miss.

I have often asked myself how this can be and I put it this way: I have never been nailed into a moment like I have been then, for hours. There was no thought of the future or the past, there was only the concentration on the position of my body and on finding, through a tiny movement, a position that was perhaps a little less unbearable. I was so occupied by the moment that I had no resources to think about the future or grieve over the past. What was, was the moment, for hours.

So it’s not the noise that’s annoying. Suffering doesn’t seem to be caused by pain alone either.

Then what is it?

I have a suspicion that the suffering is rooted in the story. In the story with its beginning and its end, which is accompanied by an evaluation of what the story is, be it positive or negative. Story always has something to do with verdict, with judging what to learn from it, for later.

From a moment you learn nothing. The sand in your hands, the unbearable pain.


Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the residence of Minnesota’s governor on Friday to protest lockdown.

The New York Times April 18, 2020

That’s the kind of story the news likes to tell. It’s a great story because it’s unusual and disturbing at the same time.

Unusual because we should all have understood by now what this virus is all about and why and how we should help to contain its spread. Disturbing, because there are people who see it differently, express it militantly and thus again become a danger to everyone.

Somewhere in the USA, where not only the brightest lights live, hundreds (and on the pictures it looks more like hundred than hundreds) of the most stupid apes have gathered, waving blue-white-red flags and doing hullabaloo. They protest that the lockdown will be lifted. They demand their normal life back.

This is stupid for two obvious reasons.
1. as long as a larger part of society is afraid of a contagious disease, which can best be protected from by renouncing normal life, there will be no normal life.
2. it is a stupid idea to form a group with 100 others at times when a contagious virus is circulating.

In the sense of the opponents of the lockdown, an information campaign would make more sense, which explains to the people that their worries are completely unfounded because… And exactly this “because” is what is lacking. Because there are no good arguments. (The “argument” of the lockdown plunges many people into a shitty situation is not an argument, it is an observation).

Putting yourself in a group of 100 people at the moment is also pretty stupid, because it increases the risk of getting infected with the virus (even if you don’t believe in it). But this demonstration is unlikely to result in its participants becoming infected. The larger the group of people, the more likely they are to be infected, but for this relatively small group, the probability is not too high.

So most likely these idiots will not be infected, but they will probably use this as a way to “prove” how exaggerated the fear is. (Strictly speaking, they are just proving how bad their understanding of probability is, but that is nothing unusual, because humans in general are terribly bad at grasping probabilities intuitively (see Kahneman, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”).

The danger is high, however, that they will give others stupid ideas.

The perfidious thing about the story of the events, like the demonstration of the stupid monkeys in Minnesota, is that telling the story leads to many more people getting similarly stupid ideas. If 1000 times 100 people meet and wave flags, then we will almost certainly have a Super Spreader Event. That will actually have an impact.

So the only really scary element in the story of the demonstration of the stupid monkeys is the fact that we tell it to each other – and spread it by telling it.

In fact, the story is like the Corona virus itself. Anyone who tells the story transmits the virus. Most people don’t get sick.If someone gets sick, one symptom of the illness is that they go out into the street, form groups with others, wave flags and shout “Freedom!

By the way, this is the same with all stories. (The symptoms of the respective illness are very different and in most cases completely harmless).

Stories are viruses.


Trust and modesty

I have friends who say that the decision of politicians to paralyze the whole economy is madness. That politicians would only make these decisions because they themselves would not have to bear the cost of economic decline. The bill would be paid by others. Politicians, on the other hand, would only show actionism in order to be well received by the voters.

Could be theoretically. But in practice this is highly unlikely.

Firstly, this consideration assumes that the current decisions of politicians in the Corona crisis are risk-free in terms of the effect they have on voters. One can imagine what would happen if the emergency did not occur – even if the politicians’ actions were to have the causal effect of preventing the emergency from occurring in the first place.

How would Angela Merkel look then, if at the end of the year only 2,000 seniors had died who would have died anyway, perhaps of a cold, with her first direct television address to the people beyond the New Year’s speech? – First woman as Chancellor of Germany, 15 years in office? Merkel risks a lot: at the end of her career as chancellor she could go down in history as the woman who brought Germany’s economic power to the brink of collapse because of a cold.

Secondly, this argument is based on the assumption that at this point in time one can already assess well enough how high or low the risk is. That you can also take responsibility for the risk of getting it wrong. But at present the information available is contradictory, unclear and confusing. The risk, on the other hand, is huge and even worst-case scenarios are far too little unlikely.

Given the magnitude of the risk posed by the corona virus, you either have to have a great deal of knowledge or be megalomaniacal to be sure of your opinion.

I do not presume to assess the danger, so I am acting on the recommendations of those who most likely have better information and are advised by smarter people than I am. I do as they say. Although and because they are politicians. I trust politicians, not because they are infallible, but because they are likely to make fewer mistakes than I do.

What we had always thought

In the latest episode of the podcast “Hidden Brain”, historian Nancy Bristow describes the 1918 influenza epidemic, when decisions made by politicians had far-reaching consequences. For example, a parade in Philadelphia in the face of the influenza epidemic was not cancelled, as many had demanded. The decision of a politician, which brought death to thousands of people a few weeks later.

The historian says that the decision-makers at that time did not have the advantage of being able to look back, as we have today. We should therefore be soften our criticism of those responsible at the time. In the vast majority of cases, politicians would have done the best they could, but we must remember how difficult it is to make decisions in such a situation when you don’t know in which direction the pandemic is developing. And then, in a remarkable afterthought: she herself had only understood this last week.

Bristow has written a book about the influenza epidemic. I’m sure she spent years researching the subject. And here she now says that she missed something that she only realized last week, at the very moment when we are in a similar situation with the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is it that she became aware of? Written as a sentence, it sounds almost trivial: That in retrospect one looks at a situation differently than when one is in the situation. It is relatively easy to understand that in a situation information is missing that one can only have later. The politicians in 1928 only knew that the flu would kill thousands of people after the flu had killed thousands. Before that, it was just one of many possible options, and one could certainly think with good reason that the danger was unlikely, not worth canceling a major parade.

Only later did people know what had happened and only with this knowledge, is it easy to clearly distinguish a right decision from a wrong one.

Nancy Bristow is certainly a very, very smart woman. She teaches at a university, she writes books. And she didn’t realize that information that you have or don’t have at a certain point in time influences decisions at least as much as the differences in the character traits of politicians?

Everyone should know this from their own experience. That you change your mind when you have new information. You have just decided not to eat anything in the evening and by chance there is still the lunchtime meal standing around in the kitchen. So you have made a decision, then the state of information changes (you become aware of the rest of the lunch) and you change your mind. Things like this happen to me 10.000 times a day.

Obviously people find it difficult to remember that at some point you didn’t know what you know now. Nancy Bristow does that, I do that and it explains why when I think about my former self, the phrase “Oh, how stupid I was” comes to mind instead of the much more plausible: “Too bad I didn’t know that, yet…”.

We are obviously not intuitively able to understand that at an earlier point in time one might have seen things differently. That perspectives can change over time and that at some point you might be able to see what you couldn’t see before. And that, seen the other way around, sometimes you can no longer see what you saw before. Most people are unaware of the latter in particular: that what used to be clearly in sight sometimes can become invisible.

If you dig in your life you may come across such cases from time to time. One indication of cases where the perspective has changed significantly is that you can no longer explain what “drove” you to a certain decision.

It is laborious to think oneself into such cases. The human brain is lazy and has therefore invented a shortcut: Intuitively, it makes people think that they have always thought the way they think now.