I remember as a young teenager standing on a hilltop watching an ocean of flame racing towards me. We had been visiting family on a farm, when I found myself press-ganged into a volunteer bushfire fighting unit tasked with defending a neighbouring farmhouse.
It was hot. Loud. Hard to breathe. Terrifying.
Impenetrable smoke blocked out the sun. Mid-afternoon felt like midnight. The dark sky lit by a foreboding red glow promising an imminent and unpleasant end.
A blizzard of embers peppered us like a snowstorm on fire. Strong winds hurling them hundreds of meters ahead of the fire front. I later learned that bushfires create their own weather systems.
Intense dry heat provided insight about what a roast dinner experiences inside an oven. Every breath scorched on the way in. A combination of heat, smoke, and ash that left the throat parched and sinuses raw.
A roaring sound unlike anything I had previously experienced. Like standing next to a train track as a freight train thunders past at top speed. Constant. Deafening. A sound felt as much as heard.
The din punctuated by decades-old trees combusting and exploding like firecrackers. Their incandescent corpses further fuelling the relentless maelstrom.
Shock as I observed that fire gains speed when travelling uphill. Turning to dismay, given where I stood.
The disheartening realisation that the flames spread faster than a motivated person could run.
My uncle handed me a pair of sunglasses and the laconic observation that it was too late to flee, so we might as well get on with the job at hand. Succeed and maybe live, or die trying. No pressure.
Accurate. Blunt. To the point. Unlikely to win any prizes as far as motivational speeches go.
The fear was visceral. The fire an elemental threat that cared little for my hopes, dreams, or survival.
I wasn’t special, I was nothing more than fuel.
A scared boy with a pressure hose. As effective as trying to cool a blast furnace by pissing on it.
There was no such thing as a happy place. No safe space. No hypotheticals. No thought experiments.
It wasn’t going to be ok.
A hug wouldn’t make it better.
No last-minute reprieve or Hollywood ending.
If the fire reached us then we were going to die. It wasn’t a question, it was a simple statement of fact.
There was little point in worrying about something I couldn’t control. A realisation that was strangely liberating.
Mortal peril. Imminent danger. Impending doom.
Lizard brain kicks in. Thousands of generations worth of cumulative survival instincts coming to the fore.
Only the wise or the lucky surviving long enough to reproduce. Millennia of natural selection at work.
Where does measured reaction cease and overreaction start?
Can it be assessed in the moment, or only judged in hindsight?
At what point does reason give way to blind panic?
The media celebrates the “first responder”. That all-encompassing September 11 era term used to describe all those underpaid yet essential folks who put themselves in harm’s way simply because it is the right thing to do.
Hollywood lionises the hero. Slayer of dragons. Rescuer of princesses. Saviour of the day.
Those who run toward the flames, when common sense and survival dictate running away from it.
Brave, when their actions succeed. Foolhardy when they fail. Two sides of the same coin.
The formulaic news interviews afterwards invariably start with “I didn’t think, I just acted…”.
But here is the thing: how often do the colleagues of an older first responder gather in celebration at their retirement? Present them with a gold watch and reward them with a fat pension, in gratitude for a noble career devoted to helping others?
I suspect not nearly as often as they gather for funerals or attend hospital wards, to express support or sorrow for a colleague felled in their prime while performing those same duties.
Life or death
Our base instincts are predictable. No different to any other animal.
To breathe. Eat and drink. Excrete. Reproduce. Sleep. Survive.
We make things complicated by adding on layers of consciousness. Imagination. Existentialist angst.
Seeking meaning where there is probably just biology.
Divining mission and purpose to occupy idle minds and fill out those moments between struggles for survival.
Until we each experience one of those life or death moments, we have no idea how we will react.
Everyone likes to believe they will step up. Play the valiant hero. Saves the day.
A select few actually will.
Many more will panic.
Some will be paralysed by fear.
Hide under the bed and hope the world will pass them by.
Others will don the impenetrable armour of denial and convince themselves that nothing is wrong.
A material percentage leave smoke trails behind them like Roadrunner. Flee as fast as their legs will carry them in the opposite direction to danger.
Live to fight another day.
Prudent, if not the stuff of legend.
The coronavirus pandemic provided a fascinating lens through which to observe how we each react and respond to fear and uncertainty. Cast your mind back to the early part of the year 2020. A microscopic assassin was creeping across the globe, flying economy class as it spread death and disease in its wake.
Like many predators, it was opportunistic. Targeting the frail and the weak. Less effort. More certain outcome. Its progress greatly assisted by a deadly combination of denial, hubris, incompetence, lies, and wilful ignorance.
How did you react?
What did your instincts tell you?
Did you listen to them?
We all faced the same threat at a similar point in time. Yet our individual responses varied considerably. Apathy dominated. Shelter at home. Trust in the authorities. This too shall pass.
Hindsight allows us to learn from those instinctive responses.
What was reasonable?
What was clever?
What was laughably bad?
Choose your own adventure
I can remember performing a quick mental risk assessment in late March. My lizard brain identifying my fellow citizens as a far greater immediate threat than the virus itself.
Too many scared people in a confined space. The downside of cities.
Shortages of food as supply chains were disrupted, at the same moment that shoppers panic bought and hoarders stockpiled. A vicious cycle that could become self-perpetuating.
An increased likelihood of civil disturbance. Protests. Possibly rioting and looting. Long-simmering societal tensions over inequality, greed, and lack of opportunity coming to the boil. The triggering event largely irrelevant. The outcome would be much the same regardless.
More a case of society venting dissatisfaction and blowing off steam. “Letting the naughty out” as my elder son used to say when he was a toddler.
Incompetent populist politicians occupied the driver’s seat in many countries. Discovering that governing by opinion poll isn’t particularly effective during a time of crisis. That wishful thinking was not a plan.
Surely, a material body count would trump their ability to blame, mislead, and suppress information?
Learning the hard way that being a leader is very different from manipulating an election victory.
Likely to be found wanting. Their governments destined for collapse or overthrow as the populous clamoured for a return of the grown-ups to lead them to safety.
My instinctive reaction had been to look at options for getting away from the city. Go somewhere quieter. Less crowded. Reduce the chance of infection and being impacted by the angry mob.
Telecommuting meant my job could be performed equally well anywhere that had reliable internet. The inevitability of homeschooling would allow my kids to enjoy playing on a beach or hiking in the woods after completing their lessons. As opposed to roaming suburban streets while attempting to avoid sick people or bored troublemakers.
To me, that seemed like a net win. Once the first lockdown came, they would be unable to play with their friends in person anyway. Xbox and iPad would keep them in touch wherever they were physically residing.
My lady wife’s instinctive reaction was the polar opposite. Good health care and doctors are concentrated in large metropolitan areas. Supply and demand. Why would anyone want to reduce their survival chances by residing in a remote and disadvantaged location like England’s South West? Forever at the back of the resource allocation queue, because electoral math ensures those locations simply aren’t important enough to matter.
Her workplace was in London. While it too offered remote working, she had been the last one out when the office eventually closed, and wanted to be the first one back once it reopened.
Presenteeism leads to performance bonuses and advancement.
If nobody can witness your work ethic then there is no chance to shine. Women have to work harder than men. Migrants have to work harder than natives. Folks with dark skin and exotic names have to work harder than their light-skinned colleagues. In ticking all those boxes, she feels compelled to work harder than everyone.
My client engagement manager’s instinctive reaction was to jump on the first plane bound for Majorca.
Determined to beat the rush and secure a reasonably priced holiday rental before borders closed and lockdowns began. Believing folks would quickly realise that if everyone was working from home, then the commuting shackles were broken and geographic independence would be forever granted to all.
They remain there today. In the process of purchasing a former rental property from a distressed landlord. The depressed tourism market exposing the cashflow problems faced by Airbnb landlords.
Their risk assessment determined that any pandemic would remain a threat for a long time. Vaccines free from major side effects would take years to develop, test, and deploy. The effectiveness of any such programme would be hindered throughout by nationalism. Once released, internet misinformation and the anti-vaxxer movement would undermine any prospect of a vaccine boosted herd immunity by months if not years.
The instincts of several friends who had been living in the United Kingdom, but were originally from elsewhere, was to seize the opportunity to return home.
Pandemic uncertainty and a desire to be closer to family providing the excuse.
Doubts and fears about post-Brexit Britain the unspoken reason.
What sort of job market would their children graduate into? Where would the jobs come from?
Would their future prospects be better served elsewhere?
Did Brexit mark the end of London’s long-running property boom? If more people were emigrating from Britain than immigrating to it, who was going to keep bidding up the house prices? The price to average earnings multiples already put them well out of reach of a large portion of the native population.
Was the already weak Pound a temporary aberration, or did it mark the high tide mark for a long term structural decline in value? If so, did it make sense to cash in those Sterling denominated assets now and convert them into a currency with a more certain outlook?
It isn’t just Britain where these searching questions were being asked.
Similar instincts appeared to be kicking in for colleagues residing in Hong Kong and the United States. Structural changes and hostile regimes making them far less attractive living locations than had traditionally been the case.
Destinations of choice appear to be Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, Switzerland, and to a lesser extent, the UAE.
The fire spared us that day.
It inexplicably veered around the farmhouse we were tasked with defending. Despite the boastful stories endlessly recounted by my elder relatives afterwards, that outcome had nothing to do with our preparations or skill.
It was nothing more than random chance.
I’m not going to lie, my base instinct had been to flee. The only thing that kept me at my post was the realisation that my fate was entirely out of my hands.
Earlier in the day we had opened the gates in the next paddock, to give the livestock a chance to escape.
Complacency reigned. None of the sheep seemed to want to break with the flock. Be the first to flee.
The farmer did not encourage them to go. Each animal was an investment. Unlikely to be recovered.
As the flames stormed towards us, already far too late for escape, the flock panicked and ran away from the open gates. They found themselves trapped in a corner. Caught between fence and flame.
The sights and sounds of hundreds of sheep being immolated that day have stayed with me. They have also given me pause to evaluate base instincts and reactions.
Mindless sheep transitioning from complacency to panic.
A business owner witnessing greed turn into loss.
My nearly paying the ultimate price for fear. Loyalty. Delusions of grandeur.
The client engagement manager identifying an opportunity, seizing the moment, and taking action.
I attempt to identify lessons learned.
Avoid repeating mistakes of the past.
Discern when my lizard brain has my best interests at heart, and when my inner saboteur is leading me astray.
Understanding how people react in times of peril, stress, or uncertainty.
This won’t guarantee that my instinctive reactions the next time will be any better. But hopefully I will be more self aware and better understand how I respond.
Perhaps I may even learn when to heed those base instincts, and when to ignore them.