• Dr Hugh Willbourn

#29 Coffee, Covid and Understanding




At last the coffee shops were open again. I ordered some fancy food but was disappointed it didn’t taste as good as I remembered. By the evening I was in bed feeling bad.

The next day it felt like flu. I popped a couple of ivermectin which made no difference so I thought, “flu.”

The night and the next day were bad. Aching pains moved around my bones. I had no energy, I was thirsty but without appetite, I was tired but too uncomfortable to sleep.

I took a lateral flow test. Negative.

After two more days of feeling bad my sense of self was shrunken and cracking up. I tried paracetamol, aspirin, ibuprofen. Nothing controls the pain. It is not super pain, it is just relentless and always, always moving.

A visit to the doctor was arranged. There was a quick test before gaining access to the doctor. I tested positive for covid. Now the visit is not possible. I must do a PCR test and wait 24 hours for the result.

On the way home we buy some paracetamol with 30mg of codeine. For the first time in four days I have relief from pain and headaches.

As soon as I get home I take some ivermectin.

The PCR test comes back positive. I am “ high risk” but the hospitals are full. I must quarantine at home.

For the next seven days I lie in bed. I take 24mg of ivermectin, Vitamins C and D and melatonin daily.

My mind shrinks and slows down. The same banalities wash back and forth like flotsam in a tidepool – broken fragments of old thoughts and bad film scripts.

I develop phlegm and a cough. Not good, not terrible.

Nothing gets better. Nothing gets worse.

I seem to spend hours thinking about turning the fan on. Or off.

I eat small portions of soup. Every event – sitting up, eating, going to the loo, talking – is an event and leaves me exhausted again.

I am wary of the codeine because in an illness years previously I felt horribly drugged by it – but the freedom from headache is such a blessing that I take one, occasionally two most days.

I drift. I witness myself witnessing my inaction, which would be quite zen if it wasn’t mostly dull or painful.

My wife struggles to get me to eat.

Solace comes in memories of scents and textures from long ago: sitting on a bleached wooden bench outside a pub on the east coast; the dark wooden hallway of a great-aunt’s house. I am visited by imagery from online advertisements.

Lying in bed I do not notice quarantine. It is a much greater burden on the rest of the family.

Every few days I try to read emails and look at the news. The world from which I am exiled is tragically deranged.

After seven days of ivermectin I am not dead. I have not experienced a cytokine storm. I have plenty of phlegm but I don’t have trouble breathing. The first sign of recovery comes when I notice that rather than just watching the flow of autonomous ideas I think actively. I start to take some Chinese medicine.


What now?

I never felt covid was going to kill me. Years ago I had pneumonia which was noticeably worse. However being sick reminded me I will die, sooner or later, and I have only so much more time and energy to use. So how, I begin to wonder, will I use it?


I realise my primary concern, like that of so many others, is for my young children. What can I do to provide for them the freedom and possibilities that I enjoyed when I was younger?

There is no easy answer. Throughout the developed world the core elements of society have been suborned. Like a cartoon character we have already run off the edge of the cliff and are momentarily suspended in mid-air before the inescapable fall.


After several decades of living and pondering I have reached the possibility, from time to time, of a certain understanding. I have already written an introductory summary.

The consequences of this understanding are innumerable. Amongst other things it is necessarily the case that all ideologies are inadequate and will fail. Definitive policies and protocols will all eventually fail. Central control which does not delegate authority to practitioners in their own immediate context will necessarily lead to perverse and destructive outcomes. Modern Government cannot help but fail while being convinced it is pursuing ever greater efficiency.


Sadly, but unsurprisingly, my little revelatory blog has not changed the world.


I face three limitations.

Firstly, my words are a droplet in the oceanic babble of competing opinions. Furthermore I am requesting of my readers that they put some effort into understanding rather than rely on an authority. This is unfashionable and unattractive. Ideas that offer easy rewards, flattering meanings and pleasurable titillation are far more compelling. Furthermore thousands of artists, seers and philosophers have pointed out the errors of our ways before me, and they too have failed to stop the madness.

Secondly, I have my limitations as a writer. It may be that I am not able to express myself well enough and writing itself is limited. I cannot capture thirty years of development in a few paragraphs.

Thirdly, understanding is far more difficult than we like to imagine. You can read my summary and understand every word, but a deeper understanding takes longer.


What does that mean? How come you can read and understand what you are reading – and yet not have a deeper understanding? What is this ‘deeper understanding’?

Consider, for example, riding a horse. If you are doing the rising trot around an arena it is helpful to be ‘on the correct diagonal’. When a horse trots the left foreleg and right hindleg swing forward together, then the right foreleg and left hind leg move together.

To be on the correct diagonal is to rise when the outside shoulder is moving forward.

This sounds like basic technique that one learns and builds upon to ride better. However it is not really a basis, it is more of a stepping stone. An experienced rider will rise on the correct diagonal because they sense the most comfortable balance and connection to the horse. The rule is a useful abstraction to help pupils begin to feel the subtle balance required to ride a horse well.

You now understand intellectually how to trot on the correct diagonal, but that does not mean you can do it. To master the skill you need a good instructor and a lot of practice. When you do so you have a deeper understanding: you can do more than describe the correct diagonal, you can actually ride it.


We tend to have the delusion that we can think well and understand well in the same way that a tourist may think they can ride a horse if they bump along on top of it for half an hour. Thinking well and understanding are as difficult as riding a horse and require, amongst other things, practice and subtlety. Wittgenstein thought that thinking clearly was a very difficult struggle:

“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.”

Philosophical Investigations, #109


Furthermore good thinkers realise how little they know. As Bertrand Russell put it:

“One of the troubles of the world has been the habit of dogmatically believing something or other and I think all these matters are full of doubt, and the rational man will not be too sure that he is right.”

TV Interview 1952


We are not in a riding school. I am sitting at my laptop and you are reading what I have written. Sadly we are not having a conversation. It is, as the saying goes, “same same but different”.


Was it ever thus?

The ancients addressed these problems differently. Firstly, they did not write. Much of their understanding of human beings was transmitted through storytelling. Stories were told not just once, but over and over again.

Secondly, they taught skills, from master to apprentice, over a long time with guidance and much repetition.

Thirdly, they were more free to learn from their experience because they were untrammelled by seductive partial understandings of theories and abstractions.


Of course they had less information to share and they lacked scientific knowledge.

Nowadays we have far more knowledge of the natural world, but no better understanding of ourselves. For all our advances, we still are making staggeringly stupid mistakes. In modernity we know so much that it is tempting just to add new data to the edifice of our knowledge to date. When a fact is revealed that is incompatible we rarely have the courage to recognise the entire structure must be rebuilt from the ground upwards.



So what can I do for my children?

I cannot do as much as I wish, but I can do something.


I am not, thank goodness, alone. Millions of us understand the limitations of ideologies and the importance of apprenticeship, although they may not express it as I do. So I can, and do, seek out like-minded people and we are forming a nourishing community. As more and more of us withdraw from the obsolescent provisions of the state we bring with us the resources to create alternatives and co-operative networks.


I can encourage my children to think and I can challenge their thinking. A critical insight as we move into adulthood is to recognise the deep incompleteness and incoherence of human being. We cannot help but seek meaning, but we can never achieve certainty. We must learn to beware of the false refuge of a fixed, abstract, unemotional view of the world which appeals to our insecurity but inevitably leads us to misunderstanding and danger. We can cultivate the courage to trust ourselves even though we know we will make some mistakes.


We must become very clear about the inherently damaging impact of our technology upon social discourse. Jerry Mander was writing about television and technology in the early 1990s, and his words are equally applicable to the internet:


“We believe we can get the best from a given technology without falling into worst-case scenarios… We maintain this idealism despite the fact that we have no evidence of technology ever being used at an optimal level, or even being sensibly controlled. … Most technologies are actually deployed in the manner that is most useful to the institutions that gain from their use; this may have nothing to do with public or planetary good.”

In the Absence of the Sacred, 1991


The internet above all is a means by which “the institutions that gain from [its] use” deliver users to those who will in some way control them. It is not, of course, wholly bad. Amazon is useful, but we can learn to make it our provider of last resort, rather than our first choice. And online we can connect with others and build relationships which hopefully go offline.


Writing like this can only be a part of the solution. It may have value, but we understand it better not by reading even more, but by learning from our own experience, by learning from masters, or mistresses, of their craft, and by listening to, and telling, stories. I can tell my children stories from my family, stories from the oral tradition, stories that I have been told by others and stories from my life. I find, as I hope you will, that children and even adults like to hear the same story over again. When I worked as a professional storyteller I chose stories just because I liked them. I told a certain wonder tale for a year and a half before I realised one day, in the middle of a performance, that the place of the hero, as he left the woods and headed over the mountain, was exactly where I was in my own life. There is always more to hear.


Repetition, it turns out, is important not just for stories. We are all so easily deluded that we know enough and that we understand, that we need to hear some things many, many times before we realise how much we are being told, and how much more there is to learn.

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