PeerSpirit Newsletter – The Owl and the Tree
September 2020


Calculated Risks

by Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea

The weather in early to mid-September established a new morning routine: open computers, click onto After typing in our zip code, the round dial with its multi-colored numbers opens up telling us how it will be to breathe today. For seven days we faced a red reading “unhealthy for all groups” (i.e. anybody with lungs). We stayed inside. We walked the dog (see photo below) and got the mail wearing N95 face masks, sucking air through the mesh filters that cleaned out particulates of ash along with floating Covid-19 germs, and whatever else we inhale/exhale in the usual course of a day.
Actual wildfires did not come close to Whidbey Island this time, but smoke from combined western fires engulfed us in dangerously unhealthy air. Portland, OR had “hazardous” air during this entire time—meaning everyone should stay indoors and reduce activity level. “Don’t even vacuum,” authorities warned, “You don’t want to stir up anything.” In addition, Portland suburbs were threatened by fire. They were taking in evacuees from neighboring forest towns. We are fortunate: our air was bad, but our houses, neighborhoods, and beloved local trees are standing.

This crisis came just after Labor Day weekend, traditionally celebrated as the last summer holiday in the U.S: time for beach parties, camping, barbeques, shopping specials on everything from cars to school supplies. This year, in oft-repeated conversations, many folks proclaimed, “We have been essentially housebound and bubbled-up since March and the start of the pandemic, I just gotta get out of here!” People went camping, to the beach, to outdoor weddings and reunions, eager to do something outdoors before summer’s end!

Campgrounds in the western United States were full that weekend. Unfortunately, a severe windstorm, dry conditions, and campfires created record-breaking, unstoppable infernos—particularly in the state of Oregon. People had gone to be outdoors where risk of COVID is less.  The calculated risk for going camping seemed reasonable. But then conditions changed, and things quickly became dangerous.

How do we calculate risk in ever-changing conditions? Assessing risk is an ongoing challenge because unpredictability and swiftly changing situations is the New Now. The list of additional risks 2020 has added to our ordinary routines is overwhelming. There’s the pandemic, a plummeting economy, the Black Lives Matter protests, constant political instability in the US and many other countries, the death and infection rates rising and falling like the Air Quality Index, the tragic fires in the western US, Canada, Arctic Siberia, Brazil — trailers of smoke that circle the globe. Now a fierce hurricane season is upon us and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died.

All decisions involve risk. And under usual circumstances most people learn to distinguish between risk and danger fairly well in our day-to-day lives. Do I pass that car now or wait? Should I take a shortcut I’ve not tried before? Can I take care of my safety if I join a demonstration? Shall I dialogue with a neighbor across political, religious, or racial divides?

Risk functions within general operational rules so that we and others can participate in mutual safety, like driving on the same side of the road. Danger puts us out on the edge where we are impulsive or isolated and others do not have a very good chance of participating in mutual safety, like running a stop sign. Calculated risk is one that we have thought through, that contributes to our overall goals and takes into consideration the consequences to others.

This year our daily lives contain so many new risks to calculate that we are suffering from risk fatigue. Unrelenting levels of challenge are exhausting. So, how do we cope? How do we develop capacity to live in the New Now?

  1. First and foremost, tend to well-being. Exhaustion erodes our ability to calculate what we’re capable of: we can’t push through the days as we may have been accustomed to. We need to do less with more attention. Take rests. Stop and appreciate nature—autumn leaves, flowers in a pot, the return of breathable air. Every day we are asking ourselves: what is sustainably possible today? We make lists to help us remember details because we know we are functioning on varying levels of overwhelm.
  2. Admit what’s possible/not possible and keep reassessing these assumptions.  There are things we cannot do right now — cook with friends, travel and visit family, sing in a choir – but we will be alive and healthy when those things return. Seven months ago, the world changed when the pandemic arrived. We may be weary of precaution and protocol. We may want to relax, but these are not relaxing times. The New Now is a teachable moment for everyone.
  3. Communicate don’t isolate. Wearing masks, we need to use words to replace our covered smiles. Speak up. Speak out. Thank everyone who helps: the store clerks, delivery folks, people on the phone when you get through all the robotic instructions. Slowed service is still service. Ordinary people are still getting up and going to work to make our lives doable. Ramp up kindness, consideration, looking out for one another. And if you see someone being mean, intervene if you safely can.
  4. Stay current and self-educate with discernment! Use common sense and trust experts. There is excellent information out there and there is a lot of wacky, even dangerous misinformation. Don’t follow rumors, and don’t hit send on emails, posts, tweets, without really thinking it through. Fact check sources and absorb what news you can, and not too much.

The smoke was an event. The fires are a disaster. What we’re living through is a transformation. It’s not going to “get over with” and return us to the old status quo. Like a burned forest, life will return— but it will not be the same forest. We are in it now, the big turn, the long work, the unraveling and reweaving. Whenever you can, take a deep breath.