Spread the love

Life, Death & Creativity In The Time Of COVID-19-Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Life, Death & Creativity In The Time Of COVID-19-Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD


The following blog post is a conversation between myself and my partner, Dr. Bruce Sawhill, Stanford educated theoretical physicist and mathematician. Because this post is intense at times, we added a bit of Gilbert & Sullivan for levity. There’s a new video of last week’s blog post here. 

Life, Death & The Nature Of Creativity In The Time Of COVID-19

Here in Northern California, COVID-19 has changed life dramatically, more so than in the rest of the USA.

At the time we began writing this, we and 7 million others in the Bay Area, along with our closest friends, were told to “shelter in place.” Now, two days later, it’s all of California- 40 million people.

We wait with bated breath to see how big a difference it will make.

In the rest of the country, as of this writing, there’s spotty dedication to the commitment to minimize contact and potential exposure. Six states have now joined California in instituting sweeping statewide programs to mitigate risk.

For us, it hasn’t changed life that much, because as entrepreneurs we work mostly from home on our computer and in our studio.

Except now we have a lot of company.

The Long Sunday

I was born and raised in Arkansas where Sundays are considered sacred.

Long, languorous days of Sunday school and church service were followed by my family’s noontime meal of succulent roasts, black-eyed peas, green beans and cornbread.

Sated with food, an entire afternoon stretched out before me. We lived on 4 acres in Sylvan Hills with a barn and a pond and 17,000 acres of National Guard land across the road.

My horse Misty, a twelve year old half Arabian, half Welch pony and my sister’s horse Squire, a five year old Tennessee Walker, awaited as we prepared them for an afternoon’s ride down to the Blue Hole, a shimmering creek draped with hickories and weeping willow trees creating a canopy over the aqua colored pellucid waters. River stones peppered the floor of the creek and guided us into its depths.

Misty was an older horse, a retired championship jumper, and though I had an English saddle, I rode her bareback, using only a bridle with a snaffle bit. I didn’t need to ask her for much. Surefooted, she was old and wise and followed my sister’s lead on Squire.

Squire was young and hot and not as brainy as Misty. He had a big, dreamy collected gait. Riding him was like being on a cloud. He needed to be ridden with a Western saddle and he came to us trained with a Hackamore bridle so that’s what my sister used to guide him as he was the lead horse.

When we reached the creek, we’d take off Squire’s saddle so as not to ruin its leather and we’d commence our promenade into the Blue Hole.

Clear shallow waters would unfold into murkier depths until you could feel the bottom fall away as your horse transitioned from walking on solid footing to ascending into the waters, hooves stroking the waters beneath you, head stretching forward, nostrils flaring in a rhythmic dance.

Unbeknownst to our twelve and thirteen year old selves, not all horses swim. It was an invisible truth but the innocent immortality of our youth had no inkling of the hazards.

Back on terra firma, I remember the rhythmic clopping sounds of Misty and Squire’s hooves as we walked, trotted or cantered along the paths, reflecting on the preacher’s sermon earlier that day and wondering about his exhortation to access life’s deeper meanings.

It was around this time, this age, that I announced to my mother and her best friend Linda that I was going to be a psychiatrist when I grew up.

I’m not sure exactly how I concluded this with conviction at the time, only that deep in my bones I knew it was true.

I became an existential psychiatrist and the rest is history, but life took many circuitous paths before I remembered my 13 year old self’s proclamation.

A Decade Later, A Half A World Away

Meanwhile, a decade later and half a world away, Bruce, aged 28, lived in Germany for two years. At that time, a German Sunday was a new experience for him. He had arrived from Stanford, where life was “everything all the time.”

In the Bay Area of California, if you wanted a particular item at 2 am, it was available.

In Germany, Sunday was profoundly different that the rest of the week. It involved church services for some, long walks in parks and woods and mountains for many, televised sports, and Biergartens with friends, a foaming 1/2 liter or three of fresh pure cold beer after a long walk.

The unalloyed joy of the first carbonated stinging deep quaff of liquid bread, sluicing down one’s parched throat like water in the desert, a tight grip on the thick sweating up-tilted glass.

Consumerism was conspicuously absent. Immersion into Nature came to the fore.

Most stores were closed, only establishments deemed “essential” were open -restaurants, bars, gas stations, hospitals, and the train station with a limited and overpriced selection of goods including chocolate.

Since the time I lived in Germany, store opening laws have been liberalized, but Sunday is still Sunday even though it is now technically legal to make it as commercial as any other day. An illustration of the power of constraint and restraint.

Never On A Sunday

Ladenschlussgessetz. This is the store closing law enforced since 1956 with more recent modifications.

Being under lockdown during a pandemic has elements of a long Sunday in Germany or in small towns across America

The transactional and utilitarian side of society recedes and makes way for something deeper, more contemplative, more essential to the spirit.

Shopping as a sport is cancelled. Only essential services are open- medical offices, hospitals, grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, and restaurants (for take-out only).

There is an additional wrinkle, namely that the conviviality of bars and Biergartens is absent.

In this time of pandemic one is required to remain 6 feet from others.

What might have once beckoned shouted exchanges above the din of the crowded room now morphs into a silencing.

Rows of solitary beings, six feet apart, bent heads as if in prayer, stare into the cell phone’s facade as if mesmerized by the fire in Prehistoric times. The white hot light reflecting their unblinking eyes and furrowed brows. A worshipful adoration of the device. Their hands lovingly cradling the electronic icon.

But the similarities with the long Sunday aren’t limited to minimal shopping.

The effect of a long Sunday focuses attention on the most fundamental aspect of our humanity: relationships.

As material distractions decline, we find ourselves reaching out and being in conversations with family and friends with a frequency and a depth rarely before experienced.

We’re invited to look inward, to live in a kind of walking meditation.

Indeed, as the frenzied activities of daily life fall away in this time of lockdown, you may find yourself accessing parts of yourself that have lain fallow.

Perhaps you go for daily walks, read a novel that’s been calling you for years but that you’ve never quite had time for, or you go into your studio and paint with a renewed passion and intensity as you express your inarticulable feelings about this existential threat.

Or perhaps you meditate and as you sit in silence you’re carried into revisiting your past.

When there’s a groundbreaking event, whether on a personal level such as a birth, a death, or an illness or on a larger scale such as a war, an uprising or a pandemic…there’s a tendency to divide life into before and after chapters.

Life is never quite the same again.

How it will change going forward is unclear.

It could be better, it could be worse, but it won’t be the same.

It can’t be the same because life is continually evolving, continually unfolding.

The history of people and things no longer present, made more poignant by the haunting threat of  COVID-19, the novel RNA virus highlighting the transience of life, is near at hand.

The realization that, though the death rate due to COVID-19 is a low percentage, the probability of someone you know succumbing to it is high.

The death rate is much higher than the regular flu. The regular flu is around 0.1% mortality while COVID-19 ranges between 1-10%. This is 10-100 times higher mortality.

Coronaviruses have been around a long while.
But this is not a run of the mill coronavirus. This is something new. It is a novel coronavirus.
This is an RNA virus. RNA viruses are tiny and mutate far, far faster than human DNA. Some think there may be a million times greater mutations.

The Fallacy of Comparing The Known & The Unknown

There are people who erroneously claim that the number of deaths from COVID-19 is low compared to the number of daily deaths due to the flu and pneumonia.
Here’s what’s wrong with this assertion:
We are comparing something that is relatively stable year after year (people get the flu) with a rapidly evolving new disease.
We’ve reached some sort of uneasy truce, whereas, COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus. It is emergent. It’s unknown and it has not reached an equilibrium with the population.
There are dynamics involved and we’re at an early stage of COVID-19.
Let’s look at the numbers. In Italy the mortality rate is staggering. Indeed, recently, mortality rates exploded even further exponentially. It is currently between 5-10% in Italy (50-100 per thousand). Contrast this with the regular flu which is 0.1 % (1 in 1000) mortality rate.

It’s all relative. It’s not an absolute number.


And there’s a time component. The situation is continually changing.

COVID-19 is experiencing exponential growth.

Here’s an analogy using an jet and a spacecraft.

In the first image, we see a photo of a spacecraft launch taken from a jet.
Rocket Launch- Life, Death & The Nature Of Creativity In The Time Of COVID-19 
The spacecraft has just launched. It is far below the jet, moving slowly.
Someone might infer from this limited viewpoint that jets fly faster and higher than spacecraft. The jet is after all, cruising at around 30,ooo feet, far above the spacecraft at this point. 

A moment later, the situation has changed radically.

The spacecraft has left the jet in the dust.

Rocket Launch- Creativity & The Long Sunday- Nancy Hillis, MD and Bruce Sawhill, PhD

Rocket Launch- Life, Death & The Nature Of Creativity In The Time Of COVID-19


The spacecraft soars into the heavens, headed towards orbit on an arcing trajectory, leaving the plodding aircraft far behind.

The jet is the flu and the rocket is COVID-19.

The spacecraft follows a steep arcing trajectory reminiscent of the growth of COVID-19 whereas the jet flies a steady altitude and speed, evoking the predictable yearly scourge of the flu.

On the surface it may seem like there’s more illness from the flu; however, COVID-19 is exhibiting  exponential growth. Things can change radically in a short time like the situation with the jet and the rocket.

Indeed, things are not always what they seem. I love this line from the comic opera HMS Pinafore: 

Things are seldom what they seem,

Skim milk masquerades as cream


The Existential Question

Back to our story.

If you are on a particularly long walk, you might begin to ponder upon the existential question of why there is death at all.

Living things repair themselves in myriad ways, why can’t they continue this life forever?

In truth, we don’t understand why there is death. Nor for that matter, what constitutes life.

Although it’s a good bet that if you understand one of these two fundamental conditions of life, you’ll stand a good chance at understanding the other.

A childhood friend of Bruce’s, aged nineteen at the time, opined on a frosty morning in the middle of a two-week backpacking trip as thin instant oatmeal was being prepared for breakfast over a hissing camp stove for the umpteenth time,

If we had any ham, we could have ham and eggs, if we had any eggs.


But this subject leaves us with dissatisfying intellectual gruel.

Whatever death is, it is ubiquitous.

In aviation it is pronounced,

We have a perfect record. We’ve never left one up there.


Death is like that.

The difficulty of coming to terms with the seeming inevitability of mortality is underscored by a quote from the writer William Saroyan:

Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.



Life, Death & Creativity

I believe that there is no creativity without death.

Death infuses life with urgency. In fact life might be a kind of Hell if there were no death,

First of all, there would be no new children, because if nobody died, the world would get extremely crowded.

Without new children, there would be much less learning and discovery, because learning is rooted in childhood, of emerging from innocence to knowledge through experience, of using the differential between adults and children to drive the process of learning.

Creativity is deeply intertwined with learning, new concepts have to be integrated with old ones and people have different ways of doing this.

Without the hope of new generations, social structures would ossify. Without the hope of future transformation and the prospect of improving one’s lot, people might feel there was nothing to lose.

Humans would only live forever if they didn’t kill one another in a frustrated rage. If they couldn’t kill each other, maybe they’d slink off to isolate themselves in an immortal funk.

Life Without Friction: A Special Kind Of Hell

Death is like friction.

Friction seems like an annoyance that has to be perpetually overcome, a slap in the face by the laws of physics.

But what would a world without friction look like?

No knot would remain tied, nothing would remain where it was put, no cloth would remain woven, brakes wouldn’t work, vehicles couldn’t turn without skidding, everything in the world would be continuously crashing into and bouncing off of each other.

The world would be a chaotic place full of perpetual random motion, a nightmarish physical realization of the Hindu belief later elaborated by Nietzsche of eternal return, the idea that all existence and energy has been recurring and will continue to do so forever.

Friction argues for finiteness and repose in its viscous, hot and labored molecular language, dragging its metaphorical feet.

Without friction, there is no loss of energy, everything keeps moving, eternal churn and complete predetermination.

Without death, there is no threat of loss of connection, the same people keep doing the same things forever because there is no compelling reason to do otherwise, like an eternally repeating Groundhog Day.

I imagine a pervading ennui without anyone even having developed the creative resources to offer a compelling distraction.

As in many previous blog posts, this brings us to the role of Time. Living forever de-emphasizes time. There is no reason to do something today when it can be done any number of other days.

But if days are numbered, every decision generates a trade-off. A constraint.

Creativity thrives in the land of decision and constraint.

Working through constraints requires evaluation, critical thought, and assessment of values. In a previous blog post, we’ve talked about the power of constraint in creativity.

Unlimited options kills creativity because there is no essential choice. Having no essential choice is like having unlimited time, and unlimited time saps motivation.

No death is paradoxically the death of creativity.

Death is the constraint that enriches life, just as constraint enriches artistic creativity. Without new generations and even new species, systems cannot adapt and learn.

Living forever numbs the drive to explore the adjacent possible, the set of possible futures, the substructure of creativity.

Exploring the adjacent possible, stepping into the unknown, can be uncomfortable and scary, why do it if you never need to go there?


With gratitude from my studio to yours,


Please leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts. I read every single one and I appreciate your insights, reflections and revelations.

P.S. Feeling cooped up, hot with cabin fever and in need of encouragement and inspiration? My new book The Artist’s Journey Creativity Reflection Journal is a playfully illustrated participatory creativity journal celebrating your exquisite uniqueness.

This self-help journal sparks your imagination with prompts, poetic musings and stories inviting you to reflect on and activate the inner sources of your creativity.


Nancy Hillis-The Artist's Journey Creativity Reflection Journall

Nancy Hillis-The Artist’s Journey Creativity Reflection Journal

A sample thought experiment from The Artist’s Journey Creativity Reflection Journal. Thought provoking questions and reflections for you to complete.


The Artists Journey Creativity Reflection Journal-Blog post-Paradoxes of Creativity-Deathbed experiment-Nancy Hillis

The Artists Journey Creativity Reflection Journal-Paradoxes of Creativity-Deathbed experiment-Nancy Hillis


A sample from Creativity Prompt from the Creativity Immersion Program


The Artist's Journey Creativity Reflection Journal Creativity Immersion Program- Nancy Hillis MD

The Artist’s Journey Creativity Reflection Journal Creativity Immersion Program- Nancy Hillis MD


And when you purchase the book, you’ll have access to a complimentary Creativity Immersion Program where I guide you through 5 pillars of creativity. You also get access to 365 days of Creativity Prompts & Affirmations and a lovely private Facebook community: The Creative Journeyers.

GET THE BOOK and join us in the Creativity Immersion Program.


The Creative Journeyers

The Creative Journeyers


Spread the love