Toilet Paper: Proof That it’s Never Too Late to Have a Happy Childhood

It’s an interesting time. Perhaps the most interesting time in my entire life, and I’ve had a fairly long life, so far.

By far the scariest time I’ve ever had was when a train full of propane tanks blew up 25 miles from my house (yes, so long ago that we still measured distances in miles, young Padawan). Although it was night, the entire sky lit up, and a bright orange fireball rose high into the air. November 10, 1979. Only 17 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis: I was alive for that, too (barely). It was the time of the Cold War with Russia. People were building bunkers and practising nuclear attack drills. Guess what I was thinking?

Although I went into shock at the sight of the fireball I realized immediately that it was not a nuclear explosion – it wasn’t bright enough. And I found out within a few hours what had really happened. So, no big deal.

This is a potentially scarier time. It’s less well defined. What is a coronavirus, anyway? (Hint: you’ve probably had dozens of coronaviruses in your lifetime, and survived quite nicely.) But what is different about this coronavirus? Why all the concern? Well, it’s a new virus. No one has antibodies to it. It’s nasty. It attacks the lungs.

Sidenote: I was a researcher in physiology at U of T before I became a therapist. We studied the renin-angiotensin system. This virus gains entry to the body through the angiotensin converting enzyme receptor. I just about fell of my chair when I read that. Stuff we were working on thirty-five years ago is now helping researchers to study and combat this new virus. How cool is that?

What I alluded to, two paragraphs up, is that if you catch COVID-19, and you’re young and healthy, you’ll probably be sick for a few days and then you’ll be fine. No big deal.

If you are young and healthy, it’s no big deal. But we aren’t all young and healthy. I am healthy. I identify as young. That’s not the same thing, though…

The concern is that, because COVID-19 attacks the lungs, a lot of people are going to have trouble breathing, until their body builds up antibodies to fight this new virus. And while that is happening, some of these people will need ventilators to keep them alive.

There aren’t enough ventilators to go around, if we all get sick at the same time. That’s why Public Health is asking you to wash your hands, cover your cough, and practice social distancing. They are trying to slow down the rate at which people are getting sick, so that, at any given time, there are enough ventilators available to save the lives of the sickest ones.

So why are you buying toilet paper?

That’s one of the things that makes this an interesting time. It’s quieter. Fewer people are at work. Pollution is going away: the air and water are cleaning themselves up. And toilet paper is missing from the store.

I don’t know how that started but I know how this rolls (pardon the pun). You see, there was a gasoline shortage in the 1970’s.

It went like this:

1. Someone got into their head the idea that there was going to be a gasoline shortage
2. News started spreading that there was going to be a gasoline shortage
3. People started driving to the pumps, all at the same time, to fill up their gas tanks
4. Because of the sudden demand, there was a shortage of gas

So it goes with toilet paper. Someone got into their head – probably by thinking that the coronavirus was going to cause diarrhea, even though it doesn’t – that there was going to be a shortage of toilet paper. Word got around, and everyone went out to stock up on toilet paper. And because everyone went out to buy toilet paper all at once, there is a temporary shortage of toilet paper.

Silly people.

But here is a really interesting thing. The present shortage of toilet paper – an event, happening right now – may be viewed as validating or changing an event in the past: people started worrying about the possibility of a toilet paper shortage, and started buying it up. The present – the shortage – caused the past – the buying of toilet paper that led to the shortage. It is a time reversal. Is that cool, or what?

But I can’t claim originality for this idea. It was first posited during the gasoline shortage in the 1970’s. Paul Watzlawick pointed out that, at that time, the present shortage of gasoline had caused the newspapers to predict a gasoline shortage, several weeks earlier. The present affects the past.

For this reason, he said, it’s never too late to change your past. You can still have a happy childhood. Just behave in a way now that would cause you, your parents, and your friends in fourth grade to predict that you will turn out okay, and presto! You have changed your past by changing your present.

No, I’m not sick. I think this way all the time. Ask my wife.

Might I ask you to change the present, though, for the sake of the larger community? Relax. This too shall pass, and it’s not going to pass through your bum, so you have enough toilet paper. And probably enough of everything else, to get through the next few weeks. Stay home if you can. Follow the advice of your doctor, and Public Health. Read, play video games, call a friend, write a thesis. It’s a great time to be creative. Introverts hardly notice a change. It’s going to be okay.

I am still seeing clients but in the interest of Public Health guidelines I am offering video and telephone appointments only. You want to talk and you can’t find anyone else to talk to? Call me.

Stay well.

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