Fractal Praxis and Covid-19, Pt. 1: Uncertainty, complexity and choice-making principles

This is part 1 of 3 in a series about how the Covid-19 pandemic illustrates the relevance of fractal praxis, an original theory-technique system developed by Caroline Savery based on whole systems thinking. (Jump to Part 2, Part 3)

The phenomenon of the global spread of the Covid-19 virus illustrates a reality that this society commonly seeks to obscure: uncertainty is everywhere. 

Uncertainty is reality when the virus might be anywhere and everywhere around you. When it can be absorbed into your body from just one casual action: one surface, one conversation, one unconscious rubbing of your eyes, one choice to socialize with friends, one outing. Any innocent or invisible moment may become the factor that brings the disease into your home and does severe damage to you or your loved ones. And we just don’t know, or won’t know, which event exactly. We can’t trace something inherently ambiguous like viral spread using convenient linear data science. We can only really reel from the effect of this uncertainty we must live with and navigate through. 

In the context of this ambient uncertainty, another principle of systems practice is illuminated: the best defense against coronavirus is: all of them. Any of them, and better yet, all of them.

I quit smoking three days ago and have decided to abstain from smoking for at least 30 days. And this is because I scored low two days ago on an oxygen saturation test. And it’s also because I would rather my lungs be a little bit healed, a little bit better off, than not. And I already feel the impacts of that choice. I exercised today, and I made sure to get a lot of sunlight. I consumed Vitamin C after a tickle in my throat and some phlegm in my lungs woke me up at three in the morning last night, and now I felt great. I feel well. Feeling well is a predictable result: I am making choices that will generally support good health, so, feeling generally good is a likely result.

However, feeling good does not mean I don’t have the virus. So I have to also practice social distancing, mask wearing, hand washing, etc. 

The Nothing Reaction : Nothing Does Not Help

Many Americans seem to believe that the adaptations called for in response to Covid-19—practicing general good health, limiting risk factors, etc.—are an “infringement on rights.” Why is it that so many of us view adaptation as oppression? Why are we so unwilling to the point of hostile when asked simply to change our habits? The request to change habits for social benefit is not often interpreted as a personal attack on expression in other parts of the world. 

This same subset of Americans seem to find it extremely compelling to do nothing in response to Covid-19: an expression of a nihilistic rot at the heart of the soul of our culture. This is ideologically tempting because it denies meaning, removes us from responsibility, removes us from interdependence. It is a testament to our deep disconnection from ourselves, one another, and our environments. But because “nothing” is so compelling to so many right now is only evidence of a wide and deep sickness: it does not make it true. 

“Nothing” is the opposite of what we need to be doing right now. For proof, see the “nothing” President Trump did and where that’s gotten us—160,000 dead, likely ~50 million infected—compared to a country like New Zealand that took swift comprehensive action and now has effectively eradicated Covid-19.

I believe this leap to “nothing” and the hostility towards any kind of adaptation points to an insidious social disease underpinning American society—the failure to understand that adapting oneself effectively to the world signals growth, not subjugation or conquest… evolution, not the annihilation of self. By the same measure, trying to force the world to adapt to your stagnant worldviews is not strength: it is ignorance. A people of this Earth who embody anti-adaptation as a principle are a people bound to fail eventually.

One possible source of the resistance to practicing adaptive norms may stem from understandable frustration that the virus and its vectors are invisible to the naked eye. Again, this only emphasizes a truth that is always present but that we culturally dismiss and deny: that uncertainty and complexity is all around us, and can destroy us at a moment’s notice.

In the midst of uncertainty, the best medicine is an all encompassing strategy. What general patterns will tend to reduce unwanted outcomes? 

We reel in this uncertainty as to our own health status, to say nothing of when and where the virus is at any given moment, to say nothing of the outcome that we will face if we get sick, to say nothing of the outcomes for others we may unknowingly infect, to say nothing of the matter of what would actually effectively defend against getting this invisible disease. We can’t trace the specific exposures or acts that caused a given person to contract Covid-19, and even further, we can’t trace what actions prevented even more exposure, even more suffering and death and illness. That’s the point: we cannot see into the cause in the moment it occurs. We can only read the aftermaths of effects. 

The Anything-Everything Response (Maximally Adaptive)

My own philosophy and method (fractal praxis) involves deep study of the embodied and documented memories of past events for the patterns that may be encoded there and could be learned from (toward the development of a more adaptive mental/operating model of the world). 

But in the present moment, before the privilege of that historic reflection, all you have at your disposal is presumptive and prescriptive guesswork—in other words, all you have is best practices. So let’s say you just make sure to wash your hands every time you come indoors from the outside world. That affords some protection from the ambient threat. But if you do that, and you wear a mask, that is more protection. If you do those things and sanitize the doorknob, that affords even more protection. 

And you have to decide how many patterns you are willing to disinclude from your ordinary life—like freely socializing with friends in closed quarters—and how many you’re willing to include that are “coronavirus adaptive,” like washing your hands often and for twenty seconds each time. Some choices, such as the hindering of social life and human contact, may be especially hard to cope with and manage. This is only human! But you, and the resilience and flexibility of your mind, are steering the choices you make. (In the next section [link] I address how our beliefs encode into the material, living world through our choices.)

Ultimately: does it matter which choice—hand washing, social distancing, limiting contact with large groups—caused you to not get Covid-19? Or can we accept that the goal state—not having Covid-19—is achieved generally through a medley of specific choices, working in combination?

With complex and messy problems, we should take a generalized, holistic approach. In designing for how to adapt your life to avoid contracting Covid-19, consider adopting a holistic principle which can elegantly organize your actions: imagine your motive, always and everywhere, your new M.O., is to value life and lives. With the principle “valuing my life and others’ lives” at the center of your decision-making, fundamentally, less harm can arise. Enacting that patten generally means fostering generally life-benefitting results. 
Everything you can do that honors your body, honors your wellness and wholeness, honors your immune system (like getting out in the sunlight) counts in the effort to resist Covid-19. Only you can’t know how, or how much, it counts… and you probably never will. Let this fact humble you in the limits of your perspective. And yet, let this empower you in recognizing the unlimited field of what you can do with what you know, and with how infinitely much you can learn.

–Continue on to Part 2 on enacting our belief structures, and Part 3 for fractal praxis applications.–