Forest and Trees: Our collective experience of COVID-19

This pandemic is racking our bodies, but it is also blowing our minds. A teenager in Soweto, the British Prime Minister, and my next-door-neighbor experience the same thing. Hospitals spread sickness. People die alone. Worship and grocery shopping are death defying acts. Institutions that protect us are putting us at risk. News anchors and political candidates work from their basements. Spring does not bring Seder, the baseball opener, or graduation.

How are we supposed to make sense of these extraordinary times?

“Do not lose hope — what you seek will be found. Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have helped to help you in their turn. Trust dreams. Trust your heart, and trust your story.”
― Neil Gaiman, Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders

The Forest or the Trees?

Currently, our collective story depends on city-by-city data and simplistic graphs drawn by computer models. Public service announcements, sensational newstainment, and social media feed us memes that we absorb and echo. It is a war, and it isn’t. It is seventeenth century plague, and it isn’t. It is a natural disaster, and it isn’t. It is an economic catastrophe, and it isn’t.

In contrast, each of our personal stories is unique. They are full of our own pain, pathos, loneliness, fear and foreboding. We cannot tell those stories, even to ourselves. Maybe we don’t have the words or the courage. Or, maybe, we don’t want to infect loved ones with our feelings any more than we want to infect them with Corona virus.

Forests of Trees

In human systems dynamics, we study complex adaptive systems (CAS) to help us understand and influence patterns in emergent, unpredictable, layered, and dynamic situations. In a CAS, individual parts interact to generate system-wide patterns. When the parts are cells, the emergent pattern is an organism. When the parts are people, a family might emerge. When the parts are institutions, an industry is the result. When the parts are virus-carrying humans, an epidemic emerges. When an epidemic creates global patterns, it is a pandemic.

From this perspective, the COVID story emerges as a global pattern from the interactions of all of us and our unique experiences.  

Seeing the Pattern and Telling the Story

Since before we could speak, stories of danger and wonder were danced around campfires. Storytellers created reality for us, and we came together in empathy to find strength and meaning in community. It is difficult to tell a comprehensive story of COVID-19, but the human race needs a narrative to help us move through this complex time. A collective narrative will allow us to make choices to influence the future. It will move us through this time and into whatever is next.

At this moment in history, when stories and patterns of the past are disrupted, we have unimaginable opportunity. We might find collective will to create a more just and productive world, or we might slide into the chaotic dystopia of Lord of the Flies. We need a narrative to help us choose the better path, and we need it quick!

This emerging narrative must accommodate the complex adaptive nature of an emerging pandemic. It will:

  • Capture the compelling perspectives of individuals and reflect the patterns of the whole.
  • Give the texture of our diverse contexts and interests and introduce a coherent and collective picture of what is shared around the globe.
  • Integrate intimate subjective truths and represent the objective reality of our global community.
  • Amplify the weak signals that hint of the future and recognize the strong and pervasive signals from the past and present.
  • Balance personal choice and freedom with institutional power and control.
  • Express the devastation that we experience today and expect tomorrow, while holding up the hope of future health and wellbeing.
  • Allow us to see patterns of our shared situation and dive into the depths of my personal experience.
  • Show how we are all the same and uncover the differences that make a difference.

Forest in the Trees; Trees in the Forest

At some point in the future, master historians and artists will tell stories that capture all these tensions and make sense of our layers of emerging meaning, but that isn’t going to happen by the end of the year. What can happen—what is happening now—is an opportunity to capture individual stories and visualize collective patterns around the globe. We are collaborating with researchers to develop and implement a tool to help us all create our shared  story. is an easy-to-use app that reveals the individual and collective stories at the same time. You share your story and interpret it yourself. Yours goes into a pool of stories from around the world. Over time, as the stories accumulate, patterns will emerge from the whole. Those patterns will be reflected in interesting visual displays. You and others will explore those patterns and make meaning of them in dialogue and shared inquiry. Researchers will extract collective stories about the patterns of our collective experience to inform policy and practice. We will be able to see both the forest and the trees of our collective, global, COVID-19 experience. has already collected hundreds of stories from people around the world  just like you. They have shared their COVID-19 experiences, and you can, too. Follow this link to add stories of your experience into the emerging, collective narrative.

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