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Finding Order Amid Chaos

We are living in strange times.

I can say it’s crazy out there. I may say I’ve never seen this before. What I cannot say is what we are experiencing has never happened before.

A book I enjoyed from 2021 is titled Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order - Why Nations Succeed and Fail.

The author, Ray Dalio, is a legendary investor and founder of the world’s largest hedge fund. He spent half a century studying global economies and markets. His financial success is dependent on his ability to predict future events and foresee the financial consequences. It’s a form of high stakes gambling; only with other people’s money.

Dalio found that no system of government, no economic system, no currency, and no empire lasts forever. Yet almost everyone is surprised and ruined when they fail. The great empires typically lasted 250 years - give or take 150 years – with big economic debt and political cycles within them lasting about 50 to 100 years.

He observed that while technology changes, human nature does not. He’s not the first to this discernment. John Avlon’s book, Washington’s Farewell, describes partisan political behavior of the founding fathers that rival what we see today. Harry Truman noted there is nothing new in the world. Only the history you don’t know. So, Dalio studied history.

He especially focuses his study on the rises and declines of the last three reserve currency empires (the Dutch, the British, and the American). But he also examines the six other significant empires over the last 500 years (Germany, France, Russia, India, Japan, and China), as well as all the major Chinese dynasties, back to the Tang Dynasty in around the year 600.

Dalio then points out a confluence of current political and economic conditions he has not personally encountered before. These include huge debts and zero or near-zero interest rates that have led to massive printing of money in the world’s three major reserve currencies. This comes at a time of the largest wealth, political and values disparities in over 100 years.

I can do the math. 2022 minus 1776 = 246. It doesn’t mean our country will no longer exist. But the government and economics system may change to one I scarcely recognize. Usually in a painful and chaotic transition.

Chaos is frightening. People will sacrifice freedom to avoid it. We seek order and predictability which offer an illusion of control. When someone dies unexpectedly, we seek bad choices, habits, or genetics to explain it. To separate ourselves from that event. Because chaos is frightening.

There is a branch of mathematics which deals with chaos theory. It is the study of apparently random or unpredictable behavior in systems governed by deterministic laws. The intention is an ability to recognize patterns in apparently chaotic systems. There exist limitations.

In every complex system, from solar-system dynamics to earth’s climate – to cardiological processes- just under the façade of order, which science has discovered and long thought it fully understood, lurks an eerie and disturbing chaos.

On the other hand, life can sometimes seem hopelessly complex, unpredictable, and chaotic. Then a strange order makes itself known. A reassuring perspective. Chaos theory looks for that hidden order that may be found even in the most seemingly disordered and formless systems – such as wildly tossing storm waves and the furies of tornado winds.

Even a simple system, like a card game, has fundamentally chaotic – complex and unpredictable - results. Card counters hope to impose a profitable order on the random flow of card. Scientists, including physicians, are like sophisticated card counters. Looking to balance the odds in our patient’s favor and restore order. But there are limits.

Most people tend to believe that the scientific theories of their time are the right ones, and what remains for scientists to do is find ways to develop wondrous new technologies from their absolute understanding of nature’s laws, structures, and mechanisms. “Follow the science” is their appeal.

Even many scientists succumb to the illusion that they live in the age of ultimate enlightenment. They become so committed to a theory that they spend entire careers ever more desperately defending it as new discoveries ever more undermine it.

Sir Isaac Newton was a giant among scientists. For centuries, Newtonian physics gave science the tools it needed to build the modern world. Newton’s theories and methods still work, but we now know that many of them are incomplete or even wrong. Einstein destroyed Newton’s illusion of absolute space and time. Quantum theory put an end to the notion of a controllable measurement process.

How can Newton’s theories work if they are wrong? It has to do with reductionist observation and the power of approximation in the reliability of the short-term effect. Close enough when you’re up close. But still wrong. Chaos lurks in the shadows.

Galileo was a great scientist. One of his theories, related to the oscillation of a pendulum – that its period remains independent of its amplitude - is still taught in most high-school physics classes more than 300 years later. But it’s wrong.

Everyone doing physics for the last 40 years knows it’s wrong. But it’s taught anyway Galileo used linear equations. But turbulence is present in the system, so it requires a nonlinear approach. Chaos.

Aristotle’s theory that the universe was not created in a singular event, that it had eternally existed, was the unanimous scientific view for twenty-three hundred years. Then, in the early 1950s, we discovered the universe is expanding, driven ever outward by the force of the big bang that created it. What was known to be true for twenty-three hundred years was wrong.

Even in the latter part of the 19th century, it was believed that living organisms could spontaneously generate from inert matter- insects from rotting vegetables or dung. Seems ludicrous. And much of what we believe we know now will appear equally ludicrous in a hundred years.

When a scientist tells you that ‘the science is settled’ regarding any subject, he’s ceased to be a scientist, and he’s become an evangelist for one cult or another. We should stop calling it science and start calling it religion. A religion without grace. The entire history of science is that nothing in science is ever settled. New discoveries are continuously made, and they upend old certainties. This is an inherent limitation of science. There are others.

Sometimes concepts we intuitively know to be true can be described but resist quantification. The Zeigarnik Effect states people tend to remember unfinished or incomplete tasks better than completed tasks. Examples would be shutting off your car while the radio is playing a popular tune. Does not the tune continue playing in your mind, sometimes persisting for hours? Or you forget a person’s name in the moment to awaken at 3 AM with total recall. But it is difficult to scientifically affirm this is true. Assumptions do not qualify as science.

Science can only clarify what it can measure. It offers no guidance for living. It cannot measure right and wrong. It cannot measure contentment or love. Yet each one of us understands how crucial these qualities are to our lives.

G.K. Chesterton warns, “Science must not impose any philosophy; any more than the telephone must tell us what to say.” Science can speak to what corresponds to physical reality and what is possible, not to what should be.

That is important. Ethics come from another place and must be clear in our mind. Because we will be asked to subject our clinical skills to the authority and preferences of others, in a manner at odds with that moral framework we know to be true.

What is the point? Well, first, some humility is in order. The sum of human knowledge amounts to a few grains of sand, while what waiting to be discovered is an infinite-and very strange- beach. And in the meantime, we will need to accept an element of chaos. Because we’re not in control.

Secondly, acceptance of chaos and what we can’t control sharpens our focus on what matters most. What we know to be true. That search for unchanging truth becomes even more precious. Because from this emerges a philosophy for living that transcends time or conditions. Transcends chaos. Clarifies a vision. Illuminates a path.

A third antidote to chaos is perspective. In the fantasy world of the casino, death is the truth most aggressively repressed. No clock will be found in any casino, as if games of chance are played outside of time. Gamblers now and then petition God for help. But they never talk to Death. They should.

Solomon (Ecclesiastes 7:2) advises it is better to go to a funeral than a party. “Because death is the end of all mankind and the living should learn from it”. Brutal. But true. And at Evergreen, we talk to death. Nearly every day.

This is my conclusion.

When we humble ourselves to seek truth, to understand what matters most, with perspective of our limits of control, we will understand our purpose. And within shared purpose is the power for transformation.

Undergirding the list of goals and objectives we set for 2022 is a desire of transformation. First, of our group and then our community. But what is it that should be transformed? And what is within our power to transform?

I want to introduce a concept which is contained in one word. The word is “Ekklesia”. I fear I will be misunderstood here. Please be kind.

Ekklesia is a term which originated in Greece in about 500 B.C. It was perfected by the Roman empire, who adopted the term into Latin. When Rome would conquer a territory, they would send out upstanding roman citizens to move in and work with the locals, orientating and acculturating them in the language and lifestyle of Rome. Until everyone walked and talked like a roman. Influencers and mentors.

The point is that this is a secular term, intended to function in the marketplace, to impact the community. To be a transformative agent, not just of what people did, but what they wanted to do. A unifier.

So, it is striking that when Jesus said “I will build my church” – or any of the other 115 times the word “church” is used in the New Testament, the root word used is Ekklesia. Jesus never invited anybody to church. He invited them to a way to live. He gave a total of one sermon in the synagogue. His ministry was with the public. He adopted a secular term to describe His vision of how the church could transform the community.

I am not suggesting Evergreen is a church or should become one. And I am not criticizing organized religion. I am pointing out the power of cohesive small groups of people, who genuinely care for one another, who are joined in purpose, who live out their ideals, and work together in the marketplace. Here is the power to transform our community. It is also the power to find personal meaning and value in our work.

In truth, this Ekklesia is already among us. It is manifest in the sharing of life that happens through Evergreen Wellness and Life committee chaired by Dr. Brandon Bonds. Through the staff group organized by Dr. David Yecha to pray for our patients. When Amy Martin intervenes to provide Christmas for children who lost their parents to Covid. When meals are organized for Lisa, recovering from severe Covid. Or Dr. Emmanuel Okenye provides financial support for the school he started in his home country of Nigeria, allowing other children the opportunity he has enjoyed. When Cindy Kusler, FNP goes on another mission trip.

It is our Urgent Care staff putting their own health on the line for endless hours to serve the needs of our community. It is affirmed each time we speak of our values in our provider meeting. It is present in each act of kindness, each gentle smile, every word of encouragement freely given. It is what will mean the most to you when you look back at your time at Evergreen.

This is an appeal to discover what we already have at Evergreen and join in. It’s unique. And you’re a part of it. We have an extraordinary group of providers and staff. You need to get to know each other better.

Because as we work, a lot of life will happen. Chaos will visit. Visit us and our patients. Lives forever changed in a moment by a phone call or a diagnosis. Stuff we can’t repair. It is how we respond to those human needs that will distinguish us.

As I reflect on my career in Family Medicine, I consider myself one of the most fortunate of all humankind. I love what we do. Our services will always be essential. I would do it for free if that were possible. But it is working and sharing those moments with all of you that brings the deepest pleasure.

What follows is the work. It’s exhaustive just to read. We’ll get it done. It’s who we are. But while we’re doing the work, there will be opportunities to bring comfort to an unpleasant moment. A time to laugh and a time to cry with a friend. Situations where the transformative agent is you. Don’t let it pass you by.

Time to get to work. Lots of chaos out there.

Tim Powell, MD

January 2022

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