Harness the Current

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Part One of this short series on resilience revolved around the idea that as co-inhabitants of Earth, we and all creatures are connected in a system of cascading, complex asymmetrical interdependence that is both compelling and daunting: my long-term resilience depends on yours. Acknowledging that interconnectedness places us on the road to greater safety and well-being as individuals, as organizations, and as larger communities and cultures.

Whether we want to think about it or not, what happens on one part of the globe impacts all of us. Nations now believe they should have a say in decisions being made on the other side of the world, not just on territorial disputes, but on the way we fish the oceans, mine the land and dump our waste. It’s time to better understand what indigenous communities everywhere have always known, that the planet’s inhabitants co-exist in a connected web that must remain intact for human habitation to continue. We all belong to the natural systems that comprise the web, rather than the systems belonging to us.

Interdependence and belonging are easy topics of conversation but require a real shift in our mental frameworks. Western cultural bias has us see ourselves as individuals with the right to chart our own courses as we see fit. Our educational and economic systems reward individual performance and individual responsibility. Our organizations typically reinforce competition,  rewarding individuals with bonuses and promotions. We find it easy to exclude others.

We have fallen under the spell of separateness, as if that’s real, hoping to be safe from each other, when in fact, we are only really safe together. We all belong, and acknowledging that can be a tough pill to swallow.

We tend to believe that we’re not particularly good at getting along, that humans are basically too quarrelsome and contrary a species. And yet, we are “wired” for belonging in surprising ways.

Newish Perspectives on Human Nature

Research pouring out of universities around the world shows that humans are just as prone to goodness as we are to defensiveness and aggression. In other words, we’re not as bad as we thought. Our species depends on cooperation, which requires a certain level of empathy and compassion for others.

According to Dr. Dacher Keltner, director of the Greater Good Science Center, UC-Berkeley, goodness, compassion, and the ability to play well with others form a “core feature of primate evolution.” And, yes, we are primates.

Using MRI technology, Keltner and others have shown that compassion has a biologically correlated process that involves the brain and the vagus nervous system. That most likely enabled early humans to form communities and develop cooperative skills as hunter/gatherers, ensuring our survival and evolution. [Dacher Keltner Jeremy Adam Smith, and Jason Marsh in The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness]

Other researchers you may have heard of, including Dr. Barbara Frederickson, Dr. Mattheu Ricard, Dr. Phillipe Goldin, Dr. Richard Davidson, and Dr. Charles Raison, have shown that we can cultivate compassion in ways that build healthier bodies and relationships, cognitive alertness, courage and fearlessness, and a willingness to help others. We can get better at belonging.

Agile Learners

Not only do we show great capacity for cooperation, but our brains turn out to be more malleable than originally thought. We can change our thinking patterns and habits of mind throughout our lives.

In an article in 2007 [“How the Brain Is Wired,” Time Magazine, 01.19.07], science writer Sharon Begley brought these complex scientific findings down to earth for us, in a way that is still relevant: “Something as seemingly insubstantial as a thought can affect the very stuff of the brain, altering neuronal connections in many directions.”  

She reported that the brain’s structure reflects the lives we have led, but we can change that. We can sculpt the brain with our thoughts, making us capable of continued learning and reframing.

My father used to tell me, when we disagreed about the state of the world and our views of it, that he was too old to shift what he had always believed. But he wasn’t. Before he died, he had let go of so many assumptions and beliefs that had informed his behavior. He was a different person to be with, and much of this occurred in his eighties.

People are built for interconnection, cooperation and nesting together.  We can deal with our interdependence. Promoting our divisions and polarization only risks my future and yours. We belong, but we have to choose it again and again.

In that choosing rests our resilience.

“But while the ability to live amicably with annoying housemates or reckless, Covid-denying neighbors may seem more elusive than ever, it isn’t lost. If we start to think of kindness as a skill that we hone and nourish — weaving it into a daily, focused practice — it will come easier to us over time.“  
– Rachel Ament

Stay tuned for Part 3 coming soon.

Sallie Lee is a consultant with Continuum. She has served as a thinking partner, facilitator, coach, and strategist for a global client base.