A Field Guide to Life – Principle #7 – Community

by Brad on December 18, 2012

This installment of A Field Guide to Life shows that cooperation in nature is far more powerful than competition, and how nature creates communities, living systems made up of living systems. It challenges you to transform your “I” story into a “we” story.


Principle #7 – Community

“A healthy social life is found only when in the mirror of each soul the whole community finds its reflection, and when in the whole community the virtue of each one is living.”  – Rudolph Steiner

Nature’s Principle: Creative expression drives the universe, each thing according to its own essence. From one perspective, essence is about being one’s uniqueness, and in so doing, about surviving and sustaining that uniqueness. It might appear as if this process would lead to heavy competition. While competition exists over needed resources, it’s an exception in the bigger picture. Long-term sustainability favors cooperation, which happens through the principle of self-organization, via the development of communities. A community is an adaptive, resilient system of order designed around a common thread. Communities thrive by developing an essence all their own, then living that creative essence following the same principles as the organisms comprising it. Once again, nature becomes ordered no matter at what level or scale we observe it.

Far from being static, mechanistic collections of processes and parts, communities are living systems. From subatomic particles, pieces build into larger wholes – elements, molecules and organisms, each a community, each part of a larger community. Life’s communities culminate in the unity of all, the connectedness of the universe, as the next and last principle will show. 

The Opening Offered: As in nature, cooperation and collaboration add value, sustainability and balance to our lives, too. Community building offers a far more effecting strategy for making a difference and for living authentically than the much espoused, pervasive one of competition, command and control. The latter leads to scarcity thinking, fear and greed, while the former leads to creative genius, possibility and abundance.

Everything we do is done in relationship; nothing stands alone. We might think of all our activities as “conversations,” even those we have with ourselves, each a community that supports us in some meaningful way. We consciously choose some of our communities – friends, spouses, jobs, religious institutions. Some we don’t think of as communities, yet join them anyway simply by using them – roadways, phones, stores, the internet, banks. The point is that little in our lives is handled truly alone, despite lessons that we need to be in total control and not ask for help. The more consciously chosen of our communities are built around common threads of our own essence. Holding a collective vision of what’s possible focuses energy, which allows both community and individual to move forward. By helping to reinforce who we are together, communities reinforce who we are as individuals at the same time. It’s about interdependence.

Prevailing Wisdom: We’re taught to do it all, alone, to gain control, under the guise of being personally responsible. It doesn’t work. None of us survives as an island. While we may resist or reject the support and synergy communities offer, we can’t live without them. Thoreau may stand as an icon of the individualist American spirit, living as he did in a cabin at Walden Pond in Concord. But it’s not all that long a walk into town, where he had dinner with his mother more often than not. Our fight with the notion of community, and the perceived threat it creates under the heading of vulnerability, has kept us from embracing the power relationships truly hold. Adaptable, self-determining systems encourage creative genius; command and control systems encourage only compliance.

The Opportunity/Promise: As in nature, a few simple principles could lead our lives in the direction of community, adaptive and resilient systems of creation, with neither agenda nor struggle. Life’s energy flows naturally; we gain synergy as we allow our own energy to merge with this flow. It’s how we can use ordinary means to create extraordinary results.

Community building takes the power of the ‘I’ story and transforms it into the ‘we’ story.  Original cultures knew this well. Perhaps because they had no written language, community was the carrier of culture, story was the teacher, and experiences of nature wove the tapestry from which the stories unfolded. Story guided individuals to know they were part of something bigger than self, and thereby to develop both a strong sense of self and a commitment to the well-being of the whole. This reverent and reciprocal relationship with the land was not only a way of life but also a system of faith, a contributor to their sustainability.

Nature’s Story: For at least six months each year, the Canadian Arctic is a study in white. A flat, generally featureless land covered with snow, under leaden white skies, wind chill adding to its austerity and hostility. Above the latitude of the tree line, it’s often difficult to know where land stops and sky begins. On some days, it’s downright impossible. Of the seven bird species living here year-round, only the raven is black. If snow arrives late one year, arctic fox and willow ptarmigan (a quail relative) are easy targets. This is the community of the arctic tundra, the ecosystem of the far north. It holds together around a common theme – cold and snow, a land of extremes. Everything is well-adapted to these extremes, however. Polar bears, for example, overheat 13 times as fast as humans at a walking pace, serving them well here but not at temperatures above freezing. To share time and space with those who call this home evokes a sense of wonder and awe at the miracle of nature’s communities. Yet every aspect of this community follows these same principles as does every aspect of other communities, vastly different manifestations, a single set of principles and the same processes at work. Consistency, yet not sameness, at every level.

My Story:  In the early 1990s, I returned to graduate school to pursue a master’s degree in environmental studies. I’d been lured by my life-long love of nature, a break in my software work, and my now-emerging sense of a bigger personal life, as some of these stories portray. It was a time of exploration and growth, and not just at school. I’d had it in my head to use my business background to lead nature tours, offering others both adventure and education in a world needing protection and care. As a part of my course of study, I created an internship, helping an old acquaintance who operated a nature and photographic tour company. He told me if I could deal with the logistical rigors of their arctic tours, I could probably do anything. So I went to Hudson Bay to learn the polar bear tour business. As an engineer, logistics wouldn’t scare me as they perhaps did him, and I was excited about the opportunity to see a part of the world about which I’d always dreamed. Days were short in November; wind chills of minus 40 degrees were common; sunlight was not. I loved it. Fascinated by how this place even worked at all, I began leading my own tours the year after this, an avocation that has stayed with me for 20 years. I’ve taken hundreds of adventurers to see polar bears. 

The first few years were scary for me; I was in the company of other tour leaders who ranked as top bear biologists and nature photographers in North America. Who was I to lead tours such as these? A curious thing happened, however. During the long evenings, leaders and participants commonly gathered after dinner for conversation and community. I noticed many people from other groups tended to hang out with me instead of with their own leaders. One such evening after spirited conversation, I asked one woman why. Her response startled me: “We came here to learn what makes the Arctic a community, and how it really hangs together, and only you are offering this.” Reflecting later on her words, I realized I’d simply been “being nature’s principles” myself – being my own essence, stepping into the opportunity of the unknown, going with the feedback in the system, and allowing it all to unfold however it did. 

Not one of us was a “better” tour leader. As for me, however, I learned a great deal about who I was and why my authentic self offered value to others. Only the stories in my head had put my becoming a thriving member of this community at risk.

An Invitation: Where are the walls in your life? What is it that you are walling in, or out? What do you gain, or lose, with your walls? Does your connection with others enhance possibility in your life? How does your connection to something bigger contribute to serving the greater good? How does the whole then contribute to your own growth? Stepping further back, what is your unique place in the universe? How do you talk about this in “story,” with yourself, with others, in community? Specifically, how does the way you “tell your story” define who you are and the communities of which you are a part?  How does your connection with others create a “spiral of possibility” around you, one that makes your contribution in the world far greater than you could possibly make alone. 


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