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The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities;

But to know someone who thinks and feels with us…this makes the Earth for us an inhabited garden. 

—Goethe 

Pick a piece of the problem that you can help solve,while trying to see how your piece fits into the broader social change puzzle. 

—Marian Wright Edelman

I heard a story recently on the radio about a new and unexplained phenomenon affecting beehives across the country. It’s being called “colony collapse disorder” and beekeepers nationally are puzzled. They go to open their hives and, in hive after hive, the entire swarm is gone. 

Centuries ago, Marcus Aurelius wrote that “what is no good for the hive is no good for the bee.” Whatever is to blame for colony collapse disorder—possibilities are pesticide use, a new virus, global climate change, or all of the above— it serves as a reminder that we are all living in community, and despite what we might think about our individual fortitude, we depend upon each other.

I often describe my work as “restoring the civic ecosystem”, as the bonds connecting the human community are in need of the same attention that we are witnessing in our local and global environment. And we are also suffering from a variant of colony collapse disorder—in our political discourse, in our community interactions, sometimes even in our organizations and families. 

Daniel Goleman, who has popularized the idea of “emotional intelligence” recently wrote an article about the use of “flame” e-mails—a technological lashing out that is increasing in this age of e-communication. He points to the lack of face-to-face interaction, with its social signals, which promote the growing erosion of civility on-line. And research is showing that “flaming” mimics inappropriate social behaviors seen in those missing functionality in certain parts of the brain. The speed at which we move also might provide clues about our ability to connect.

In Joanna Macy’s work, she often does an activity where she has people move around the room, walking quickly and not making eye contact, as we might while on our way to work or to a meeting. She then has people slow down and make eye contact, and the difference can immediately be felt. Slowing down can create connection—and that can mean walking down the street, or being in a meeting at work. 

In order to solve our most pressing challenges, we need to cultivate the skills of working collectively—to think that we can ‘go it alone’ is a cultural illusion which is not supported by any other natural system or examples from human societies throughout history. We tend to be unaccustomed to the different approaches, perspectives and time frame needed to connect effectively, which tends to reinforce rather than break down the silos that we’ve created. 

In a chapter entitled “Other Selves” from the wonderful collection Rooted in the Land, John Livingston speaks of observing a school of fish and the sense that though “composed of discrete physical parts…its behavior flows from one awareness, one consciousness, one self…the individual is the group.” Granted, humans are not fish—but can we learn enough from fish and other species and phenomena to address our own experience of isolation and the increasing need to embrace collective possibilities?  For a start, you might want to explore the excellent on-line library compiled by the Center for Civic Partnerships. And thanks for exploring the work of connecting with others to complete “the broader social change puzzle.”

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