What It Means to Be Human: Being Covalent Instead of Ambivalent About Community

BLOG What It Means to Be Human: Our Natural Ambivalence About Community

rufus and quack #3
cartoon, Rufus & Quack, #3, by the author, from 2006

Lately I’ve been conversing with my friend Mushin about the value of doing all we can do now to make the world a better place, even though in the long run it probably won’t make any difference. As Paul Hawken says, these days, if you’re an optimist, you’re not paying attention to the facts, and if you’re a pessimist, you’re not paying attention to what some of us are doing despite them. Alas, Hawken and too many others are enamoured of the magical thinking of ‘global collective human consciousness-raising’ as having potential to save the world. Mushin and I both see the folly in that, and both seem to appreciate that our social and collaborative nature, rather than being something romantic, simply confers on us an evolutionary advantage and so has been selected for since we arrived on the planet.

Thanks to Patti Digh, I’ve started using the word covalence to describe a social phenomenon — shared capacity (which is its original Latin meaning) — rather than its original meaning in sub-atomic physics. More about covalence in a moment.

As I thought more about it, I realized there are some clues to human capacity and the tension between our physical and social ‘selves’, in the original Latin meanings of a lot of social terms, so please forgive the excessive etymological references in this post.

Who we are, our self-ishness, is, I’ve concluded, merely the composite expression of our communities, the three communities that are telling us, all the time, what to do and who to be:

  1. Our Visceral Community: the organs inside our bodies, that trust our instincts and senses, and tell us to fall in love, to make love, to fight or flee when we’re threatened or overcrowded or struggling with unnatural scarcity.
  2. Our Social Community: the people and other creatures we love and/or trust, that tell us to communicate, to express ourselves, to band together, to compete and to collaborate.
  3. Our Natural Community: the collective organism of all-life-on-Earth, that tells us to adapt, to welcome, to commune, to live in grace, to make the place where we live sustainable and joyful for all.

Each of these Communities (from the Latin meaning sharing) is also an Organism (from the Latin meaning instrument). So each of these Communities both (a) uses the process of sharing to express us (from the Latin meaning to present or show outside of itself), and (b) is an instrument or tool of that expression. Our Communities make us what we are. Our sense of ourselves as individuals, as something ‘apart’ is a fiction, what Cohen and Stewart in their book of the same name call figments of reality. We seem to be individuals, apart, but that is because the movie, the story that is ‘our’ life is so cleverly constructed, and re-presented in what appears to us to be linear time, that it looks coherent.

What actually happens is that, as Mushin says “Every morning in a very mysterious way consciousness re-imagines me back into this world”. That image-inative ‘consciousness’ is the collect-ive consciousness of our three expressing Communities, which send ‘us’ out into the ‘field’ each day much as a coach sends her players out into the field of play to carry out the assigned strategy.

In natural, low-stress environments, creatures live in Now Time, they are Present-ed, so they are at one with their expressing Communities, not even aware of themselves as apart from those Communities. Nature has conspired (from the Latin meaning breathed together) to ensure that those Communities are in harmony, since as soon as they’re not, she evolves (from the Latin meaning rolls out) change so that they are, since that’s in the best interest of our collective survival. Mushin writes:

I think that life is interested in living, and nature being the whole of living beings is interested in … living and keeping alive. Maybe that is what life is, the desire to stay living, to stay alive. And since a whole – and what is community other than a whole – often can stay alive much better than ‘individuals’ from the very beginning of life the rules of the swarming might have played the biggest role in staying alive and thriving (which I think is what nature ‘wants’). Any swarm has much more chance to thrive than the single entitities that it is comprised of.

In moments of fight-or-flight crisis, most creatures’ stress response abruptly wrenches them out of Now Time into an imagined Linear Time, just long enough so that our fight-or-flight response ‘makes sense’. The Visceral Community that resides inside ‘us’ takes momentary control and does what it must.

But modern civilized man lives in a state of chronic stress due to horrific overcrowding and resource scarcity (by which I mean we can’t comfortably forage for everything we need in an hour or so per day and live the rest of our lives in leisure and play, as most other creatures do). So we live our whole lives in imagined, fictitious Linear Time. The stress drives ‘us’ crazy, because the expressions of ourselves composed and presented by our three Communities are radically and constantly out of sync, disharmonious, conflicted. Our bodies, expressing the million year old fight-or-flight stress response programming inherent in our DNA, endlessly, ends up exhausting us, so we fall ill, as our modern pandemic of auto-immune diseases attests. Our social Community shifts, in these circumstances, from the collaboration of the hunting party and the polyamorous commune, to the vicious competition of a scarcity-driven economy, and a politics of war, colonization and domination. Our Gaia Community’s role in our self-expression is forgotten — in the ghastly noise of the machine in our heads, her voice of grace, adaptation and humility is drowned out and lost.

What we call ‘free will’ is actually the freedom to influence the extent to which each of the three Communities expresses our behaviour, beliefs and person-ality. ‘We’ don’t really have much of that, except to the extent we close ourselves off from one or more of the three Communities, and deny its expression through us — such as social moralists’ call for the flagellation of those thinking carnal thoughts, and social religious absolutists’ insistance that everything on the planet was ‘designed’ for use by one species, and hence denying the ‘dangerous’ idea of the existence of Gaia. As long as we keep an open mind — hard to do with the staggering and relentless harangue of propaganda in our modern civilization — we will continue to be the holistic expression of our three Communities, in balance, if not in harmony, i.e. nobody-but-ourselves.

Of course, ‘I’ have no idea whether any of this is true. But I find it comforting, and it resonates somewhat with my instincts. We are right to feel conflicted. Who we are, this competent expression of our self-ishness, our story, has three different directors, who are not only no longer collaborating, they’re not even talking with each other. We can’t ignore any of them, or we will cease to be ourselves. But we can listen to them, pay attention, refuse to act out our part until the script feel right to us. Our instincts, our senses, our emotions, our critical thinking, our imagination, our networks, the place we call ‘home’, can all suggest to us how to present ourselves, to reconcile the visions of the wild, intuitive Visceral director, the stressed and frenzied but well-meaning Social director, and the patient and wise but too-quiet Natural director. And we can be learn to be improvisational in finding away to self-express that draws on all three.

And we can be covalent. Those we love, those with whom we live in community — all of them — are living stories that are inextricably entwined with ours. The same three directors are conflicting them, and by sharing capacity with others — through conversation, empathy, love, attention, appreciation, collaboration, and imagination — we can collectively improvise the story of all of our lives in ways that might stun all three directors into silence. Long enough, perhaps, to let them see the value — the co-value — of reconnecting with each other, of pooling their — our — talents. And then writing a story that is coherent and sense-able. So that we, actors all, can at last do what we’re meant to do, and do it well.

Category: Being Human

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2 Responses to What It Means to Be Human: Being Covalent Instead of Ambivalent About Community

  1. Paul Admas says:

    I enjoy your blog mainly because it is made up mostly of words and reading has always been one of my favourite pass times. My only reservation is the sweeping generalisations you use and wrap up in words that you condescendingly supply your readerships with definitions for. From my limited experience of the world and others, I find that those people who often claim to have all the answers have generally made up all the problems. E.g. the key to avoided an eternity in hell is to have faith in Jesus Christ or

  2. Paris says:

    Hei Paul, holidays is not enough (I’m back from 4 weeeks in the countryside)…Living in a big city makes me feel as that “stressed civilised (wo)man”….Dave: nice post thanks for writing so much interesting stuff (though I don’t agree with all, they allways fuel my thought)

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