59 – Synergy Between Part and Whole 2017-07-11T07:02:58+00:00

Pattern #59

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Synergy Between Part and Whole

Credit: MeSamong – Shutterstock

We are both whole and part of greater wholes. Caring for any whole or part involves caring for both. So, rather than caring for the individual OR their community or environment, nurture whole communities and environments that enhance those living within them AND individuals that enhance their communities and environments.

Related: 4 Big Empathy, 26 Full Cost Accounting, 31 Healthy Polarity Dynamics, 40 Nature First, 54 Self-Organization, 67 Wholesome Life Learning, 68 Whole System in the Conversation

Going deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

Part of the reason for talking about this is the tension people often feel between individual and community and the argument over whether the individual is sovereign or subject to the community. Individual sovereignty is attractive but if we can’t take care of the whole community then everybody in it suffers. So both sides have tremendous arguments to support them.

However, from a wise democracy perspective, these arguments are two pieces of a larger truth. The fact is that the sovereignty of an individual only works to the extent that they are aligned with the well-being of the whole. Otherwise, their self-centered actions will degrade the whole and they and what they love will go down the tubes with everything else. We see this a lot in Western society at the moment and all around the world.

On the other hand, if we only support the larger community and society at the expense of individuals, we also lose out. After all, we value individuals because we are all individuals. We know what it’s like to be oppressed and to be suffering, and we don’t want to see that happening to anybody.

From a wise democracy perspective there’s also the factor that if we suppress the people we don’t like, we are losing their voices, we are losing their perspectives, we are losing their pieces of the whole that we are trying to comprehend and deal with. The more people are silenced, suppressed, imprisoned, marginalized and pulled out of the society’s conversations, the less we have access to understanding that piece of the puzzle that they see and that they can contribute to solving.

So we are interested in how we can put all the pieces together so that the parts are supporting the whole, and the whole is supporting the parts. People can do tremendous service to enable a whole society, a whole community, a whole family, or the whole world to function well. And well-functioning wholes like a whole community or family can support the individuals in it. And healthy environments and ecosystems support the entities within them, and we can help those environments and ecosystems be healthy.

So we’re looking at how do we support synergistic factors so that the whole is supporting the parts and the parts are supporting the whole.  That goes for any match of wholes and parts. In holistic theory the important concept holons notes that we are all wholes – each of us being a whole entity in our own right – and we are also part of greater wholes. Thus we are all holons. I am part of a community, I am part of an ecosystem, I am part of a society, I am part of this project to create these patterns – and I am also, myself, a whole. I have my own integrity and I am made up of a whole pile of cells, organs, psychological forces and elements in my psyche, etc. So we are all both of these, part and whole; we are holons. Indeed, everything is! To look at the world through that lens, through what would be called a holonic perspective, is to sense there can be synergies all up and down the holonarchy from the smallest entities in the universe to the largest entities in universe.

We who want to create a wise democracy are interested in that inquiry and that perspective because there’s a sense in which wise democracy involves the wholes and parts seeking synergy and mutual support at all the different levels. So how do we go about doing that?

There’s a way in which caring for any whole or any part involves caring for both of them, and supporting them in their efforts to support each other. So we seek to nurture whole communities and environments. And when we say “whole” we mean complete, healthy, wholesome, high integrity, and whatever other manifestations of wholeness there may be.

Whole communities and environments enhance whatever entities are living within them. So we look at what individuals can do to enhance their communities and environments, and try and support and nurture that. And we try to educate people, to help people understand that there’s a larger community and a larger environment there that they are part of.

Margaret Thatcher is famous for saying, “there is no such thing as society; there are only individuals.” Well, that’s a form of blindness. The fact is, there is a society, and that whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s not just a bunch of marbles in a jar. It’s an organism and there are things that are characteristic of it, including its ability to serve its parts. It is not true that we are a bunch of totally separate units.

So we wise democrats are looking at the synergies between all these levels and between all these entities and trying to support more of that.

Video Introduction (14 min)

Examples and Resources

One of the interesting applications of this in environmentalism, in ecology, is that there are species who are called “indicator species”, like the spotted owl in the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest in the United States. When these species start going extinct – when they are endangered and there are fewer and fewer of them – that is an indicator that the larger ecosystem they are part of is being undermined in some way, which endangers all the other life within and around it. Their health reflects the health of the larger system they are part of.

There is an old story about canaries in the mine. I don’t know if it is true, but it’s a widespread story and a good metaphor. Miners took canaries in their cages down into the mines. If the canaries started to get sick or die, that was an indication that there were gases that were toxic which the miners were not yet aware of. So when the canaries start dying, it is time to get out of the mine, or at least get more ventilators. So the phrase “canaries in the mine” indicates those people or organisms whose well-being reflects the well-being of the larger environment within which they live – and within which we may live, as well. When such people or organisms are suffering, that needs to be attended to soon.

Vulnerable populations – When a society is ignoring, abusing, or neglecting its sick, its elderly, its young, its minority populations, that’s an indication that the society is going to be in serious trouble. So there is a need to expand our sense of concern, to embrace not only those individuals, but to embrace the larger social and natural systems that contain them and how to redesign those systems, redesign those cultures so that they and the entities within them are naturally taken care of. We need to have the more mainstream people pay attention and generate good policy and programs that will do that because they understand that they are at risk, too, unless there is more justice, caring, and co-creativity in the whole fabric of society.

Another tool for that is the idea of “microcosms” (which is another pattern in this pattern language). A microcosm is created by taking a part – i.e., a group of people – who are chosen to reflect the diversity of the larger community or the larger conflict or situation. We try to get a cross-section of those types of people who are involved in the situation we are trying to address. We help them speak together in ways that most people out in the larger community or conflicted situation don’t tend to do, and support them in coming to conclusions that will heal the community or heal the conflict or solve the issue.

So that’s another synergistic relationship between part and whole where you are extracting this microcosm from the larger whole and then you are using the energies and emergent wisdom of that part – that microcosm – and reflecting it back out into the whole society or situation so that it is healed or solved.

Holistic medicine is another interesting manifestation of this. Instead of just taking one piece – such as a symptom – and trying to get rid of it, we try to heal the whole person and their whole life. Treating only symptoms is like suppressing a problem in the society, or acting as if there’s no upset between two people in a relationship. Instead, holistic medicine takes that symptom as a symptom of something larger in the person, in their biology, in their environment, in their lifestyle – and treating that larger thing. That is why it is considered holistic, expanding beyond a focus on parts. The symptom is an indicator, it is not the thing you’re focused on or addressing. There are many different forms of holistic medicine, but usually they expand to address the whole person and their life, seeing that as key to the issue.

Similarly, from an activist perspective we can view individual problems as indicators of social systemic problems. In the feminist movement of the late 60s and 70s there was an activity called “consciousness-raising groups” in which women would get together to share stories of their lives. It wasn’t so much a matter of, “Here, let us smart activists teach you women what’s going on!” It was more like, “Let’s share stories about our lives.” And in the process of doing that, the women who were part of it would see patterns that they all shared, patterns that they had been thinking were just their personal problems. They had seen such a pattern as a problem in their relationship, or a problem in their workplace, or a problem that they generated by being inadequate. What happened, as they saw that these patterns were showing up in all their lives, they realized that these were systemic problems. They were all in the same soup. The soup was the problem. Yes, they had roles in it, but there was a larger structure, a culture, a set of assumptions and behaviors (commonly known as patriarchy) that generated these so-called “personal problems and inadequacies”. They realized that if they addressed that together, it would shift the whole scene for all of them. So that was a form of activism to get people to move out of their obsession with their own issues into the larger systemic contextual factors that they needed to address.

Similarly, with ecological and civic education we can make citizens more responsible for the whole by having them become more aware. If you understand what’s going on ecologically, you get it that you are embedded in something larger. It’s not a bunch of separate pieces. You aren’t in fact separate from nature. You can be enclosed in a steel box and you are not separate from nature. You are part of nature inevitably, even as you breathe you are generating and using molecules that are involved in whole natural cycles. So getting more sophisticated about that and going, “Okay, if my well-being is tied to the well-being of these other entities – all their interactions, relationships and systemic patterns and dynamics – how can I more consciously participate in that so that my well-being and the well-being of all these other entities is more taking care of? What actions can I take that will help the system take care of me?” And that is the essence of this pattern.

The same is true for civic education, understanding power dynamics, understanding decision-making structures, understanding social capital – the kinds of relationships people have or don’t have with each other, people who are like them, people who are different from them. The more you learn about the ways society works, the ways your community works, the more you can participate in it, so such education helps you create the community that supports you and everybody like you and unlike you, thus creating a healthy community.

There was a Healthy Cities Movement that covered the same territory as public health but also went way beyond it. It was very expansive. It recognized that war is not healthy, pollution is not healthy, poverty is not healthy. (I realized that you could have a movement that was for beautiful cities, too. Poverty, war and pollution are not beautiful either, so this is another way of looking at the whole.) Here’s a bunch of sick people, of damaged people, and instead of “let’s treat them all individually”, “let’s look at how we could make a healthy city that generates healthy lives in it.” So we find synergy showing up again: “Here we are individuals, but we are gathering ourselves into groups who are becoming change agents to make systems that make all of us and all of our peers and children more healthy.” So again we see that dynamic of the whole and the part, and there is synergy between the wholes and the parts.

Activist and caretaker self-care programs – Both activists and caretakers are famous for burnout. They are trying to support the well-being of others and in the process using up all their life energy. That is an example of sacrificing the part to serve the whole. Sometimes that’s necessary, but it’s not sustainable. So how do you have self-care programs and create contexts and communities that support activists and caretakers in their efforts to care for others and the world around them. It’s not just, “You activists need to take care of yourselves!”  What’s needed are support groups to help activists and caretakers continue doing their work on behalf of the whole, on behalf of their neighbors and relatives.

There are many examples, and all them have this characteristic of building more synergy between the larger communities and environments and the members or lives within those communities and environments.

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