Award-winning filmmaker, writer and educator Nora Bateson directed a documentary on her father, Gregory Bateson, titled The Ecology of the Mind. In it, he notes that “the major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works, and the way people think.” Nature functions through networks and relationships, and interdependencies are what give nature and ecological systems their integrity. Humans, however, aren’t usually taught to see interdependencies. As a result, we break connections without understanding that when we do, we diminish a system’s integrity and wholeness. When we don’t recognize the existence and value of interdependence, we make the system and the world we live in less resilient, less whole. Consequently, and consistent with Bateson’s observation, we compromise opportunities for future generations to thrive.

Cultural teachings of interdependence

I recently spent some time in Ottawa, Canada at the International Leadership Association’s annual conference. There was a rich representation of members and elders from indigenous tribes across Canada. As I listened to their descriptions of the world they live in and the reasons that motivate them to act, I discovered their profound and deep awareness of interdependence. For example, one elder said that his inspiration to serve his higher purpose comes from his relationship with his children and grandchildren. He saw his purpose as creating an environment where his grandchildren and beyond can thrive.

From these conversations, I learned that the children and young adults in these indigenous cultures see examples, hear stories and have experiences that all reinforce interdependence. They perceive nature and themselves in an interdependent relationship. They view time backwards and forwards as connected and interdependent. And they see their communities as interdependent. Over time, they embed this worldview into themselves and, in turn, model and teach it to others.

The cost of breaking unseen connections

When we fail to see our interdependencies, we also fail to see the whole. We are often distracted by the shiny parts of our lives, and self-interest becomes primary over collective interests. Unlike indigenous cultures, American mainstream culture is filled with institutions that do not adequately value interdependencies. Our healthcare system often treats only parts, losing the connection between the lab results and the whole person. Our educational system tends to teach “above the neck,” without connecting learning to the heart, spirit, body and mind, and to each other. Our religious institutions focus on the spirit and sometimes fail to connect it to action, community and authentically integrating the spirit into all things. Our businesses also commonly optimize profit in the short term without regard to long-term consequences.

We are surrounded by messages that we are a collection of parts and not a system of interdependencies. It is no wonder, then, that we break connections which result in severe consequences to our systems over time. Another example of this breakdown can be seen with climate change. We have disconnected ourselves from nature – a wonderful example of interdependence and system integrity. This disconnect has caused us to make decisions that have weakened our larger world, one we depend on being healthy so that humans can exist on this planet.

Reconnecting to our interdependencies

If we did just one thing to help us recognize and value interdependence, it would be to reconnect to nature. When we see our relationship to the natural world and its vast network of connections, we begin to understand how interdependencies truly work. On the other hand, when we break connections due to ignorance, negative effects ripple through our systems. These are the questions we should be asking ourselves:

  • What interdependencies am I unaware of?
  • How can I learn to recognize connections?
  • What feedback signals that I have broken a critical relationship to a system’s wholeness?

If we want to help create a system, organization, community and world that is regenerative, we need to start the journey by reconnecting to nature and learning from its illustrative framework.