|Here’s a discovery we can make along our ecological Pilgrim’s Progress: the discovery of what can happen through us. If we are the rocks dancing, then that which evolved us from those rocks carries us forward now and sustains us in our work for the continuance of life.
When I admired a nurse for her strength and devotion in keeping long hours in the children’s ward, she shrugged off my compliment as if it were entirely misplaced. "It’s not my strength, you know. I get it from them," she said, nodding at the rows of cots and cribs. "They give me what I need to keep going." Whether tending a garden or cooking in a soup kitchen, there is the sense sometimes of being sustained by something beyond one’s own individual power, a sense of being acted "through."
It is close to the religious concept of grace, but distinct from the traditional Western understanding of grace, as it does not require belief in God or a supernatural agency. One simply finds oneself empowered to act on behalf of other beings—or on behalf of the larger whole—and the empowerment itself seems to come "through" that or those for whose sake one acts. This phenomenon, when approached from the perspective of ecology, can be understood as synergy. This is an important point because it leads us to reconceptualize our very notion of what power is.
From the ecological perspective, all open systems—be they cells or organisms, cedars or swamps—are seen to be self-organizing. They don’t require any external or superior agency to regulate them, any more than your liver or your apple tree needs to be told how to function. In other words, order is implicit in life; it is integral to life processes. This contrasts with the hierarchical worldview our culture held for centuries, where mind is set above nature and where order is assumed to be something imposed from above on otherwise random, material stuff. We have tended to define power in the same way, seeing it as imposed from above. So we have equated power with domination, with one thing exerting its will over another. It becomes a zero-sum, or win-lose, game, where to be powerful means to resist the demands or influences of another, and strong defenses are necessary to maintain one’s advantage.
In falling into this way of thinking, we lost sight of the fact that this is not the way nature works. Living systems evolve in complexity, flexibility, and intelligence through interaction with each other. These interactions require openness and vulnerability in order to process the flow-through of energy and information. They bring into play new responses and new possibilities not previously present, increasing the capacity to effect change. This interdependent release of fresh potential is called synergy. It is like grace, because it brings an increase of power beyond one’s own capacity as a separate entity.
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