Wholes and Nestedness
Journeys for the Well-Intentioned: Part 1
A note, with homage to Stephen King, to my Constant Reader: Struggle is essential to growth, and disruption precedes it. These journeys for the well-intentioned are not designed for passive consumption; they are invitations to question what you think you know and why you know it, to explore your own thinking and watch yourself along the way. The value is in the journey. Only you can decide which path to travel.
Think of someone that you know very well. It could be a parent or a child. A sibling or a spouse. Your best friend or your worst enemy. It could even be you. (A difficult, though rewarding choice.) Now, because you know them very well, describe them. It should be easy. Try to be both complete and concise. And as you do, notice what’s happening in you.
(Seriously, the rest of this is worthless unless anchored by your own self-reflection.)
How did you describe them? Maybe a list of attributes? Caucasian, male, age 77, glasses, bald with combover, Tom Selleck moustache, average build and height, and easy smile. Enough for a rough sketch. A list of roles? Chauffer of children, spoiler of grandchildren, teacher of youth, burnisher of abandoned Americana. Maybe you strung together appropriate adjectives? Hardworking, clever, kind, committed, curious, at once both stubborn and flexible. It gives a sense of them. Keystone experiences? The kolaches and cinnamon rolls arriving in the mail for your birthday; the hours playing King’s Quest and trying to escape from that whale; the pretend shaves and haircuts for only two bits; the afternoon spent crushing and counting aluminum cans so you could win a t-shirt instead of the popular kid at school.
Regardless of how you did it, if your description was anything more than their name, it failed to capture their complexity, their nuance, their becoming. The difficulty of the task has nothing to do with your skill as a writer. More words or more precise words might refine the image, but they would not complete it. And despite the difficulty of describing them, is your certainty that you know them well diminished? Where does that “knowing” come from? Where does it reside?
To borrow the language of David Bohm1, your knowing is enfolded into your whole self. That knowing is as complete and whole as you are. As I am. And yet, when that knowing is unfolded with language, it fragments. Language is a marvelous evolutionary adaptation, an instinct even2, but it has its limitations. It can convey a sense of things, the gist. It relies on the association of our embodied experiences with specific words — a process of enfolding — such that when we hear or read those words again our prior experiences unfold to construct meaning from those words, only to re-enfold with this latest exchange layered on.
Take joy as an example. We might use joy to describe the birth of a child. Or to capture the feeling of a difficult task completed well. Or that first hug after a long absence. But my joy is not the same as your joy. Even now, as you read those sentences, your sense of joy unfolded and enfolded multiple times, shifting its constructed meaning each time. We each have a living knowing of joy that changes and grows as we do; language is only directly capable of transmitting knowledge, a reflection of our knowing in a fractured mirror.
At this point, you might be thinking, what has this got to do with wholes3? Here’s a premise for you to test — seeing wholes is like your knowing. I say seeing, but perhaps experiencing wholes is better, for they are more than sensed, they become enfolded into us, interpenetrating with us. It’s how we can know someone very well but cannot quite unfold that knowing completely. And, as happens with our knowing, language works to fragment a whole into pieces and parts, into categories and classifications, into labels with limitations. It’s all done with the well-intentioned purpose of reducing complexity, to produce better effects by following repeatable patterns for a now simplified population. But reassembling those fragments never quite matches the whole, does it? We’re left with an ever-missing piece in our jigsaw puzzle of living.
So, let’s examine this — what is lost when a whole is reduced in such a way? Pick a concrete whole — perhaps the person you started with above — and consider how things would look if they were reduced to that fractured, incomplete description, if that represented the sum total of their being. Take a moment to “see” the effect this loss has on other wholes. How are they related? Image it with your whole self; experience that loss and how it ripples out into the world. Consider, too, the effect on a whole when it is seen as something less than what it is. Something simpler.
(Hold that image as you reflect on what follows.)
To understand how that loss might ripple out into the world, we must conceive of how a whole relates to other wholes. What did you image? As a member of the well-intentioned, it’s unlikely that your image looked like this:
Each whole is independent and isolated from the other wholes such that any effects it produces rarely travel beyond itself. A diminished whole doesn’t concern the other wholes.
Instead, perhaps, you recognized the connectedness of one whole to the others like this:
As a model of how wholes relate, it’s hard to argue with the fundamental accuracy of such a conception. While at times inconvenient to admit this truth, we are connected to other living systems, to other wholes. Our actions and reactions and inactions ripple out into the world and affect these systems, be they people or communities or Earth itself. And yet. From this view of their relatedness, what is the responsibility one whole bears for another? To be sure, it’s nonzero. The connectedness invites a certain reciprocity of concern between wholes. But it’s also not remarkably high, either, due to the unstructured nature of the connections.
And so, if we return to that image of a whole reduced by its reassembly from idealized components, what can we say, qualitatively, about how that lost distinctiveness will ripple through this network of wholes? The loss will be perceived, certainly, but it’s an abstract sense of loss — not unreal, exactly — just attenuated. It’s as though we know, intellectually, that something has been lost, but we cannot summon the will to care very much about it. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic provides an example, contrasting how we experience the rising death toll across the world with the death of a family member or a close friend.
But what happens to our will when we evolve our view of the world to experience wholes as nested4 rather than simply connected?
What happens when we can conceive that the greater wholes need our contribution for their growth, and we can perceive precisely what contribution to make that would most uplift the ableness of those wholes to express their distinctiveness? What happens when can conceive of not just the wholes that nest us, but also the wholes that we, in turn, nest? How can we not take stewardship for those wholes, knowing that our own vitality and growth depends on their capacity to make contributions sourced from their own distinctiveness? Because we can conceive of the greater whole that nests us both, we can perceive that our work in support of that greater whole is diminished when the distinctiveness of any whole is lost. Loss in such a world is no longer muted and abstract, but loud and concrete. What else might we perceive when we evolve our experience of living from one of connected fragments to one of nested wholes?
(Ok, pause here. Because this last bit is the hardest part of the journey. It is the moment of choosing.)
What did you notice in you as you joined me on this journey? Describe for yourself the quality of your thinking, where it was easy, where you struggled. Discern the difference between easy thinking and shallow thinking. What did you feel? If you imagine those feelings as a stream flowing through you, what was the source of that stream — what sourced those feelings? Finally, consider the value of this short reflection. What has it produced? How and where and to whom might it ripple out? What are your greater wholes?
If you made it this far, thank you. This was an invitation to begin — or continue — your journey of knowing. Knowledge never quite gets it done. Leave a comment and let me know what this was like for you.
Continue the journey with Part 2: Potential and Nodes.
Originally published on Medium.
Bohm, David. Wholeness and the Implicate Order.
Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct.
Sanford, Carol. What is Regeneration? Part 2 — Living Structured Wholes.