Each of us feel an interesting tension in our lives.

On the one hand, we want to be independent, autonomous, do things for ourselves, do things the way we want to do them without the interference of others. We see ourselves as these entities that stand alone and apart from the rest of the world. We have both our personal histories through our memories as well as our personal hopes for our future through our visions and goals. We are these little “islands” in the vast sea of humanity.

On the other hand, something within us calls us into connection with others. We desire love and affection. We feel comfort in belonging in groups where we feel common bonds – be it through family, faith, nationality or belief. We realize there is both “safety and strength in numbers” – that we can accomplish more when we come together. On some level we realize, just as John Donne wrote in his classic poem, “no man is an island”.

The tension between these two seemingly opposing forces – independence versus joining others – is part of our evolutionary past. Humans would not have evolved to our level of complexity and degree of consciousness without our “evolutionary forefathers” learning how to master this delicate balance.

Let’s do a quick thought experiment. Consider for a moment your physical body and all the systems that had to come together in cooperation for you to be you right now. Independent atoms had to join forces with other atoms to form molecules. Molecules had to join forces to create cells. Cells had the join up to create multi-celled organisms. Through time and the evolutionary process, cells developed specialized functions and banded together with like-minded cells to create organs and other dedicated aspects of our bodies. We can be thankful that at some point our blood cells, brain tissue, bones and so on were able to maintain their independence and autonomy while joining forces with each other to create a greater whole. So we might consider that atoms, cells, multi-celled organisms and the creation of specialized organs within our bodies are all our evolutionary forefathers.

Yet that’s not the whole story. Even after our physical evolution, individual humans dealt with this tension. They found themselves competing for survival with other humans leading to violence and competition. They found themselves joining forces with other humans in groups cooperating towards common ends. Even these groups of humans have had to balance the tension as they competed and battled with other groups of humans at times – and joined forces with them at other times.

As humans come together in groups, similar to cells we begin to create specialized functions to serve the needs of the greater group. Consider how humans have banded together in cities, states, countries, religions and corporations. In each of these groupings, we humans have found our niche in specialized roles serving as farmers, merchants, teachers, doctors, computer programmers and so on. We gave up many of our general abilities crucial to our independent survival so as to develop specialized abilities crucial to our collective survival.

The process I have been describing is what philosopher Ken Wilber references in his discussion of the evolution of “holons”. He describes a holon as anything that is whole and complete in and of itself, yet simultaneously is both made up of other holons (that are whole and complete within themselves) while being a part of a larger holon. Each holon is part of a great chain – made up of smaller holons while comprising part of part of a larger holon. Think atoms to molecules to cells etc. Think individual humans to tribes to cities to countries etc.

Wilber says that every holon, including each human and a group of humans, has certain motivations or drives, two of which are what he terms “agency” and “communion”. Agency is the horizontal drive for independence and autonomy – to be a whole into ourselves. Communion is the opposite or vertical desire for connection, to be part of a greater wholeness.

The tension between these two competing motivations is what we feel as an individual when we are letting go of any aspects of our personal independence when we connect with others in relationship. Think about what you gain when you move into a significant romantic relationship – companionship, love, sex – but you also let go of parts of your independence. Think about what you gain when you become employed – financial security, the ability to use your creative abilities in a work environment – but you also let go of a lot of your autonomy. Your personal growth and evolution has depended upon your navigating the delicate balance of these competing motivations.

As we join with others in groups, we become aware that this same tension is also at play at the collective level. On the one hand, the desire for group agency causes us to ethnocentrically favor “our group” and want to maintain its independence and autonomy. Think about all of the competition, conflicts and war (literally or figuratively) that we humans have waged in the name of our religion, our country, our beliefs, our corporation and so on. We believe that are evolutionary survival depends upon the success of our group. On the other hand, the desire for group communion – the “better angels of our nature” – feels a desire to let go of the competition between our group and those “others” so that we might band together to create a greater whole.

This tension between agency and communion is normal. Our evolutionary forefathers navigated this tension to bring us to where we are now. Most of us recognize that humanity is moving towards a critical point in its evolutionary journey. The extreme tension felt in the polarization of our politics and beliefs is characteristic of the pull towards agency. The desire to transcend this polarization and create a world that works for everyone is characteristic of the pull towards communion.

How we navigate this tension at this time is critical as to what we create next. Yes, we need to maintain our independence and autonomy – to a degree – in both our personal and group lives. But we also need to let go of our independence and autonomy – to a degree – in our personal and group lives so that at the greater collective level of all humanity we may move up the chain of evolution to a greater vision of what we can be.

The pull towards communion and this greater vision leads us into creating what I call partnerships. This will be our topic next time.

Mark Gilbert


Check out all of Mark Gilbert’s books—available at Amazon. Click here to visit his Author Page. This includes his recent one Our Spiritual Rights and Responsibilities. In this book, he offers what he suggests are the 5 basic rights we all possess by virtue of our being these spiritual beings on planet Earth — and our 2 responsibilities we all hold in relation to one another! Check it out!