The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. It's when days begin to get longer and we again get more of the sun's energy. It's when we make resolutions. On the Mayan, or astrological, scale it's when our earth completes a cycle of wobbling; it's when new ages or cycles begin; it's when people see differently, which may be a good idea for us.
For most of recorded time we have tried to figure out why things happened, and in cases where that was impossible we called the gods into service. We have been quite successful in this as both our plethora of religions and our modern living conditions show. The hard sciences of physics and chemistry have led the way, but the realization is increasing that nature is not so easy to figure when you get down to fundamentals. Scientists are finding that nature is more often networked and doesn't really fit the linear, connect-the-dots pattern we have used in our thinking, where it's easy to see why things happen and how to fix what is wrong. And as time progressed living things became increasingly networked and complex. Living things defy analysis because in order to understand and analyze them we have to cut into the network and it is these cuts and ignored connections that lead to all of the unintended consequences that show up months or years later. What would it be like to see these problems in a different light? Let's take something really complex, like our children and our educational systems.
Seeing children differently
Long ago we wanted to analyze learning so we could teach our children better. We looked at how lab rats learn a maze and found that they learned faster if they were rewarded for doing it right, and the task repeated if done wrong. That principle is now ingrained in our school systems. But it ignores how kids learn in the first place. Children learn by exploring, by playing with their environment, and by repetition; like scientists they test their environment and learn how it works. As they do nerve connections in their brains turn into highways--they are myelinated--and then the ones not myelinated are pruned and gone. Then our children go to school where they are expected to sit still, listen, and learn, and all of those learning highways are ignored. If we could see in this way maybe we could make all learning more hands on, using those myelinated pathways that worked so well before school, and continue the almost vertical learning curve shown by infants and toddlers into and through their school years. Researchers have already told us that kids learn science better when a hands-on approach is used. Finland tries to do that.
Children also respond to their environments in predictable ways. When the environment is threatening they look for safety in known adults. When the threat comes from known adults they withdraw and develop what Gabor Mate calls counterwill or oppositional defiance; overt obedience may continue, but it is not inner directed.
After the tragedy at Newtown many have expressed the desire to search for reasons why we are so violent, but we really don't want to know the answer. Thirty years ago James Prescott gave us an answer that got him retired from the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development. He studied different cultures and found that the violent ones were the ones where children were raised under threat of punishment for bad behavior. Counterwill develops in such children and can explode into violent behavior. Michael Mendizza at Touch the Future has an extensive interview with Dr. Prescott that discusses this further.
Seeing relationships differently
The same principle also holds for international relations. It is clear from common sense as well as from experience that the use of force develops the same counterwill it does in the child, in the nation it is used on. Joseph Nye wrote a book on the subject of Soft Power that avoids the growth of counterwill by using methods that are not seen as threatening.
Both of the above examples are based on concepts of how and why living organisms adapt in the way they do. It's an approach that is exactly counter to our traditional way of seeing, where we balance forces to control behavior and where there is no place given for how living things adapt. In the old way of seeing, the wayward person is coerced into proper behavior. In the new way of seeing the environment is altered in such a way that the person chooses to adapt to it in a friendly way And it works not just on individuals but on children, families, teams, religious groups, nation states; it works on anything that is alive and adapts, even on microscopic bacteria.
Seeing our relationship with bacteria differently
Paul Ewald points out in his book, The Evolution of Infectious Disease, that counterwill is not limited to children and nation states; bacteria, when threatened with antibiotics, develop resistance to them. Conversely, when we don't openly threaten them, but make it harder for them to get from person to person, they adapt in more friendly ways. We know now that our lives are made possible by our microbiome of bacteria living with us and in us that help guide our immune system's development, protect us from outside pathogens, as well as help us digest the food we eat. Ways to help this process of befriending bacteria include the use of frequent hand and nose washing, clean water, uncontaminated food, bed nets that prevent mosquitoes from feeding and spreading disease, and condoms for the same reason, because all too often we act as the infecting agent as we carry infections to our intimate partners.
Seeing medical symptoms differently
Also useful in this is the recognition that we have all inherited defenses that help us to survive in the game we are playing with our environmental recyclers: viruses, bacteria, and parasites. Defenses give us the edge according to Randy Nesse and George Williams, who show how hobbling them is a large part of Why We Get Sick. But defenses are often bothersome: A fever makes us uncomfortable, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea are both embarrassing and distressing, so is a runny nose, and we can make them go away with drugs, so why not? Because they are all defenses and they give us a survival advantage. Just as with your favorite football team, you don't hobble the defense if you want them to win. A fever is a primary defense when one gets an infection. Experimentally infected rabbits die more often when given the drugs we use ourselves to treat a fever. Experimentally infected snakes die more often when prevent from moving into the sun to warm up. Sure it's a bother, but a fever gives us a survival edge and is better honored that blocked. Same with the nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea of the insulted GI tract, and the rhinorrhea of the contaminated upper-respiratory tract, both of which are washing defenses. Oral rehydration, developed for the treatment of cholera and one of the greatest advances of medicine in the last century, optimizes the GI washing defense by keeping the tank full, and a nasal spray containing xylitol optimizes respiratory defenses by increasing the water supply in the nose and unhooking bacterial pathogens there.
All of these represent a different way of seeing that accepts living organisms as being more than mechanical, more than the objects that need to be balanced and coerced into proper behavior. A characteristic of all life is the ability to read and adapt to ones environment. It's about time we included that characteristic in how we cope with the living world around us.