Excerpt from Chapter 7: Family

We are Family — August 2009

In this culture we place a lot of importance on independence and individual rights, sometimes at the expense of family and community. While this is very positive up to a point, it can also create a sense of isolation and a lack of a sense of "belonging" to a larger group. In fact, we're so isolated in many of our communities that we tend use our workplace or our political affiliation as the basis for establishing a place of belonging.

And when we do focus beyond our individual wants/needs, we're likely to put a lot of emphasis on our "immediate" family-as opposed to our "extended' family. Other cultures more highly value other members of the family, often living with extended family members. They are also more likely to value their "community" as a whole, seeing it as part of their extended family. And they are certainly more likely to value their ancestors.

I have become increasingly aware of the importance of remembering that I am part of a much larger whole. And much of this is due to exploring the teachings of the Cherokee. That interest was motivated by the fact that Cherokee is my only traceable heritage. Even though I am only one-eighth Native American, it gives me both a sense of belonging to a group/clan/tribe and a sense of belonging to the wider group of humanity as a whole.

Cherokee teachings are filled with references to "all my relations"—which goes far beyond the particular family or tribe. One of the ways this is expressed among the Cherokee is: "We are relative to all living beings." They have a way of relating "heart to heart" with others, the nation and the planet. Their way of viewing each person as part of a larger whole establishes a sense of family and of belonging that is quite different from our current way of life.

In fact, many of the issues we face around the world today are due to this lack of awareness of how "all of us are in this world together"—all part of a larger whole. Our lack of living as one with nature has led us to try to control nature to suit our convenience, thereby creating many of the natural disasters we are facing today.

We would do well to draw on the Native American experience in reassessing our relationship with each other and the world at large. And this shouldn't be too difficult since many of us (whether or not we know it) have Native American ancestors. For instance, this entire land was fully settled before it was "discovered" by Europeans. No one knows the exact population, but estimates range from 40 million to 90 million when Columbus arrived in 1492. By 1700, there were approximately 50 or 60 distinct Indian "nations" east of the Mississippi River and about 50 Indian nations in the West.

By following the example set by the original "Americans," we can expand our image of "family" beyond the narrow definition we have used to this point. This can help us return to a more cooperative way of dealing with the problems we face—as well as bringing us together as peoples who need each other to survive and thrive.

Some years ago when I was conducting workshops for business, we occasionally used an exercise based on "The Tragedy of the Commons." This simulation consistently demonstrated that when individuals act independently in their own self-interest, they can ultimately destroy a shared limited resource—even when it is clear that it's not in anyone's long- term interest for this to happen. It was fascinating to watch as people invariably gave in to individual interests even though it repeatedly led everyone to lose. (A good example of this dynamic is displayed in the conclusion of the movie "War Games" in which the computer finally recognized the mutual assured destruction inherent in the game.)

We will have a much better chance of avoiding this kind of scenario in real life if we can begin to see all the peoples of the world as part of our extended "family," leading us to work together for the common good.

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