Just this past week, two United Methodist Churches announced their intentions to secede from the denomination. Separation seems to be more common today. California has been in the news about seceding from the union. We’ve come a long way from the original thirteen colonies who worked together to form a more perfect union.
Examples of separation
Separation is a consistent theme throughout history. I wrote a blog about it a couple of months ago. The flow of immigrants and refugees to North America is part of a historical trend of separation and migration that started 100,000 years ago. You can read more about it by clicking here.
Examples of separation can be found in the advancement of technology. We are becoming less dependent on utilities to provide clean water, gas, and electricity. More homeowners are embracing green technologies. It may be only a matter of time until everyone is “off the grid.” In 2016 solar installation had the biggest gains.
Corporations are another good example of separation and diversification. Growing up, my family had access to six TV stations. Now there are thousands. Just look at the candy industry. I recently stood in the candy aisle at Walgreens in some sort of sweet trance, overwhelmed by my options. The owner and founder of Papa John’s Pizza was once an executive at Domino’s. He seceded from Domino’s to start his own company. How many other companies have started because someone seceded from one company to launch a competitor?
The benchmark for separation is Christianity. The history of Christianity is bursting with examples. Martin Luther has the most famous secession story. He was excommunicated by the pope for his stances. He went on to create a separate church. Today, over 70 million people call themselves Lutheran and nearly 70 denominations are affiliated to Lutheranism.
Forces that drive separation
It’s difficult to know what exactly is driving secession and separation. One the one hand, evolutionary theory suggest that diversification of species is a natural process. As life evolves, it separates into different forms and repeats the process over and over again.
However, the latest tree of life is based on the work by Carol Woese from the University of Illinois whose research led to the formation of the phylogenetic tree of life. Woese proposed that horizontal gene transfer between organisms was responsible for early evolution. Jan Sapp, a historian of biology at York University, Canada picked up Woese’s ideas and introduced the word symbiosis to conceptualize the history of evolutionary thinking. Sapp argues that through an ongoing process of separation and re-coordination, all life forms participate in symbiosis. It is the biological paradigm we live in.
The force behind separation and re-coordination is anxiety. Dr. Murray Bowen described anxiety as an emotional response to a real or perceived threat. Anxiety motivates us to move closer to others or to create distance. It is what he called the force for togetherness. As anxiety rises, our initial reaction is to move closer to others. However, as anxiety increases, one may become allergic to others and move further away. This movement away from another can be characterized as separation. In the short term, separation is useful in managing a rise in anxiety. As anxiety decreases, an individual can move towards others in more productive ways.
John Calhoun, an American ethologist (not to be confused with the Representative and Vice President) studied the impact of population growth with rats and mice. In his most famous experiment with mice, Calhoun observed that as population density increased, social behaviors related to things like mating, rearing of offspring, and cooperative grooming broke down. Eventually, females no longer reproduced, and males withdrew. As anxiety rises in the relationship system, cooperative behaviors become more difficult to sustain.
This idea of separation and re-coordination may be at work in the broader society. Efforts towards separation can be seen across the globe from the recent executive orders of President Trump to Brexit to the struggle in South Sudan. These actions seem to be more anxiety driven as countries struggle with rising levels of anxiety, driven by fear. Population density and a lack of natural resources may also play a role in escalating tension. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that scientists are researching how to sustain human life on Mars.
At first glance, it would appear that modern protest moments like Black Lives Matter and the recent Women’s March would indicate signs of re-coordination. Each movement has made efforts to broaden their base as they bring people together. However, I think there are other examples that represent a different kind of re-coordination.
In more recent years, interfaith communities have sprung up around the world. Some communities have built facilities where Christians, Muslims, and Jews can worship under the same roof. These efforts, to bring interfaith congregations together, take time and intentionality. It does not happen overnight. It represents efforts to overcome automatic reactions towards separation and encourage individuals to participate in higher cognitive efforts of cooperation and coordinate activities.
Universities and hospitals have become more intentional about creating interdisciplinary departments. While the effort is slow moving, there seems to be a growing acknowledgment that the problems we face as a society and as a species are interdisciplinary in nature and require a broader conversation that transcends specific orientations and practices.
Finally, there is hope that not-for-profits will increase their efforts of collaboration and cooperation across organizations. This too is slow going and will require an increase in motivation to work collaboratively. The struggles of most people are complicated. For example, those who are homeless not only need housing, they also need employment, access to health and mental health care, legal services, microloans, food, and viable family connections. One organization is not able to offer all of these services. But, with collaboration with other organizations, it is possible.
The answer to our problems can be found in Differentiation of Self. Dr. Bowen observed that those who made improvements in defining a self did better. They were in a better position to manage the forces for togetherness in ways that did not lead to distancing or cutoff, and did not lead to intense fusion. Working on self towards differentiation takes time to think about what one is willing to do and not do. This effort produces a system of beliefs. These beliefs help guide a person as they navigate the rising levels of anxiety both in self and with others.
The greatest challenge we face today is coordination. How do people continue to coordinate and cooperate with others if society continues to move towards increased separation? In some ways, this is nothing new. Humans have always struggled with how to coordinate and cooperate. The challenge today seems greater. What will it take for us to not give into the forces that separate us and embrace a way of thinking that leads to greater collaboration? I hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comment section below.