Our Saving Grace: A Relational Mode of Being

by Charlene Spretnak
Green Horizon Books, 2011

Contemporary society in the West stands at a crossroads, a pivotal moment in time. We have become a culture of individual consumers, our central purpose tied to the accumulation and production of material wealth. Isolated and disconnected, we have forgotten our intrinsic and inevitable need to live in relationship, to participate within the natural cycles that nourish us. This mode of being has led to severe consequences that are undermining our ability to survive on this planet. In light of rising incidences of resource and energy depletion, rampant greenhouse gases, and environmental degradation, it is clear that healing our modern crisis will require reprioritizing our most basic values and beliefs. We must make new choices in support of true psychological, physical, social, and environmental health.

In her recent book, Charlene Spretnak skillfully motivates us to rediscover the essential relationships that facilitate true happiness and health in our societies. She identifies the fallacies of modernity that have led to our current crises by highlighting one very basic point of reference underlying the predominant mode of living today: the mechanistic worldview. She explains:

One simple idea underlies the systems of knowledge that have shaped modernity: that all entities in the natural world, including us, are essentially separate and that they function through mechanistic ways of interacting. In contrast, a very different, yet elegantly simple, idea is now emerging and correcting the extremely limited mechanistic view: that all entities in the natural world, including us, are thoroughly relational beings of great complexity, who are both composed of and nested within contextual networks of dynamic and reciprocal relationships.

By illustrating the ways in which a relational frame of reference is now beginning to change our predominant manner of doing things, Spretnak offers a way of moving beyond the limited and problematic mechanistic mindset, which incorrectly assumes that all life is modeled after static and mechanical operations. The relational view, on the other hand, reflects the interconnected, vibrant qualities that are characteristic of real, living environments and therefore serves as a more appropriate frame of reference for living in sync with the natural processes that we depend upon for our ultimate sustenance.

In this book, Spretnak presents a lucid, elegant, and compassionate critique of modernity and its harmful effects on self-worth, social conduct, and planetary dynamics caused by the failure of our hypermodern culture to acknowledge that reality is inherently dynamic and interrelated.{{{subscriber|2.00}}} [trackrt] She writes, “We are profoundly relational beings who have been living—with some difficulty—in anti-relational (mechanistic) systems of thought and ways of doing things.” She provides an insightful account of the ways in which all aspects of modern life are now being transformed by a growing recognition of our reality as relational beings, a way of life informed by having relationships, being in relationships, and being composed of relationships. Looking at the various fields and industries being transformed by what Spretnak calls “an emergent Relational Shift,” she examines the extent of the shift in four main areas: education and parenting, health and health care, community design and architecture, and the economy. In each area, she provides insightful examples of the psychological, emotional, mental, physical, social, and ecological issues derived from living within anti-relational systems, and then she presents a comprehensive account of the ways in which a relational orientation is now being applied to remedy these detrimental side effects.

At the heart of her research, Spretnak emphasizes that the recognition of our interrelatedness is our saving grace. We need relationships; they provide meaning and context. We look to them to shape the ways in which we participate in the world. We are inherently relational beings, and our emotional and physical well-being depends upon our recognition of and interaction with mutually beneficial relationships in the world around us. In order to shift from the fallacies of a mechanistic worldview, we must find new ways to express and practice this recognition. Spretnak notes:

[We] hardly have the necessary vocabulary to shift our thoughts and utterances to a more deeply relational orientation. Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh has suggested we think of existence as matter of interbeing. We interare. They interare. Everyone interis. Our bodymind needs real connection with the embodied presence of other people and with nature.

Relational Reality builds upon Spretnak’s earlier book, Resurgence of the Real (Routledge, 1999), which contextualized the cultural emergence of a relational perspective in the modern century. Whereas Resurgence of the Real provided us with a sketch of what this growing relational orientation could look like, Relational Reality brings color and depth to this vision by investigating how a relational understanding of the world is now being integrated into fundamental social systems in the West.

The integration of a relational orientation into Western culture is critical to healing the deep fragmentation we face today; however, it is important to be attentive to some of the pitfalls of mechanistic thinking when making this transition.

First, getting to know ourselves as relational beings requires experiencing our own connectivity. A relational sense of being is a radically different notion from the dominant, mechanistic perception of self and world. Strongly influenced by the Cartesian method of inquiry championed by René Descartes in the seventeenth century, the mechanistic view separates the observer from the rest of our material reality and validates the ability to think over all other ways of knowing. We must be wary of the tendency to intellectualize and compartmentalize our reality. Mental comprehension of our interrelatedness is not enough; we must also experience ourselves as networks of relationships embedded within relationships. We must learn to appreciate the depth of who we are, even when thinking ceases. We are dynamic capacities, always in dialogue with networks of psychological, physical, social, and ecological support. It is essential that we recognize our intrinsic capacity for relationships; only then can we begin to nurture our own connectedness to other living beings.

Second, due to rising instances of global instability, the intuitive need for change is often enmeshed with urgency and fear, which prevents us from truly experiencing what we need most: our natural propensity to be in relationship. Mechanistic thinking views reality from a very narrow scope; therefore, decisions are often made on a moment-to-moment basis, with little room to consider bigger-picture variables and repercussions. We must guard against this tendency to react to feelings of urgency by honing the qualities that we truly want to see in the world. Change should be based upon envisioning a world that motivates and inspires us. We must shift our consciousness so that it is based in a desire to actualize our connective potential rather than in a reaction to fear. Transforming consciousness must coincide with a larger vision that moves and nourishes us—inside and out.

Third, the integration of a relational worldview in our everyday lives requires a participatory approach. We must resist mechanistic and capitalistic tendencies to reduce, homogenize, or subsume our responses into a one-size-fits-all, overarching solution. To honor our relationships is to appreciate the diversity of learned experiences that make up our interactive reality. As relational beings, we all have a deep need to be functional members of a community, to be connected to a practical vision with the capacity to hold space for our meaningful contributions. Integrating a relational vision in our societies requires facilitating inclusive, diverse, and creative solutions that celebrate the talent and ingenuity available within our networks.

The development of healthy, creative, and reciprocal relationships is critical to the process of recognizing, addressing, and healing the deep divisions and devastation that we have inherited from centuries of disconnection. Relational Reality is foundational for anyone looking to cultivate the relational sensibilities that we so desperately need today.

(To return to the Spring 2012 Table of Contents, click here.)


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