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Updated: May 4, 2022

What Am I a Part of?

Or: It's All a Question of Point of View

April 20th, 2022

You know these fractal based screensavers that keep folding out or folding in and the smaller parts and the bigger parts all look the same? I could watch them for a long time; I love to see how they unfold and transform and are still the same. Each part, when you look closer, is made of many similar parts, and each of these parts is made of many similar parts, and so on, forever.

I haven’t seen those endless motion screensavers for a while. My screen just turns itself off to rest. Kind of boring, really. I was reminded of the idea of fractals recently as I was exploring some anatomical issues related to movement. I find it impossible to define a basic building block; to determine what is one distinctive thing and what is a complex made of different parts. It all depends on the point of view at any given moment.

Take the atom. It was once thought that atoms are the fundamental building blocks of everything. Now we know that if you look closer you see that they are made of subatomic particles. And if you zoom out a little bit you see molecules. They are unique and distinct; they define different types of matter. Are they the basic building blocks of physical reality?

And then you start looking at life, and you see cells. These are the basic units of life, aren’t they? Depends on what you’re trying to see, really. Because then you have organs. They are clearly defined parts, each with their own functions and structure. And you can look at systems as separate, well-defined units: the nervous system, the endocrine system, blood circulation…

But we know these systems and organs are just parts of a living body, right? We think of ourselves as distinct, separate beings. Each of us is a unique individual living thing. This is where we can really distinguish the one from the many, isn’t it? I am me, and I am separate from you.

But when I look into that distinction, I realize that this clarity of self and other is culture dependent. It is still a question of point of view. There is no real difference between being an organ within a person or a person within a family. Or being a family that is part of a community. Or a community within a nation... That is part of a continent… Within a planet... It all depends on how you zoom in or zoom out your mental camera.

In some blessed moments I get this direct sensation of oneness. It is as real as any perception of reality I have. I get it, intrinsically, physically, that seeing myself as a collection of systems and organs is just a momentary point of view, useful but fictitious. And exactly the same way, seeing humanity as a collection of individuals is just a point of view, useful for some purposes and harmful at other moments. Rather harmful than useful, mostly, when I come to think of it.

And seeing humanity as separate from the community of life is just a point of view. A really bad one for most purposes, and we can see its horrendous effects all around us.

We grew up with these distinctions. Individuality, competition, survival of the fittest… Mother Culture whispers these ideas in our ears, constantly, incessantly. We don’t hear the whisper any more; we have assimilated these ideas as reality. They aren’t. These are just ideas, and pretty bad ones, most of the time.

I’ve recently read a neuroscience book. The author kept describing the functioning of the nervous system as a competition, a battle for resources, survival of the fittest, a capitalist economy of nerve cells. Each individual nerve cell fights for survival and competes with its neighbours. I found it disturbing, then irritating, then I dropped the book without finishing it. I was angry.

He’s a neuroscientist, he should know, right?

And yet, it was so clear to me that it only depends on how you look. It’s just a point of view, and not a very good one. Although I’m not a scientist, I could interpret everything this book described, every last detail of the latest neuroscientific research, from a different perspective: Our nervous system is a highly complex cooperative system; it’s a community in which all parts work for the best interest of the whole.

This is also a point of view, of course. It’s just a different angle from which to look at the same things. But I so much prefer to live in a world that can be looked at this way. I so much prefer to make sense of the world looking at it from this angle. And I’m convinced that this is the angle we need now.

Each of us is a particle in a community. Our human community is a particle in the bigger community of life. We are powerful; we have the power to destroy the community we are part of, the same way cancer can destroy the body that hosts it. We are destroying the living world that hosts us, and we have the power to stop destroying it.

And if the fractal model can help us to see our place and our role in the community of life differently so that we stop destroying our world, then it is a good model right now.

My perception of reality is a question of point of view. I am always an observer, and I observe from a particular angle. Finding the most useful point of view in each moment is a choice I am making constantly.

It is time to change our angle. And it is becoming really urgent.

Michael Landau

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Check out Persistent Growth: the daily practice that can change your point of view.

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