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The Missed Stories: Cooperation and Interdependence

Wooden seesaw
photo by Jon Sailer

Did you ever play on a seesaw? Not only is the thrill of being lifted up great, then there is the whoosh going down, and the anticipation of the landing: will my partner drop me, or land me gently? When two little kids cooperate on the seesaw, it’s a rhythmic ride. When it goes well, it’s a lot of fun. And if one refuses to push off the ground, the other is also stuck in space. Then the yelling and pleading begin: the kids have switched from cooperation to dominance. It’s a very human seesaw. We swing between power-over and power-with. (remember, a seesaw takes two!)

In our culture, power-over has been the over-arching story through competition (also known as “getting ahead is the goal of life”), and individualism. But this misses the two underlying stories which make life possible: cooperation and interdependence.

High school was a great training ground for both versions of life for me. Who gets the best grades, the student council seats? Who’s popular? That’s all competition. Look a little deeper though, and the hidden stories pop right out. I loved being in plays and starting a school paper. Others kids played team sports: cooperation. Look behind the curtain again: there are stage hands, people in the lighting and sound boxes, ones who sell tickets, and the audience. Cooperation and interdependence.

My high school was really tiny, and the dramatics department was mostly Mr. Yoh, our Ancient History teacher. Every year he wrote a play so that anyone in the senior class who wanted to be in it, had a part. We did make-up for each other, with foundation gathered from our mothers’ cabinets. When we put on a show, the theater filled. I can’t say everyone in town came, but we had a full house every night. It was hard work, and a heck of a lot of fun. Any performance lives through cooperation, and interdependence. We helped each other with quick costume changes, remembering lines, and encouragement. Mr. Yoh showed us power-with, too, in how he directed us, letting us experiment to find our characters. He believed in us.

In the story of Getting Ahead, work is a competitive place. Certainly, we compete to get jobs, but once there, is that the main thing? I once visited an area with an underground salt mine, a very dangerous endeavor. A huge electronic sign declared how many days had passed since an accident, which was several years. Is it individualism or taking care of each other that makes that happen?

What does cooperation bring us? Two backs to lift the box, three people for a lively conversation, four people to have a dance party, six for a good picnic or dinner party, a neighborhood of neighbors to feel safe. Make up your own series!

Women at a table
The company of friends, photo by Mohau Mannatho

I grew up in a rural time and place, in a mining camp. All these stories were alive and well there! We lived in our separate houses, had various religions and household habits. All the parents wanted their kids to be safe, to grow up healthy, to have a good life as adults. Nothing extraordinary there.

Mountain lake

Cooperation and interdependence were woven in, with three cherry trees in our pocket park which the families shared. We also shared a lake and its sand beach and bath house, built and maintained by our community (no HOA, just cooperation). I learned these principles from the community dump, as well. An unsightly slope of ground, tucked away, where we took items that couldn’t be burned in the backyard can, or fed to the dog. And there was a section where still-useful things were left for someone else to claim. There must have also been a food waste area, because skunks liked to visit at night. Sometimes we visited in the night with a flashlight, to enjoy their sparkling eyes.

As a child, I found the dump to be ugly and scary, but I also learned that there is no “away”, as in, when you throw something away, it doesn’t vanish magically! Which leads me back to cooperation and interdependence: in my current community, Fairfax County, citizens demanded glass recycling and now we have big purple bins which fill up three times a week. People want to collaborate. They are catching on to the reality that there is no “away” for all our trash. And we’re about to have an experiment with composting. Slugging is a thing, where commuters can catch rides from the further suburbs into the city, sharing rides and reducing costs and pollution. Strangers ride together. (Pre-covid, obviously).

Maybe cooperation is the larger story in life. It’s certainly a different story than competition, tyranny, or exploitation. Cooperation builds good-will; kindness brings more kindness. Can you imagine ways we can reduce our individualistic and competitive ways, and build ways to live in the world helping each other out? When we live cooperatively, our interdependence is so clear. It makes me think of the fascia in our bodies, an unseen and underappreciated network of tissue which holds the whole body together. If your fascia breaks or tears, it’s horrendously painful.

Certainly in these days of the pandemic, how interdependent we are is inescapable. How we care for sick, the impoverished, the essential worker impacts all of us. Who we listen to matters. Whether we are only looking out for ourselves, or the common good, matters. The message couldn’t be any clearer: a house divided will fall. Our fascia is tearing, from a belief that inequity is normal and right. From a belief that more money equals worth or happiness. Are the beautiful and joyous moments in your life from getting ahead, or getting together?

What would a society built on the beauty of cooperation and interdependence look like?

One of the models I come back to are co-ops. In East Lansing, where I went to college, there was a tradition of co-ops born to meet the needs of survival during the Depression. We had housing, bike and food co-ops still in the 70’s. Shared ownership, shared responsibility. Working purposefully together feels good. It’s stakeholder capitalism, where the common good is the priority, not profits. If it seems radical, that’s only because the story of getting ahead has been shouted so loudly.

Some of the newer forms are B Corporations, which are employee owned and run, with a dedication to bettering the world, not only the profit line. Another new way of cooperation is a “virtual library of things”. People offer tools, kitchen goods, costumes, and so on to a local database, to be shared among the group when needed. Maybe you do this informally with friends and neighbors already, and wouldn’t it be great to know who has a wet-vac to loan out when your pipe bursts?

I believe that cooperation and interdependence need to be our guiding stories for our survival. They always have been and always will be. The story of profit over people, of shareholder over stakeholder is dying rapidly. What will we choose? Where have you lived stories of getting ahead? What are your stories of belonging, leaning on others, helping someone else? Which ones give you a good feeling about yourself? Let’s keep talking!

How could we drive in such amazing patterns without trust and cooperation? These little ones already know the real story!

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