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Leading Causes of Life

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By Tom Peterson

I had a great conversation with long-time friend, Gary Gunderson. Read the Interview Here. During the 1980s, Gary and I edited Seeds, a magazine about U.S. and world hunger. He left for the Carter Center around the time I went to Heifer, but our work and lives have been connected all along. Gary has been developing the idea of Leading Causes of Life for many years, and this interview is a pretty good summary.

The five Leading Causes of Life are:

  • Connection: “the way we humans are linked to each other. It’s the way we find our lives in complex relationships, most of which don’t have names they’re so complex. It’s beyond the simple nuclear family. It’s how we are part of lives in complicated ways, in complex relationship webs.”
  • Coherence: “the deep-gut level feeling that life makes sense… Humans are able to survive and thrive if we think life makes any sense at all.”
  • Agency: “the human capacity to choose and do, to move towards life… Sometimes agency is the only cause of life you have to work with. Life may be incoherent; you may be disconnected. But you still can get up in the morning and move. It’s a fundamental capacity to choose to move toward life. It’s not resisting death, it’s an expression of a seeking of life. It’s a positive choosing.”
  • Generativity: “the quality of knowing our relationship to those who have come before us and those after us who will benefit from our life. It’s concern for those beyond our family. It speaks to the multigenerational web of life.”
  • Hope: “it’s expectation. Not just any expectation, but risky expectation. Anticipation. It’s the future and possibilities you see clearly enough that you can take risks to make it happen.”

Here are a couple of thoughts from the interview:

…you may be trying to engage the complex social pathology of your community as a city planner, hospital administrator or businessperson. It’s useful for anyone trying to figure out how to deal with the social phenomenon of their city to have language and a logic to help see the life that’s already there. That’s really all you have to work with. In all of your interventions—whether you’re a physician working with a family with diabetes or the mayor—all you have to work with is the life that’s already there.

The first question should be: Where in this situation is the life we have to work with? This has to be asked simultaneously with what’s the problem? You can’t respond to the problem unless you have some sense of what to you have to work with.

You can read Gary’s blog here.

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