On Identity in Self Organization

I’ve just returned from a few days with family. My adult son. My 11 year-old son. His sixth grade friend. My parents. My aunt and uncle that were so key in my pre-teens, teens, and early adult life. These few days were a lot of fun. Playing cards and games. Enjoying food together. Lots of laughter. Lots of sunshine through the palms of Palm Springs, California.

Family is a key point of identity for me. For many of us. It has defined who I am. Where I belong. There is something in me that relaxes when I enter the space of family. That feels at ease. That feels a joy of what I’ve come to know as inherent belonging. Yes to all of the values and stories and shared experience. There is deep psychology and spirituality at play here. But, mostly, it’s good to feel part of a pack.

Family, as such key identity, also creates a baseline for differentiation and departure. I’m not a carbon copy of my parents, nor should I be. They wouldn’t advise this. A little “chip off the old block” maybe — a grounding in identity — but difference is healthy. Curiosity in that difference and being able to engage it is really healthy — health spa and organic food healthy.

In my early learnings with self-organization in the 1990s, Margaret Wheatley and Myron Rogers taught about three domains of self-organization. Identity was one of them. There must be a “self” around which attraction occurs and boundaries are created. Self-organization is an alternative story to how life organizes and how people in them organize. It’s an essential contrast to a still hanging on mechanistic paradigm that often portrays merely linear connection and cogs in wheels.

In humans and human systems, identity can get really interesting. The self, the identity, can have many appearances. A quality (tenacious, kind, funny). A role (a dad, an accountant, a baker). A commitment (curiosity, edge-pushing, enduring). A collective (team, community, ecosystem). All of these are good. My point today isn’t to challenge the merits of a particular role or identity. But rather, to call attention to some of these key aspects of identity. I suppose some parts of our identity stay the same — I will always be that boy that grew up in Edmonton. But some parts of our identity change, and should — I’m a dad with kids on the move whose “home” most likely won’t be a fixed place in the way it was for my parents, aunts and uncles.

Life can’t help but organize itself. Similarities. Essential differences and diversity. In the book I’m reading, Spontaneous Evolution, there is great description about the evolution from “no life” to “single cells” to “multi-cellular life” to “communities.” Self-organization, irrepressible self-organization, is biology.

When I apply this irrepressible organizing to the self that is the “cell of an ideology” or the “multiple cells that are a quality like curiosity,” I’m filled with wow. It’s a bit hard to articulate, but, with some level of consciousness, we humans can choose identity — and set in motion irrepressible organizing around that choice of identity.

For me, this doesn’t point to a grand, scaled plan for old stories of command and control. It is an awe, and wonder about the paramount attention and importance of being aware of identity, the self. It is an awe and appreciation of being with my boys and feeling myself sandwiched in three generations of family that bring out both a comfort and difference, and awareness of how identity shapes me — shapes what I long for and what I long to change as part of being alive.

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