Wholeness and Brokenness as Important Categories of Patterns in the Human System

Wholeness and Brokenness as Important Categories of Patterns in the Human System

In a PREVIOUS POST, I defined “evil” as a force that is coherent as it works in civilized systems through time, and that is consistent in imparting a pattern of brokenness to everything it touches. But I did not then offer a definition of brokenness. Here, I sketch such a definition along with one of its opposite, “wholeness,” and place them in terms of their relationship with the values inherent in living creatures and systems.


Our destination here is to be able to perceive and understand the reality of “the battle between good and evil” as a central part of the human saga. Good and evil I am presenting as forces: what differentiates them is the nature of the patterns that they impart to the human world. One of the ways of looking at the battle between these two forces operating in the human system is to conceive of the patterns that they transmit in terms of the concepts of “wholeness” and “brokenness.”

Good and evil are opposites because the nature of the patterns they impart are opposites.

Let’s start with the idea of “wholeness.” “Wholeness” can be defined, for starters, in terms of things fitting together well. It’s about interconnectedness with things being rightly ordered.

This kind of right ordering is at the core of what life on earth has been creating. From the level to the cell up through healthy ecosystems all the way up to the entire biosphere, the project of life on earth has been fashioning order of indescribable intricacy from the level of atoms and molecules up to the global flows of matter and energy.

The connection between “wholeness” and “goodness” follows almost mathematically. If wholeness involves the kind of right ordering that’s at the heart of what the evolution of life tends to create, and if life being selected over death generates the basis for the experience of needs being fulfilled as of positive value (and their frustration being of negative value), and if such experience is at the foundation of the reality of values, it is clear how wholeness is intimately connected with the idea of “the good.” Patterns of wholeness are life-serving.

Brokenness, by contrast, is the opposite. Brokenness involves the absence or destruction of those patterns or structures that serve life and the fulfillment of living creatures.

Wholeness vs. Brokenness is one of the ways of talking about the same set of realities as life-serving vs. life-degrading, or good vs. evil. (With something as subtle and complex as “the battle between good and evil” it is useful to look at the same thing across various dimensions.) It is through the movement and transmission of certain kinds of patterns that we can discern the reality of a force of good or evil.

Two components of “wholeness” in the systems of life can be called “synergy” and “viability.”

1) Synergy. The evolution of life appears to have operated in a completely opportunistic fashion, without there being a plan or purposefulness in its unfolding. Where there’s a niche that can be occupied by a predator, or a parasite, or pathogen, the evolutionary process is likely opportunistically to fill it.

Nonetheless the tendency of evolution is to create synergistic patterns of interaction among the elements of a living system. In a synergistic interaction, each part functions in a way that enhances the welfare of the other parts as well as its own. Even the relationship between predator and prey – emerging opportunistically out of the reality that one creature’s meat can be another creature – evolves over time to serve not only the predator, but the prey as well.

[add here: eliminating predators hurts the system, e.g. of “Lopped Off: Removal of top predators trickles through the food web,” Science News, 11/5/11, pp. 26-29]

What works, survives. What doesn’t work, gets weeded out. Hence even the antagonistic relationships tend, over time, to operate within a larger context in which the system as a whole can be perpetuated.

2) Viability. A system has the second component –“viability”—to the extent to which it is able to maintain, without diminution, whatever it is upon which the system’s continued existence depends. A viable system does not eat itself out of house and home, does not foul its own nest, does not contain unsustainable practices.

The tendency of life to foster systemic wholeness – whether that system be a cell or the biosphere – is inseparable from the evolutionary preference (through the selective process) for life over death.

It’s no innovation of mine to connect an idea of “wholeness” to the nature of the systems toward which life strives. The word “health” is etymologically rooted in the idea of “wholeness.” A body can be healthy, or whole, and so can an ecosystem, even up to the global system of life. Life consists of an elaborate order –wholeness—and in medicine many of those things that cause a breakdown of health are called “disorders.”

Disorder – or brokenness—can come into the system of life from outside the realm of life, i.e. those workings of the cosmos that preceded life and still lie beyond its control.

For example, a massive object streaming from the cold, lifeless realms of outer space might slam into our planet, precipitating a degree of brokenness in the well-ordered system that renders the dinosaurs and much else extinct 65 million years ago. Or two continents floating on the earth’s outer surface might drift into contact –at the isthmus of Panama – bringing together two previously-separated communities of animal life, creating a kind of interaction not harnessed to any evolved order that, again, renders many species extinct.

The system of life on earth controls neither asteroids nor the movement of continents. It has one more weakness: it lacks foresight. It has no plan. Humankind has demonstrated, over the past ten thousand years, how that can open the door to the subversion of wholeness.

In the previous chapter, I described value as emergent in the cosmos. So also is wholeness. But emergence also has brought forth a species whose intelligence and consequent creative capabilities allowed it to break out of that order that biological evolution crafted on this planet over three and a half billion years.

Evolution apparently has no foresight, and so its tendency to create wholeness provides no protection against something new emerging out of the system that introduces a destabilizing discontinuity and disharmony with the system out of which it emerged.

We will see shortly how, with the rise of civilization, the human escape from the niche in which we evolved biologically unleashed a devastating force of brokenness into the world. (We will also see how this catastrophic development — traumatic for humankind, and injurious to the wholeness of earth’s living systems — could neither have been anticipated nor avoided by the humans swept up in this emergent discontinuity.)

We will see how it was inevitable, and not a function of human nature, that a new set of systemic forces would arise with nightmarish implications.

But wholeness, though under siege, has hardly left the picture. Indeed, partially in response to the challenge to our species that arose from our being uniquely unmoored from the biological order from which we emerged, we human beings have striven recreate the wholeness we inadvertently subverted.

We’ve done that, over the millennia, by enshrining as positive values a number of forms of wholeness. People have sought to inspire the systems of humankind in civilization, and their human members, despite the newly empowered force of brokenness, to be life-serving and life-enhancing, and therefore good.

Here are some of those forms, or dimensions, of wholeness civilized cultures have raised up as important values:

• Morality —the paths of righteousness and justice—is about adhering to those principles that order the human system into an optimal kind of whole. (“Do unto other as you would have them do unto you” is a recipe for wholeness in the human system.)

• Beauty —whether that of the rose, or of a Bach fugue—is a form of wholeness in that beauty lies in giving perfection and wholeness of form to the substance of our world. Whether in music or art or landscape or, more figuratively, a constellation of human relationships, what we declare beautiful represents an ideal of things properly ordered.

• Love —whether between lovers or friends or for all humanity—connects with wholeness in the way that the bond of love knits people together in a life-enhancing way. When Jesus encourages us to love our neighbors, and even our enemies, and when the Buddha commends loving kindness and compassion, they are seeking to bolster an important part of Wholeness in the world.

• Integrity —whether of the moral sort of walking one’s talk, or of the sort that’s about being true to oneself—is about a person’s being all of a piece,” whole. A person with integrity is good for his word. A person with integrity will have her beliefs follow the evidence and not stack the deck to arrive at preconceived conclusions.

• Truth —including valid understanding, in which belief is aligned with reality; and insight, which is about seeing connections, creating greater wholeness in our awareness by disclosing to us some new dimensions of the complex interweaving by which our world is knit together; and truth-telling or honesty, in which what is said is aligned with actual belief.

The dimensions of brokenness are readily understood to be the opposite of those:

•Where justice is a form of wholeness, injustice is brokenness. Some of these forms of brokenness: stealing from the poor to enrich the rich; the attitude of “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable”;

•Where wholeness tends to be beautiful, brokenness is ugly.

•While love knits the human world together in life-serving ways, hatred is destructive of life and its fulfillment. (I’ve wanted to ask the Christian, Republican-voting people of my area: “When was the last time that your leaders have encouraged you to love anything or anyone—other than in the context of wanting you to hate and fight against something else?”)

•Honesty and integrity make the world more whole, while the spirit of the lie and the lack of integration of the human being are important tools for spreading the pattern of brokenness in the world.

In an essay that grew out of one of the most spiritually profound periods of my life (in 2004), I proposed on the basis of my own experience that the greatest fulfillment in human life grows out of our alignment with Wholeness in one or another of its dimensions. In the framework being developed here, that would make sense. If we have been molded by the selection for life over death, if Wholeness represents the pattern that serves life, if we sentient creatures have been crafted to experience fulfillment from those things that have been life-serving in our ancestral background, it would seem to follow that we would find fulfillment to the extent to which we can align ourselves with the pattern of Wholeness.

But if that’s the case, if we have a natural propensity to seek Wholeness as the best route to our happiness, why then is the world of humankind so rife with brokenness?

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