Bringing into the Light

Emergence is the way complex patterns arise from relatively simple actions.  It’s a tricky concept, and Kathy was not the only one unsure of what I was going to talk about this morning.

Emergence is a particular act of creation: in emergence, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

Think of water. Water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. H2O. Put hydrogen and oxygen together and water is created, which has its own properties distinct from its parts – hydrogen and oxygen. Oxygen is not wet.  Neither is hydrogen.
But water is.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Water emerges from the interactions of hydrogen and oxygen but is something new – a higher level, more complex creation.

Another way to think of emergence is to think of an ant colony.  Ants are pretty basic creatures, not on in the world’s smartest animals list. But from their simple behaviours such as instinct to follow the scent trail or save the queen, arises a feat of organization – the ant colony.

While each ant has a short lifespan, the colony survives for years, and becomes more stable and organized over time.

Emergence is tied to evolution, how life develops and evolves in new ways.  How simple acts can create complex systems.

We are exploring emergence as a useful path to living out our UU vision of interdependence, love and justice.
What can we learn from the concept of emergence?
What does it mean to be people who practice emergent strategies?

In part it means patience.

Emergence is not the same as planning and doing and achieving.

Emergence is an organic process –  it takes time.  It can’t be forced.

As John O’Donohue noted:
“The beauty of nature insists on taking its time. Everything is prepared. Nothing is rushed.
The rhythm of emergence is a gradual, slow beat; always inching its way forward, change remains faithful to itself until the new unfolds in the full confidence of true arrival.
Because nothing is abrupt, the beginning of spring nearly always catches us unawares. It is there before we see it; and then we can look nowhere without seeing it.”

The rhythm of emergence is a gradual, slow beat.

This is a challenge in a fast food society, where every new iphone is soon replaced with another new and improved iphone. We expect things to happen quickly.  It’s hard not to, as the issues of today feel increasingly urgent.

We have a problem and we want a solution and we want it yesterday.
But life doesn’t work like that.

Urgent thinking, rushing to fix things, is unsustainable in its intensity.
The adrenal rush can be appealing for short time, but it is exhausting in the long run.
Every river that has rapids also has still pools.

And the category of problems and solutions doesn’t help in every situation.
If you have frozen water pipes, there is a solution – to unfreeze them.
But complex issues don’t have simple solutions.

Thinking in an emergent way reminds us that change take time and that outcomes can’t be controlled.
Patience is needed.

This might be the hardest part.  Emergence is very different from goal setting and working to achieve that goal and then moving on to the next.

Emergence is experimental, it’s about trying to live out a vision and see what happens, see how it comes it being.
It’s a more holistic process in which small changes are happening in many places.  It can feel chaotic, and it can look like nothing is happening, until it does.

The rhythm of emergence is a gradual, slow beat.

In an ant colony, one ant lays down a chemical scent when it returns to food, when another ant experiences the scent, they follow it to the food and add to it on return, so that the scent deepens and a trail is created.
The ant didn’t return to the colony with food and organize a retrieval party.
It just made note of where the food is with the chemical release and other ants followed the scent.

This is not how people like to do things.
And yet it is.  This is how movies or music becomes popular.

One person enjoys a movie and sends out a social media comment and their friends decide to follow and they send out more social media comments and so on.

New ways emerge from relationships, from people talking and connecting.
From choosing one thing over another, until that trail deepens.

If we are intentional, and we embody a vision in small simple ways, others will follow – if it is meaningful – and as more people choose this vision trail, it deepens.

Think of the legal acceptance of the marriage of same sex couples.  Individuals and communities like Unitarian Universalism accepted this possibility all over Canada, they gradually began to work together, got more formal and applied for a legislative change and succeeded.

No one person caused this to happen, it didn’t happen immediately, there was negative backlash,  but as people shifted their thinking, acceptance emerged.

Emergence honours interdependence, and empowers us both as individuals and as a collective.
Emergence reminds us that all the small actions, if directed with a common vision, can evolve into a greater whole.
It’s a way to focus on what we want – on the positive outcome.

May we embody the UU vision of interdependence, love and justice.
Each action we take, even if it’s a just a conversation, moves us towards a better world.


In South Africa, much of the twentieth century was spent as a nation divided by apartheid, the system of oppression which gave the minority white population preferential lives, treatment and power over the majority black population.

By the 1980s the apartheid government had a highly trained army with advance weaponry. People of colour had movements of resistance, including the African National Congress, whose leader, Nelson Mandela, who had been in prison for more than 20 years.

Mandela, who spent years in solitary confinement, made the decision to be open to discussions with the government.
He knew this was an extremely sensitive issue.
Both sides regarded discussions as a sign of weakness, even betrayal.

Neither would come to the table until the other made significant concessions.

But someone needed to take the first step, and it was Nelson Mandela.

To choose talking instead of fighting was a bold move. Mandela and the South African President F.W. de Klerk began talking together and brought South Africa into a new society.

From their talks emerged a new vision, a new South Africa. Mandela was freed from prison and South Africa began to change. A new political and social system emerged from the old system.

I use this today as an example of emergence because the new South African state came about because of a shift in power dynamics, from power over to power with.
Mandela knew the system was broken, and knew that conversation was needed, not more fighting.

He needed to connect with his enemies, to find a bridge that would allow everyone to move forward together.
He succeeded because de Klerk also understood that apartheid’s time was over and wanted to find a way forward.  President de Klerk knew the alternative to talking was a civil war where all would lose.

This historic transformation didn’t arise just from two people talking, but from many small actions occurring all over, both within South Africa and world wide.

The people were working across the country to shift the status quo, and boycotts went from a few firms to an almost global political policy.

All these actions came together, creating the space for change, with the eventual result of a new government system, a free election and Nelson Mandela replacing de Klerk as president.

What emerged was different than what came before.  Apartheid was not reformed or reduced, but ended.

Emergence can be considered the way complex systems arise out of many relatively simple actions.
A new South Africa arose from people talking, from people getting together and organizing, from many people choosing a different way.

Two men talking is a simple action, even when those men are powerful leaders.
It was a simple action, but as any one who has ever been in deep conflict knows, it isn’t easy to sit down with the opposition. It’s a courageous act, just to sit down together.

The courageous act of emergence  requires love, openness and connection.

It requires love – the commitment, the responsibility to care for that you love.
Mandela’s courage came from his love for his people, his fight was on their behalf, to create a democracy in which African people could thrive. Love motivates and sustains through the struggles.

Emergence depends on openness to possibility. Had Mandela refused to consider working with de Klerk, apartheid might still exist. He was open to the possibility of doing something in a different way, an unthinkable, unacceptable way.

Finally emergence requires connection.  Mandela wanted a win-win outcome, a democracy for all South Africans, white and black alike. Mandela had to find a way to make a connection with de Klerk, to understand his needs and aims, so that they could meet on common ground. de Klerk had to shift from being an enemy to an ally, from disconnection to connection. In their first meeting, they didn’t discuss politics at all, but a common interest in South African history.

Love, openness, connection.

Bringing a vision into reality through emergence isn’t easy.

It takes a great deal of courage to open your mind and shift your thinking so that an enemy can be an ally, to take bold steps forward others might not be ready to accept.

Emergence is a different approach to power, from power over to power with.
The idea of power-with shifts the conversation away from winners and losers, dominance and control.

Power-with is co-operative and collaborative, and depends on love and openness. It’s a Unitarian approach to power.

Power- with supports the inherent worth of dignity of all people.  Power- with keeps the focus on the community, it moves at the “speed of trust”, so that no one is left behind. As Unitarians we celebrate principles of democracy and world community, we want people to belong, to feel included.

Although Mary Needham would be surprised to hear this, I think she worked this way.
Her great love for humanity motivated her to improve life for others, and it also kept her open and curious.
She was always willing to talk, to reach out to others and make connections and find ways to better understand.
Mary embodied an orientation to “power-with”, always looking for collaboration.

My hope is that this month we consider what UCM might look like if we tried to live in emergent ways.  If we lived like Mary, how might this system change?  How might our lives change?

May we stay in conversation and be open to new possibilities.
Above all, let us be sustained by love.

So Say We All.


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