Intimacy of Strangers

Jan 4, 2023 | Blog


The phrase is from Lyn Margulis, a ground-breaking biologist who studied the processes of gene transfer and combination in living entities. It refers to hybrid entities that “combine the abilities of each” to produce “composite life-forms” in “cosmopolitan places” by which the whole becomes “far more than the sum of its parts” and allows for collective flourishing. This is particularly interesting in showing that species — including our own — often adapt and change sideways, not just like a growing tree of options. What results is a ‘long-lasting intimacy of strangers’ in a partnership that generates vitality and introduces a flexibility that is otherwise lacking. This creates the conditions for “entirely new possibilities” that work to enhance the flourishing of all, including inconvenient and ironic relationships that defy mere logic.


If death is far from being the only story, if life is at work too, then where? In the face of what threatens us we tend to forget how much we know about finding our way through difficult, depressing, anxiety-fomenting, soul-sucking, hope-chilling stuff. What’s more, life is not without serious strength. Spinning complex webs of vitality, infusing and energizing all it touches, it breaks forth in unexpected and surprising ways. It suggests and prefigures other kinds of relationships than those that are captive to anger, fear and self-interest as not only possible, not only urgently necessary, but as within reach and, in many places, as already at work. That’s where we need to look, to life, for clues to a deeply accountable way forward ….

Reimagining What Life is Doing

The largest single living organism in the world, in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest, is mycelium, what we all fungi. It is everywhere, though seldom seen until it flowers — in the form of thousands of different mushrooms. Mostly underground, it binds life above the soil in myriad ways. A useful metaphor for thinking differently about what life is doing, the networks of fungal cells, called hyphae, branch, fuse, flow and wrap around and under trees and plants that depend upon these mycorrhizal relationships, not just connecting them and exchanging nutrients, but sharing chemical and, in some cases, even electrical, information about what’s happening around them. How might this inform our understanding of deep accountability? Although we need to be careful not to anthropomorphize nature once more, thinking about mycelium offers us set of metaphors that might help us understand better, and perhaps be amazed by, our own entangled lives. What mycelia do is facilitate new hybrid entities that “combine the abilities of each” to produce “composite life-forms” in “cosmopolitan places”. Through this association the whole not only becomes “far more than the sum of its parts” but, despite being starting off as completely different forms of life, allows for collective flourishing. It’s akin to what Lyn Margulis, in another context, described as ‘the long-lasting intimacy of strangers’.

It’s a partnership that generates vitality, introduces a flexibility that is otherwise 8 lacking, and creates the conditions for “entirely new possibilities” that work to enhance the flourishing of all. As living networks that ceaselessly remodel themselves, mycelia are not only present everywhere but, crucially, as Melvin Sheldrake wonderfully puts it, they act as “brokers of entanglement.” They quite literally bring about a “change from the roots.”

What if we think about our human relationships similarly? Adjacent lives, like mycelium, weave across each other in neighbourhoods, wider communities and, more often than we realize, even national and international boundaries. They also carry down through history, something we recognize now far more than we used to thanks to genetic tracing of our ancestors, whose origin turns out surprisingly often to be quite unexpected. These lives leave knots, lines and traces in us and around us. We awake with surprise to their presence. We can also decide how we respond to this ‘intimacy of strangers’ — either by rejecting it in fear or shame or, alternatively, by embracing it and gaining from it in joy and expansion. We don’t need to be credentialled for this to work – it does anyway. Appearing far less than a top-down intervention and much more like a bottom-up vitality, we need only look for those human hyphae, the leading edges of resilience, imagination, innovation and resistance that branch, fuse, flow, wrap around and under what gives life to relationships, connecting them and exchanging their nutrients. They draw from the past and the flow into the future. By looking for this in ourselves and in our communities and understanding how it finds its way, we can learn what to stay away from, what to join in with, which route to trust and which is likely a ‘dead’ end.


Much in what we experience in institutions and organizations, often with great frustration even when we personally hold high responsibilities and have significant influence, acts to constrain, if not block, the processes and energies that give life. Other priorities attached to roles, structures and purposes defined by ‘the bottom line’ or the ‘institutional identity’ and so on intervene.

So we spent quite a bit of time together, generating a lot of energy, thinking about where in the institutions we live and work in, secular or religious, private or public, we are able to discern these hyphaeic strands of life breaking through that we need to recognize and support.

The contradictions and ambiguities we face make this challenging. Yet, ‘deep accountability’ means taking up that challenge. It is also likely to lead to surprising places and decisions ….


I feel blessed, grateful, happy and excited for the ‘fungal’ connections/ideas, etc. already bubbling up or emerging in this group, sparking an already existing pathway to come alive, regarding how a collaborative, motley group could all work together, as a consortium of sorts, to offer a diverse and specialized offerings to students and others across the world. Without replicating, without territorial cross-institutional fighting, and with a focus on abundance and generosity. I love flipping that script. Where on the world map can this mycelium be sensed, move, grow, thrive, flourish? Most institutions, post- COVID, are quaking in their boots, afraid of being trounced and meeting premature ends. How can we stay alive in this divisive time of limited means? Our ‘fungi’ would embody the opposite of that mentality, a consortium of ever-adapting, ever-moving, ever-learning “learning institutions” designed to help people “learn in place” and “stay in place” to aid their local communities. Building a 9 cohort of young (er) transformative leaders who can help lead us all to a newer “great awakening,” whatever it is that that looks like. That great awakening will help us all to create conditions that will allow us to sustain and build a world/planet that flourishes in terms of improved health and well-being at all levels (individual and beyond), not only for our children, but for our grandchildren and future generations. [TC]


I feel overwhelming gratitude for the people who have brought me into this mycelium guild – sensing, putting out feelers to find, rediscover, resonate with life. I feel a renewed moral obligation (and sense of agency) for what is ours to do in this world, even as I struggle to articulate and live into what that means for me at this moment (especially as it relates to family and the urgency of presence in that space). I feel overwhelmed by many things surfaced in both our structured and unstructured conversations – not just the pathologies, wicked questions, critical uncertainties, etc., but the menu of options they demand. [Matthew]


What I am seeing Rampaging beasts marching to chronos Constantly greater beasts wrestling and provoking dislocation Distorted value apocalyptically presenting itself as salvation The storm is here!!! Selah, breath, wander aimlessly, waddle like bees…..silence. See what is emerging, reincarnating, resurrecting A hopeless hope defiantly facing the storm. Not defiantly, confidently Raging fungal networks of trust reaching unseen towards each other, sensing and growing Those and that which Kairos has formed for this time Emerging, seeking, imagining and acting. Creating and generating real value The storm is here and the world goes not well But so too is the Kairos, at hand and generative. Seek its life. [Craig]


I feel … a mixture of appreciating and enjoying the connections and conversations, and a deep longing for silence too, in my own inner space. I’ve found inner peace amidst life’s many challenges, an authentic expression of my introvert self. I am enjoying the conversations, particularly the learning. Yet I also want to move away from academia. However, this experience confirms that I can still fulfil my need for constant learning through seeing, hearing, and generally sensing from the people around me, and from the environment directly. So, I feel grateful. I chose learning as my keyword … how much I enjoy and find meaning in learning. I link it with growing, with understanding, with deep spiritual significance, with accountability, with agency, with response-ability, with a level of understanding that helps me to respond, to develop empathy and compassion. So it deeply feeds my 10 ability to respond to people and issues with (hopefully) some wisdom. What is my question? How can I build this kind of learning more into my life, and enable those who seek my support to listen and learn more in order to respond to the real needs around us, at intrapersonal, interpersonal, community, social, global and universe levels? [Sandy]


I feel …. Expectant and curious. Optimistically uncertain, not just uncertain. Not optimistic about the prospects or chances of success, oddly. But optimistic that my life, energies, tools, body, relationships, all I know, what I’ve carried and that I left aside might yet be of use (to channel Bonhoeffer). All I want is that – to be of use. And it turns out that seems to be likely. Because I can see that living as a generative node learned over many years and visible in the tracings of vital relationships so obvious here in Greyton is itself useful. Among such seasoned change-makers it is striking how little expectation there is of barns and castles. And how great the confidence that life flows through complex webs of relationships that stay flexible, adaptive, bendable and mutually generative. That’s what I expect because that’s what I see has worked. Not without intentionality or purpose but, better – with accountability and hope. That’s what I see has worked. ‘Leading’ is a name for moving with intentional invitation, untethered by expectations of precision. Not a failure of planning, but the planning for emergent surprise that comes from the synergies and convergent energies born of relationships with complex alive humans who are drawn near for their own purposes. They sense and resonate with the still-emergent yet coherent whole that is not yet fully itself. Wholeness elaboration, which always tempts us. Rather, we are not yet in relationship to the rest of us; wholeness can only come from synthetic emergence — and it is never finished. This keeps us in constant curiosity about who is yet to come and how we together might be more ourselves and thus of use. As an organizing paradigm, this grounds us in humility about that which we are inviting other to complete, but only in the sense of fuller emergence — not our completion, but the further evolution of the greater whole. We are likely to find ourselves already deeply woven, interpenetrated and drawn near already. And how much more as we hone our consciousness to be tuned to what is already happening. We are running out of time and must hurry with expectation that we are already enough. [Gary]
I feel hopefulness and sadness both. At once, I am inspired by the quality of the voices and leadership emerging. By the creativity and innovation and resourcefulness. By the dedication of so many to rise up in myriad ways. And I also grieve; so much suffering and loss. In the midst of all this, here I am. Here we are. Regardless of whether the future may turn out badly, or we move to greater healing and resilience—the call to serve is just the same. Both the blue sky and stormy narratives wash me up on the same beach — be awake; awaken my senses like hyphae, ever open to opportunity and options. Notice what is wanting to happen and transform. What is rising unbidden in all this intimacy that wants my/our attention and love? And may even allow for magic and joy. [Tyler]
I feel hopefulness and sadness both. At once, I am inspired by the quality of the voices and leadership emerging. By the creativity and innovation and resourcefulness. By the dedication of so many to rise up in myriad ways. And I also grieve; so much suffering and loss. In the midst of all this, here I am. Here we are. Regardless of whether the future may turn out badly, or we move to greater healing and resilience—the call to serve is just the same. Both the blue sky and stormy narratives wash me up on the same beach — be awake; awaken my senses like hyphae, ever open to opportunity and options. Notice what is wanting to happen and transform. What is rising unbidden in all this intimacy that wants my/our attention and love? And may even allow for magic and joy. [Tyler]


I am grateful for the presence of this group of people, sad that some of those who should have been here were unable to come in the end. The relatively unstructured indeterminacy of how we are engaging with each other over these five days, leaving 11 room for whatever emerges, requires a level of intrinsic trust to make it possible. This makes it easy to fell strangely affirmed by how readily one or other person picks up on the moment, often with almost profound precision and fittingness. There is a tangible feeling that we are not well in the world now, that the world is not well, that the earth from which we arise and to which we are bound is not well, and that we need to move beyond anything we have known in order to be able to live into the future with something other than despair. This is not to give up what we have learned through hard experience, understood through intelligent appreciation of the way things have been and are at the moment. To forget either the history or get locked into the mere present is a trap, one that many forces and powers that be would like us to fall into. But that’s not what drove this astonishing upwelling in the Greyton Gathering of … I think I would call it ‘life’ …. What will emerge in the end? I don’t know but it’s not the key issue. It’s the process itself that feels meaningful and potentially relevant. From each participant there is such an extraordinary wealth of experience and wisdom, but also a depth of sensitivity and of personal histories of both achievement and hurt, that feeds into almost every discussion, in sessions, over meals, walks, whatever. It’s a resting place for the soul at the same time as it is a chance for our minds to loosen, even if for a little while, from all that we think we know and understand. It’s a generating space for what I mean by spirit: for more fully drawing on our astonishing capacities to think into new possibilities, to imagine how life really ought to be, to challenge each other when it gets too woozy or locked into long-standing passions that are crucial but may also leave us with some myopia about the whole bang shoot, about life, the universe and everything. In order to figure out what we intend with our lives in the world, why we even bother, and how we continue to live for the good of all in the face of all the very real forces and people who seek the opposite. [Jim]


What it feels like — together … Being in Greyton with fellow participants feels like being in a community — a diverse, thoughtful, experienced group of individuals who have known each other through decades or years, who trust each other through a meshwork of intersecting and generative relationships, and who through their presence co-construct a container of belonging, effortlessly negotiating — with grace — the spectrum of “I” and “We.” [Arvind]


I feel a certain lightness of being, knowing that there are others also holding the space to doubt and chaos — thinking about our futures and wanting to bring possibilities. I feel open to being in it, not to stop, to be brave and to face what is coming towards me/us — knowing that the world of spirit is always there, ready to guide and protect. My mantra ‘you are loved and protected’, is there for all of us. Even the little child born into chaos. I think of Anne Frank, young, innocent, hopeful — a life snuffed out — but living on, through her words, to give others hope. Here, this week, there is new hope as we come together, people who are doing good work in the world, with their own hopes and struggles, yet finding time to connect, to make each other strong, to be here in the moment with love and laughter, with possibilities emerging through into dialogue and questions. I feel hopeful. I feel a sense of possibility that we can go into the future with our eyes open. The world of spirit is always there waiting. Waiting for us to ask to be proactive. 12 To give us the confidence and the courage we need to go into the world and to face what comes towards us. This courage is in us and is waiting for our direction. Here, now, we have been brought together to know each other and to bring all our knowledge and skills and thinking and yearning, angst and hopes to lay them bear and open them up. So we can realize that we can do what we can, where we’re at, with the people around us. Spirit is inside and around us in nature, and in the beings of heart. We can go into the unknown. Others have done so before us. We are called to be brave. How do we slay the dragons that we face? How do we, or I, need to practice to build courage? Verse from Rudolf Steiner: “We must eradicate from the soul all fear and terror of what comes towards us out of the future. We must acquire serenity in all feelings and sensations about the future. We must look forward with absolute equanimity to all that may come, and we must think only that whatever comes is given to us by a world direction full of wisdom. It is part of what we must learn in this age, namely, to live out of pure trust without any security in material existence, trusting the ever-present help of the spiritual world. Truly, nothing else will do if our courage is not to fail us. Let us discipline our will, and let us seek the awakening from within, every morning and every evening.” [Beulah]

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