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Breaking Free from Competition into Cooperation

Three of the many lovely green growing things I welcomed to my little casa recently. I am hoping we can work out a lovely cooperative arrangement that benefits all!

A couple weeks ago I watched a wonderful documentary called In Search of Balance.

I chose it because the film addressed chronic illness (and if you’ve been following along here for at least a few weeks, you know my interest in this topic is quite personal!).

But the film’s focus ended up being altogether deeper than that.

I learned something I was really surprised I didn’t already know, which is that the majority of relationships in the natural world are not competitive in any significant way.

Rather, they are cooperative.

I adore nature shows and watch them in volume. Over and over again, I have seen how the tiny helpless prey fish come and clean the giant predatory shark’s skin clean of parasites.

Skilled hunter bats share their meals with younger, older or simply unskilled bats who didn’t get dinner…and often (although not always) the favor is returned on down the road.

Most recently, I read a story about how humpback whales intervened to protect a diver, whose presence in the water that day was to work for marine conservation, from a predatory tiger shark.

And yes, these wonderful stories aside, there is plenty of competition out there as well. Food, shelter, mates, protection Рthese are things we all need, regardless of species.  Essentially, on some fundamental level, every being on this planet is both predator and prey.

But there are as many useful cooperative, collaborative relationships in our networks as there are competitions, and sometimes it is actually cooperation that sets the stage for successful competition!

In fact, a recent study shows that humans – us – are far more predatory than even the fiercest predators in the natural world. On average, we kill 14 percent more fish and 9 percent more game than the “eat or be eaten” cycles that go on daily in the natural world.

Snif. Sometimes I really do want to change species.

Speaking of which, the film also taught me that all of our fellow species, us aside, have evolved to cooperate as much if not more than they compete. This boils all the way down to the microbiome – the micro-organisms in our soil and inside our own skin – that governs whether our food is even safe to eat, let alone nutritious.

The film explained that there is something inside each of us called the “micro-biome.” According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), this micro-biome is the same yet different for each of us. In other words, everyone has it, but each person’s individual micro-biome also looks different….like a microscopic fingerprint, I guess.v

The soil that grows the food we eat also has a micro-biome. Like ours, its micro-biome is made up of teensy tiny fungi, bacteria, and micro-organisms that work together with the soil to make sure it is healthy and can grow healthy crops that make us healthy when we eat them.

At least that is how I understood it from watching the film. From what I could gather, if the soil gets depleted, the food we eat (both produce and meat) also gets depleted.

The upshot seems to be, yet again, cooperation. We need each other. When the soil is healthy, we are healthier. When the Earth is healthy, we get healthier too. In this way, chronic illness – my own and the epidemic occurring on this planet – appears to be as much about a lack of cooperation with ourselves as it is our competitive outlook towards life.

On that topic, near the end of the movie, one of the experts talked about what happens when we get deficient in exposure to nature. Bigger than the soil, bigger than the food we choose, bigger than any of it, a deficit of nature itself can actually cause us to start to die.

I believe this. Even though I am no scientist and couldn’t begin to tell you how that particular expert came up with his conclusion, I know that when I haven’t been to the beach in awhile, I start to shrivel a little. And not just in my body – my soul shrivels too.

When I am not able to get to the park to walk or to the local nature center to commune with the forest and its inhabitants, a part of me forgets how to live. Or, perhaps, it forgets why it wants to live.

Most interesting of all, watching this documentary helped me get a global grasp on what I was studying so intensively all last year – the lifelong struggle I’ve had to move from scarcity to sufficiency. I am starting to realize that Darwin’s “survival of the fittest,” while certainly biologically accurate enough, didn’t do us naturally competitive humans any favors psychologically or spiritually.

Sure, we need to compete on some level – all beings do. But in order to compete successfully, we also need to cooperate, and we tend to need far more of latter than the former. We need each other – same species and different species.

Near the end of the film, another author is interviewed on his thoughts about nature in urban spaces. He proposes working our way towards creating what he calls “nature-rich” cities. I loved this!

Right after I watched his segment, I started dreaming about plants.

Two days and multiple trips to the local gardening store later, I had filled my tiny casa to the brim with green growing things to purify the air and perk up the atmosphere for me and my little flock. In return, I plan to offer them plenty of clean water and nourishing fertilizer, good company and (hopefully) some measure of cooperative safe refuge from the big box gardening center I rescued them from.

It took me an entire 12 months last year to realize I could actually make the shift away from thinking and living from a scarcity mentality – one I now realize was based on a belief that competition is all that’s out there for me.

This year, as I work on my new year’s intention of becoming a blank canvas, I feel certain that cooperation – with myself, with others of my species, with nature itself – is going to be key.

Today’s Takeaway: If you had to choose one or the other, would you say you are more of a competitive person or more of a cooperative person? Regardless of where you fall right now on that spectrum, do you resonate more with one or the other approach to life? Do you think people can re-learn how to cooperate with nature, whether in the form of creating “nature-rich” urban spaces like the film’s expert talked about or in some other way? If yes, what do you think it will take to get there?

Breaking Free from Competition into Cooperation

Shannon Cutts

Parrot, tortoise & box turtle mama. Writer. Author. Mentor. Champion of all people (and things) recovered and recovering.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2018). Breaking Free from Competition into Cooperation. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 30, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 Mar 2018
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