Mutualism and the Biology of Teamwork

Friendships, romantic relationships, familial relationships all have something in common: they are usually mutually beneficial. In our most healthy and valuable relationships, the characteristics that we value the most are those things that improve or add positive energy to our lives. I personally place high value on loyalty, respect, authenticity, and compassion. I recently did an exercise of listing my personal core values, and those four things were near the top or at the top of my list of values. Why? Because they reflect a personal commitment to oneself and to others to honor the relationship they have with you as a part of the community to which they ascribe.

In symbiosis, the word for such a relationship is mutualism. The name speaks for itself. In a mutualistic environment, the organic interaction is mutually beneficial, both organisms supporting the other’s highest good and survival. They make each other better and look out for one another’s best interests. There is a pooling of resources, each organisms acting in their strengths for the collective benefit of the interaction. Another way of describing this is reciprocal altruism, a behavior where one organism acts in a manner that temporarily reduces its fitness while increasing another organism’s fitness, with the expectation that the other organism with act in a similar manner at a later time. Sounds a lot like the covenant of marriage, doesn’t it? But this level of commitment to mutual “fitness” is not limited to marriage. This is the way the early church functioned after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. There was such a sense of community and shared responsibility to and for one another. Every member brought what resources he or she had, in an effort to make sure that every need was being met. And this is what we do in our personal relationships when they work well. One of the things I find myself saying often to the people with whom I share a relationship is “If I have it, you have it.” It’s a statement that I genuinely mean, and what I am really saying is that, whatever resources I have that can help you, I will use to that end. It may not necessarily be monetary in nature. It may be running an errand, sharing my time and strength to lend a hand, or even something as seemingly simple as a listening ear. We often hear the word “resources”, and immediately think financial. But resources are not limited to the financial. Resources include anything that you can do or share that will uplift and “increase the fitness” of the other person.

By no means do I mean to say that relationships will be perfect. The truth is that relationships are messy, and that, to some degree, is by design. Humanity is generally flawed, which means, at some point, we will fall short of the mark. You are going to disappoint people, not intentionally, but it will happen. The key to successful relationships, no matter what setting or relation, is an abundance of unconditional love, grace, and mercy. No one gets is right all the time, and no relationship is 50/50 all the time. Often times, it is 80/20, 90/10, 25/75, 0/100, etc. But, as long as the balance sways in the other direction, you will find value and merit in that relationship. Remember the concept of reciprocal altruism, and you will get much further in said relationships. There is one catch: Don’t expect the pendulum to swing back in your direction the exact same way you swung it away from you. There is a well-known relationship book called “The Five Love Languages.” In it, the authors list the five main ways we all receive and feel love. And, while there are people who share similar love languages, no two people share all in common. In an ideal world, we communicate to others in their love languages, and they respond in ours. But, you and I both know that the world is far from ideal, and this is where grace is important. When the ones we relate to attempt to reciprocate and it doesn’t translate quite the same way, we need to remember to honor the effort they showed.

Psychologists like to call this relationship interdependence. Interdependence is the mutual reliance between two or more groups. In relationships, interdependence is the degree to which members of the group are mutually dependent on the others. In an interdependent relationship, participants may be emotionally, economically, ecologically and/or morally reliant on and responsible to each other. An interdependent relationship can arise between two or more cooperative autonomous participants (e.g. a co-op). (via Wikipedia) No matter how you frame it or redefine it or label it, it all boils down to the same basic concept of understood give and take between persons who are in a healthy and thriving relationship with one another. In such an environment, people not only survive, they thrive. In this safe place where they know that they can depend on others if needed, but are also encouraged to be independent and supported in those endeavors. This is why this is a healthy environment – it promotes growth and healthy change.

There is an area of concern here that one must be aware of. Healthy relationships always have the potential to become unhealthy relationships if not maintained well and regularly evaluated. Some of the closest and best relationships often devolve into parasitic relationships (which I will get into in the next blog post) simply because people are not diligent to prevent it from happening. And it usually happens slowly over time. This is usually the infamous one person “outgrowing” of another in the relationship. You are doing your best to continue to grow and be better overall, while the other person contributes less and less over time, until you wake up one day only to realize that you are no longer in the same place with this person. You have grown apart. It’s okay; sometimes it is a necessary part of the life journey and the growth process. There will be different people who will be pivotal to your growth process at different stages. And not everyone will understand or support that growth or the new place of self-worth that you achieve. These are the people who you must choose to release, or you put the growth that you achieved in jeopardy and you run the risk of regressing, all for the sake of “preserving the relationship.” This is an unhealthy choice. You are never to sacrifice your health and well-being – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual – for the sake of saving a relationship. If that is what is required of you, it’s not worth it. PERIOD. The most important thing I have ever learned from being burned over and over again by people who clearly did not care about my well-being in a relationship is that you are allowed to WALK AWAY from anything that threatens your peace of mind, body, and soul. End of story. And it doesn’t require being nasty or mean. But it does mean that you have to know where your boundaries are, and assertively protect them at all costs. I won’t get into this too deep, because I will address it in the next post, but it needs to be said here as well. In good, healthy relationships, people who love you and value you as a person will, not only honor your boundaries, but they will defend them.

 

The Biology of Relationship

    Science, for me, has always pointed to the brilliance of the Creator. Biology, in many ways, mirrors how we function and dysfunction in relation to one another. After have a discussion with my mother about relationships, and the more I thought about it, I began to realize that, all I needed to know or learn about the nature and function and purpose of relationships, I learned in biology. Human relationships are quantified or categorized based on status and value of the relationship, what they contribute to your life journey. Nature categorizes organic interactions in very much the same way. Human interaction is called relationship; organic interaction is called symbiosis.

    Symbiosis is classified based on location (internal or external), connection (together or separate), necessity to survival, and consequence (benefit or detriment). If you think about it, we could define human relationships in very much the same ways, although the labels and adjectives would be a little different. Here’s what I have learned about life relationships through the study of science.

    In symbiosis, the three most common scenarios are mutualism (both organisms benefit), commensalism (one organism benefits without doing great harm to the other), and parasitism (one organism benefits to the detriment of the other). These have parallels in the sphere of human relationship, with slightly different labels but the same understanding. The bottom line to all this is that each and every relationship has and serves a purpose. No encounter or experience is wasted once you understand and embrace that truth. Whether it is intentionally mutualistic, or unintentionally parasitic in nature, there will always be a lesson to be learned – about life, about relationships, about oneself. The purpose and goal of life is to learn from and grow through each and every experience, and then share that knowledge and wisdom with others. Every victory, every defeat, every heartache and heartbreak, every disappointment is an opportunity to grow. Remember this: Defeat is not defeat if you learn something. We were created to live in relationship — with our Creator, with ourselves, and with one another. And, when we neglect or deny that innate part of who we created to be, it causes us great pain and the journey of life becomes much harder. Therefore, it is imperative that we engage our relationships and do all we can to learn as much as we can so that we can get the most out of those relationships. So, with that in mind, what follows are the things that I learned in life that symbiosis has helped me better articulate and share the wisdom that I have gleaned so far.

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