The need for inter-connected thinking

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In my last blog, I promised to let you know where the many discussions following our New York screening of the connected baby had taken us. The answer is: to a greater awareness of how many themes the Early Years Movement pulls together.

I want to illustrate that by calling attention to two stories featuring in the US news this week. One is the story of the CNN Heroes of the Year Award, which went to Robin Lim. Ms. Lim founded the organization ‘Mother Robin’, which delivers prenatal health care to poor women in Indonesia. In her acceptance speech she said:

Every baby’s first breath on Earth could be one of peace and love. Every mother should be healthy and strong. Every birth could be safe and loving. But our world is not there yet.

The second story is that of a recent TED talk, by Annie Murphy Paul, who is the author of the book Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives. A science writer, Paul says that she was ‘as surprised as anyone’ when she first encountered the idea that learning could begin in the womb. She summarises the findings she is writing about like this:

What it all adds up to is this: much of what a pregnant woman encounters in her daily life – the air she breathes, the food and drink she consumes, the chemicals she’s exposed to, even the emotions she feels – are shared in some fashion with her fetus. …The fetus learns the answers to questions critical to its survival: Will it be born into a world of abundance, or scarcity? Will it be safe and protected, or will it face constant dangers and threats? Will it live a long, fruitful life, or a short, harried one?

These two stories have been treated by the media as separate news items, but they both speak to the same point: that if we are to have the kind of society we want – one with less crime, better mental health, better physical health, stronger communities, a more stable economy – then we need to think about the needs of babies. And that means that we need to think about the experiences of fetuses. And that means we need to think about the needs of mothers. And that means we need to think about the experiences of mothers-to-be. And that means…

I am trying to say something that is straightforward and yet rather profound: that the problems we face as individuals and as society are inter-connected. And so are the solutions. If we are to solve our bigger challenges, we have to be sure we are thinking and acting in a relational manner.

Although this may sound obvious, I am constantly surprised and intrigued by the strong emotions that we humans often feel in response to information with which we are presented. Those emotions frequently keep us from thinking, letting alone acting, inter-connectedly. Take the responses page to Paul’s TED talk as but one example. Comments about her talk range from ‘seems very convincing but I’m still skeptical’ to ‘totally common sense and disappointing” to “this is really interesting’ to ‘I can’t understand why TED invited a journalist instead of a real scientist’.

If information about the importance of pregnancy was indeed ‘common sense’, then there would have been no call for Robin Lim to set up a new service for pregnant women – because that service would already be standard. The fact that she was chosen as the recipient of a Hero’s Award shows that her inter-connected thinking is still considered by a majority of us to be unusual and brave –- or no committee would have felt compelled to give her an Award.

We will be more successful in solving our societal challenges when Robin Lim’s insights are commonplace. We will be more successful in solving our societal challenges when we take relationships as seriously as Lim and Paul do. Babies born in peace and love as a solution to prison populations? Radical! Not.

I found myself thinking about this challenge of inter-connected thinking when I gave an interview to a local radio station about this week’s screening of the connected baby, in Albuquerque, New Mexico on 17 December, which you can listen to in full on this podcast if you wish.

Most of my conversation with the radio interviewer, Susan Loubet, was about bigger societal issues, like domestic violence and crime and policy implications. Yet the film touches on none of those issues directly. The film is a joyous documentary about babies’ innate capacities to connect with other people. The comments coming back to us about the film say to me that this capacity remains “surprising” and profound for far too many of us.

We will be better placed to solve society’s challenges when we treat relationships as seriously and joyously as the babies in our film (still) do.

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