Seeing and Influencing Patterns in Relationship with Death

When I was diagnosed with aggressive brain cancer that has an average survival rate of 18 months, I found myself thinking often of the training I had done a few years before that with the Human Systems Dynamics Institute.

When I took the training, I applied HSD’s practices for seeing and influencing patterns mostly in the context of my consulting work with organizations, helping groups I worked with develop healthy and productive working habits. When cancer prompted me to face the end of my own life, I became much more interested in seeing and influencing patterns in my personal relationships, in my self-identity, and as I let go of the work I had been doing.

With the end of my life much easier to imagine, I started seeing my own identity as less limited to my own brain and body, and more like a complex adaptive system, a concept I’d learned from HSD. As I was thinking about this, I found a definition of “mind” from the neurobiologist, Dan Siegel, that reminded me of what I’d learned from HSD about complex adaptive systems. Siegel defines mind as “an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information. From that view, I saw myself as a set of patterns--generated by the interactions between my brain, the rest of my body, and all of the people and environments that I’m connected with. When I die, those patterns don’t stop. While I’m alive, I have a finite amount of opportunity to influence those infinite patterns. I started to see my identity much more in my relationships, and not just stopping at my own skin. Death can be helpful in that way.

When I found out about the cancer, my kids were 10 and 13, and being a good dad to them was the biggest reason I wanted to stay alive for many more years. Since it was now a medical probability that I wouldn’t be alive long enough to see them graduate from high school, I wanted to do all that I could now to contribute to their lives while I was physically with them. As a friend of mine with cancer says, I want to trust that all the love that my kids need from me is already baked into them. I started grabbing my kids hands and crying about how much I loved them. My kids and I made videos of me telling them all the stories that are most important to me. Through those stories, I wanted to explicitly hand them some of the patterns in my life that were most important to me. My kids patiently put up with their sentimental dad. HSD’s model of Finite and Infinite Games helped prepare me to play both finite, limited games like making videos with my kids, while also contributing humbly to the infinite game of life coming through me, and countless other sources, to contribute to the growth of my kids.

I had brain surgery 2 days after I found out that I had a brain tumor. That forced me to abruptly pull out of all the work projects I was doing, a big source of grief for me. In the process of letting go of work I had been doing, HSD helped me reframe my work as a set of patterns that I could support with new roles. I stopped directly facilitating and organizing, but I eventually focused more on individual support of others doing the work I had been doing, and more storytelling. I was able to listen for and cheer on patterns, without having to push for things to happen myself.

A principle I learned from HSD is that when a situation appears intractable at one level, go up or down a level in scale. At a different scale, you might be able to shift patterns that will ripple down to the original situation you were focused on.

When my brain tumor was first diagnosed, there was a high degree of certainty about the problem--there’s a big thing in my brain that wasn’t supposed to be there--and also a high level of agreement among experts and patients about what to do--have surgery to cut it out, and then do the standard protocol treatment of radiation and chemo. HSD’s Landscape Diagram helped reassure me that in times of high certainty and agreement like I was in, it is appropriate to follow established protocols and procedures.

After three brain surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, and a clinical trial, I completed all the medical treatments available for my diagnosis--but my prognosis was still poor. Most people in my situation still died within months. Without any medical treatment planned, I felt an increase in uncertainty, and there was a lack of agreement among professionals and peers about what to do. I learned from HSD that in times of low certainty and low agreement, it is a good time to look for the best fit in the moment, explore action at multiple scales, and create connections where you can. This framework help increase my comfort that it was an OK time to thoughtfully make stuff up to support my health, and try things on multiple levels.

In this time of instability:
I went to a smaller scale, and focused more on my internal wellbeing. I reviewed my life so far, in writing and conversations, looking especially for where I felt gratitude or regret. I wrote dozens of letters expressing both thanks and apology.

I paid more attention to larger patterns that I was a part of, and how I could both contribute to and receive wellbeing from them. I committed myself to sit by the Mississippi River, close to my house, every day, letting the birds, trees, and water teach me about the ways I am a part of this watershed. From sitting by the river, a project grew where I collected and shared many stories from others of healing and change that came in relationship with the river. The river helped me relax into larger patterns and lessen my panic about my own survival.

In this time after medical treatment, I also started attending to the larger scale of the health care systems I was a part of. I started hosting gatherings for other patients and health care providers to share their stories of illness and healing, supporting them to notice and name patterns that supported or hindered health.

While attending to these other levels of wellbeing, I noticed that I was still alive, and, in fact, feeling better than ever. My prognosis still isn’t great, but I keep getting more opportunities to see and influence patterns that support health. That led me to a conversation with Glenda Eoyang, and then others in the HSD network, about how we can see and influence patterns in relationship with death--our own mortality, the death of those we love, and patterns with death in communities and systems.

I’d like to invite you into this conversation about how we see and influence patterns in relationship with death. On Friday, July 27 in St. Paul, MN, I will share stories about working with patterns in facing the probability of my own death. Mary Nations will share stories about the loss of her wife, and how she has seen and influenced patterns in her roles as partner and caretaker, and now as widow with relationships continuing yet different. Sam Grant will share stories of seeing and influencing patterns in communities and systems in relationship with death. After our stories, Glenda Eoyang and Wendy Morris will facilitate conversation as we all reflect upon seeing and influencing patterns in relationship with death. I would love to learn from and with you.

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