Creating Connections

May 29, 2009

This past week had me contemplating what it means to be of use. Listening to one NPR Morning Edition program, I began to tally all the problems on the Obama administration’s plate: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Supreme Court Justice nomination, lack of US cyber security, the economy, the environment…and the list continued. It was overwhelming as I thought about what it must take to attack all these issues with a calm and thoughtful approach. You’ve got four years to change the world, so where do you begin?

Meanwhile, watching volunteers and brave souls in the Dominican Republic the week before, I was struck by all they each could add to their list — sanitation, nutrition, access to education, reduction of teenage prostitution…you’ve got the rest of your life, so where do you begin?

When studying how those who take on societal problems, or engage skillfully when fighting against an institution like a culture or a government, I notice that it is about planting seeds. It is rare that you will win the whole battle within your lifetime, so what seeds can you plant that might take root? It is about doing your part as a generation within many generations before and after you. For example, Rosa Parks did her part, as did those before her and as we must do today in the battle of basic civil rights for all citizens. 

Sand Mandala

Author and conservation activist David Quammendescribes the importance of creating connection between wilderness areas as critical to ecological health. Fragmentation creates islands and it is within islands that we experience extinction. As I listened to David describe this concept last night in support of the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, I realized that this was a beautiful reframing of how we might think of fighting a good fight to resolve what seem to be irreconcilable differences. In other words, in my actions am I creating islands or corridors? As these great long battles shift and redefine itself, so what can I add to create more connection rather than fragmentation? Is this not only the work of the environmentalist, but also that of every individual who seeks to improve a society?

Navajo Sand PaintingTibetan mandala

I wanted to include a brief video of Peter Donnelly of Christchurch, New Zealand, who plants seeds of connection, creativity and a reminder of the temporal nature of being here. He reminds me of the practice of the Tibetan sand mandalas and Navajo sand paintings, as seen above, which are painstakingly created only to be erased. In all three there is the message of bringing forward your gifts regardless of the final outcome.


To see more of Donnelly’s art, go to

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

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