Looking for the Leading Causes of Life

Back to Winter 2021: Volume 109, Number 4

By Gary Gunderson and Somava Saha

It is rarely good news when the chaplain gets a call in the hospital; the patient is often past consciousness or hope of healing. When I became a hospital person, I found it odd that only a very small fraction of hospitalized patients die (about 2 percent overall). Most everybody goes back home, albeit not entirely the same or whole. Why are chaplains not called to help with the challenges of reentry, which often call for fundamental spiritual discernment about how to live the rest of one’s life and pick up the roles of father, sister, neighbor with changed capacities?  Our civic body has been through a near-death experience this year, confined by disease into rules like those governing hospitals—even masks! Hundreds of thousands of us have passed away—more than we can process in our isolated havens. But most of us are now contemplating returning to our roles with a sharply heightened sense of having a life ahead that must not be wasted on the former trivialities, distractions, and tribal claims. This could just be a time for frenzied repair of all the damage. But this may be a time to lay claim to what faith is actually for: life.

Life is a word that we use as if we’ve thought about it. But as we’ve experienced these COVID months, we have a far richer vocabulary for pathology and all of life’s risks. Maybe it dates from our times on the open savannah, when hypervigilant fear gave that half-step we needed to avoid the lions and hear the quiet movement of the snakes. We know too much about the causes of death and too little of life. As we navigate from the isolation and tribal schisms of the past year, we need to think more systematically about how to build toward life, so that our living days give life a chance to flourish in all the neighborhoods, networks and social spaces we love.

Mt. St. Helens in the process of regeneration Photo by Adrian on Unsplash

If you think of the civic body as a kind of mature forest, you might think of 2020 as 1980 was for the ancient old growth forests on the slopes of Mount Saint Helens that were blown sideways, blasted by fiery wind and buried under hot ash. What was broken? Everything, just like we feel now. How do you rebuild a whole forest system? Researchers discovered something at Mount Saint Helens we might find hopeful: organisms both living and dead that were described as “biological legacies” helped accelerate recovery.

To quote from a U.S. Forest Service description of the researchers’ findings:

Biological legacies made it much easier for species to colonize the landscape and in areas with many survivors, complex biological communities developed rapidly. Mount St. Helens showed that even in a radically disturbed environment, organisms can survive and become source populations for colonizing the disturbed area. This finding challenged the theory that colonization comes primarily from outside the disturbed area.

What matters now in our tortured civic life is that the life we didn’t notice was there, with generative capacity we had no idea was possible. When everything falls apart, we need more than “put it back together” experts. We need to understand how to systematically work with the generative social capacities we had no idea were there.

Since 2004 a quiet fellowship has been working to see if it is possible to speak of the leading causes of life with anything like the useful precision with which we address death. At the time I was working for The Carter Center, and from time to time was asked to speak at events where President Carter could not get free (imagine the disappointment of the audience! And pressure on the speaker!). So it was that I found myself following Dr. David Williams, now at Harvard, at a conference on disparities in infant mortality in Milwaukee, where kids of color were born underneath a couple generations of burning civic ash. He named what was so deeply and completely wrong, leaving me—with my PowerPoints of programs—feeling superficial.  I knew we needed not to study death anymore that day. It was the first time I had spoken publicly about the leading causes of life—the urgent work of any thinking grown-up. Since that time, a small global network has emerged focused on a very different kind of list of causes. The causes of death are relatively simple—something breaks, wears out or gets buried or starved. Life is always dynamic, complex and adaptive. It out-generates death through social processes far more interwoven than any forest. Life is not the problem; it is what works.

And recreate them, if for instance, we create things captured for tribal exclusion against the life of the whole.

Where would you look for life after the civic volcano? The biologists noticed that life was liberated by what looked like destructive processes—erosion and floods exposed “legacy biologies” and created entirely new ponds. In many cities the overwhelming of civic systems by COVID exposed civil muscles and legacy structures, including those of faith. Shared leadership moved into the broken spaces, creating new functional webs. In Winston-Salem, North Carolina, our faith networks could pick up and go where the public health contact tracer could not reach into the families with good reason to fear being found. Viral stigma, more crippling in many ways than COVID, was defeated by the human capacity to build connections, find coherence beyond legal status, act collaboratively, and generate new shared work to restore hope. That happened exactly where one would not expect unless one thought that life was going on, not just death.

It is easy to confuse spirit with religion, the ever-generative universal human capacity with the many attempts to express the Ultimate in human rituals, institutions, creeds and philosophies. Even mature faith traditions can see times when their best has been captured by their worst and most exclusive energies. But to seek renewal without spirit is like trying to outrun the lion without muscles connected to the bone. The Springboard document, drafted by hundreds from many disciplines located spirit exactly there, as part of “civic muscle.” This kind of spirit is not instead of the denominations and traditions. However, it helps us look to that radical diversity of religious form to see how it serves our hopes of renewal. Perhaps we can see the “legacies” buried, as if in ash, that have the possibilities of generating the new vitalities our civic body needs over these months and years as we move from COVID to civic wellbeing that science and faith make visible.

In other times of American history there have been Great Awakenings marked by an upwelling of religious energy and massive revivals. The volcanic shocks of 2020 may trigger another one as we imagine a new civic possibility, not just backing away from the fundamental and obvious causes of our death. The earlier awakenings were all marked by the dominant language of the Christian faith; this one will need to be tuned in the key of diversity, inviting us to discern common spirit that leads to life. This is the testimony of the leading causes of life: everything we hope for is already happening. Pause, notice and move toward life.

What might life—and renewal—look like in our civic body?  What can we learn from life itself, and from communities, that helps us to see a path forward?

Where have we seen the “buried legacies” sprouting life in communities? In dialogues with thousands of community residents across the nation, held by Well Being Legacy project, a theory of change began to emerge, which eventually became a theory of creating more thriving—more life—for the Well Being In the Nation (WIN) Network.  First, they told us that to get to life, we need to deal squarely with the spiritual and civic illnesses of our civic body—which come from legacies and systems of racism, colonialism, gender inequity and other injustices which perpetually trap and limit the life and contribution of people and communities experiencing inequities.  If we instead can come to see people and communities wealthy in tapped and untapped potential, if we can approach the process of creating equity from a perspective of releasing mutual abundance, it creates life.  If, grounded in a process of truth and reconciliation and a shared knowledge of our common purpose and destiny, we can advance shared stewardship between resource leaders and community residents with living experience of inequities to transform policies and systems of inequity to those that create life, we can create unprecedented levels of thriving for everyone.

In the 100 Million Healthier Lives initiative, a global, multilocal movement across the world, we found that this spiral of life could be unleashed anywhere. A county in Wyoming that transformed a “not in my backyard response” to a 50 percent reduction in youth homelessness and a 100 percent increase in seeing youth experiencing homelessness as community leaders.  A community in Proviso Township, Illinois transformed efforts to “get a community in poverty to eat better” to unleashing a community-driven movement toward a sustainable, equitable and wealth generating food economy.

A community in rural Algoma, Wisconsin, eliminated school resource officers from their school, built cradle to career programs for youth development, social and emotional resilience, and community transformation.  Women in Kenya in deep poverty found ways to imagine and enact a better future for their families and communities. These communities, which demonstrate a positive spiral of civic life, not only showed the leading causes of life, but had developed systems and processes and mindsets that we called Community of Solutions behaviors, which can be thought of as leading causes of civic life:

  1. Relationships – They shifted their relationship to themselves, one another, and those affected by inequities in a way that grew trust and a knowing of one another’s strengths, needs, and assets.
  2. Change Process – They approached the change process differently in a way that was about creating and working toward shared vision, displayed a humble posture of learning, improvement and shared accountability with those affected by inequities, and advanced direct policy, culture and system change to address root causes of inequities in practical ways.
  3. Abundance – They brought their assets together in usual and unusual ways to accomplish their goals; they recognized that growing the leadership of people most affected by inequities was a pathway toward abundance; and advanced generative and generous sustainability.

Communities that had established these patterns of civic life found themselves to be resilient and abundant in the context of a systemic stress test, such as the Coronavirus pandemic.  They were able to immediately mobilize their assets to meet the needs of those affected by inequities (e.g., families lacking internet so that kids could continue school and parents could work) as well as others in need in the community (empty schools became PPE factories staffed by community residents and youth to help keep health care workers safe).  They found that civic capacity built innate preparedness in ways that built agency, resilience, connection, contribution, and abundance. In these communities, it protected human life and strengthened civic life. All from the ashes of COVID.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

The giant sequoia knows how to create life in the midst of crisis—they invest in creating seeds, which become fully activated in the context of a fire.  If we can invest in building civic capacity—seeds—before a fire, I suspect we might build the community resilience we need to create life through the other fires we have before us—climate change, reconciling our legacy of colonialism and slavery, creating an equitable economy. Rather than being afraid, we can recognize them as opportunities to reclaim life, to renew who we are to one another, to ourselves, and to the world around us.

Gary Gunderson is Vice President for FaithHealth at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and Professor of Faith and Health at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

Somava Saha, MD MS is a Baha’i who has spent over 25 years working to grow thriving people and communities in some of the “poorest” places in the world.  She serves as the Founder and Executive Lead of Well-being and Equity (WE) in the World and Executive Lead of the Well Being In the Nation (WIN) Network.


CDC Foundation and Well Being Trust (2020). Thriving Together: A Springboard for Equitable Recovery and Resilience in Communities Across America. Milstein, B. Roulier, M., Kelleher, C. Hartig, E. and Wegley, S. (editors).

Gunderson, Gary with Pray, Larry (2009). Leading Causes of Life: Five Fundamental Ways to Change the Way You Live Your Life. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

McGaughey, Doug & Cochrane, James. (2019). The Human Spirit: Groundwork. Cape Town: The African Sun MeDia.

Tickle, Phyllis. (2008). The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books.

Saha, S. Overview of SCALE and a Community of Solutions. SCALE 1.0 Synthesis Reports. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Institute for Healthcare Improvement; 2017

Bobby Milstein, Jack Homer, Monte Roulier, Elizabeth Hartig, Dalila Madison Almquist,
Somava Saha, Tami Gouveia, Sara Ivey, and Tyler Norris, Well Being In the Nation Theory of Change https://winnetwork.org/win-theory-of-change, last accessed 12/17/2020.

United States Dept. of Agriculture Pacific Northwest Research Station. (2018).  “Mount St. Helens: A Living Laboratory for Ecological Research.”  Retrieved from https://www.fs.usda.gov/pnw/projects/mount-st-helens

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