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December 4, 2012

Ecosystems of change

“For people to adopt a healthful lifestyle,” reports Dan Buettner in a recent issue of the “New York Times Magazine,” “they need to live in an ecosystem, so to speak, that makes it possible.” Buettner’s exploration of the Aegean island of Ikaria, where people are 2.5 times as likely as Americans to live past the age of 90, showcases the inseparability of individual and communal flourishing.

On Ikaria, a constellation of factors yields long lives: a great diet, and few chances to deviate from it; lots of physical activity (little of which could be classed as “exercise”); even regular napping.

But the likely keys to Ikarian longevity are harder to map. Buettner suggests that social structures -- the marriages, families and friendships that knit Ikarians into a densely woven fabric of village life -- are what sustain these communities in healthy practices.

In the Ikarian ecosystem, eating well is easy because there are no McDonald’s and everyone’s garden is overflowing, exercising is unavoidable, because “it’s hard to get through the day in Ikaria without walking up 20 hills,” and loneliness is unimaginable because the neighbors are always dropping by.

As Buettner argues, longevity seems to be tantalizingly suspended in the interstices of a “dozen subtly powerful, mutually enhancing and pervasive factors.” Each virtue reinforces the others, and is in turn sustained by the whole.

Ikaria dramatizes the fact that the virtues and flourishing of individuals depend on communal traditions and practices.

“The story of my life is always embedded within the story of those communities from which I derive my identity,” writes Alasdair MacIntyre, so that changing an individual plotline means re-thinking the larger narrative.

As David Odom argued in “Leading lasting change,” a successful campaign for organizational change requires a “multi-tiered strategy that also targets…families and friends, the organization as a whole and the broader community.”

Effecting change within the Church is no different: because the gospel brooks no division of the Christian life into public and private spheres, the work of forming disciples requires change at all levels, from purging the heart of vice to recasting social structures taken captive to idolatrous greed or hatred.

The Church transforms individuals, not simply by offering moral maxims or inspirational examples, but by constituting an entire counterculture of change. For, as Ikaria’s centenarians can attest, individual virtues flourish only in the greenhouses of thriving communities.

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