How does a system thrive and flourish? What makes a system healthy?

A folktale from the Philippines tells of a large family that lived in a large palm tree house. One day the different members of the family began to argue about who was the most important member. Soon enough, even the parts of the house were arguing.

The poles that held the house high off the ground argued: “I am the most important because I was driven into the ground first!” To this the rest of the poles quarrelled: We are just as important, without us you couldn’t do your job!”

The floor then chimed in: “You poles would be irrelevant if we weren’t here connecting you!”

The cross supports under the floor cried out: “Without us you’d bend and break!”

The walls shouted down to the floor: “Who would walk on you if we weren’t here to create rooms?”

To that the roof beams shouted, “You couldn’t stand up if it weren’t for us!”

The ceiling: “I hold the walls together!”

Finally, the roof: “I keep the rain from pouring in and rotting all of you!”

Then there was a pause. In the silence, all the parts realised that they were all of great and equal use to the whole house. “None of us is important without each other” they eventually all sang out in unison. No sooner did the house stop quarrelling but the family did too. The family, the story goes, lived in peace and harmony from then on, and word has it the house is still standing too.

This story highlights the importance of integrity. In order for a system to function and flourish all of the different parts must work together. Whether that system is the self with all our inner parts and sub-personalities, or society and all its individuals and groupings, or an ecosystem, if there is conflict among the different parts, if some parts are exiled or excluded, then there will be an imbalance or dis-ease within the system.

For the system to flourish there must be integration, which means that the parts are differentiated but linked. The richness of the system is honoured by allowing the different parts to be autonomous and express themselves, but they are linked together forming a larger whole. Each part has its role to play, and by playing its role to the best of its ability it contributes to the healthy functioning and flourishing of the whole.

A simple and obvious example of this is in a sports team. But this is equally true, in an ideal society, where each person is facilitated to express their unique gifts and talents contributing to the larger whole of which they are a part. Problematic parts, whether in society, like criminals, the ‘mentally ill’ etc., or in the self, like angry, sad, or shameful parts, are not coerced or cut-off but are embraced and included within the larger whole, and perhaps, in the process, changed.

When every part within a system is given the freedom to express itself, the whole benefits. Even seemingly troublesome parts have some positive intention, hold some value, bring some kind of gift. When we try to suppress or deny these parts, they rebel, causing chaos and dysfunction within the system.

If we were about to get into a car, we wouldn’t start taking removing parts and expect it to drive well. Nor would we think we can amputate parts of the body and expect the body to work the same. The integrity of the system would be compromised. Yet so often we take this surgical approach towards difficult parts of ourselves (How do I get rid of my anxiety? How do I make this depression go away?), or troublesome individuals and groups within society (Drug addicts, the homeless, terrorists).

Whether it is within the self-system or society when we learn to relate to different parts with kindness and compassion, appreciation and acceptance then integration can take place and healthy growth can occur. When all parts of the system are honoured and included there is wholeness (Health).