“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…
This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.
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.
In order to understand the world, we need to think in terms of the systems that make up that reality. We tend to see things in isolation, but in reality, everything is connected. As they saying goes, when a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil it creates a tornado in Texas. When we cannot see the forest for the trees, in our own personal life, or in the world, we can use systems thinking to help see the bigger picture.
A system can be understood as any entity in which the parts relate to each other in a pattern and these parts are part of a larger whole. Systems are made up of smaller systems (subsystems). For example, a state contains counties and cities; the digestive system is part of the larger system of the human body; and society is part of the larger system of life on earth.
Richard Schwartz explains that whatever system you are examining is the ‘system-of-focus’. This system may be a subsystem of a larger system and may also contain subsystems within it. When we examine a family, we can see that it is part of the larger community, culture or society as well as being composed of smaller systems of individual persons within that family.
So, when is something a system or when does it become a system? For example, is a pile of parts for a car a system? Only when they are assembled in a certain way (into a car), do they become a system and this system is more than the sum of its parts. This means that all the parts when brought together but not in relationship with each other are simply separate parts. But when they interact and create certain patterns, they become a system that is more than the sum of all those parts when they are together but separate. When made into a ‘car’ they have a structure and relate in a patterned way.
A cybernetic system is one that can self-correct. The car is dependent on the driver or mechanic. Cybernetic systems are able to regulate themselves by being sensitive to feedback from the environment and changing their behaviour accordingly. Positive feedback amplifies changes in a system and brings it further out of balance while negative feedback reduces changes from the ‘steady state’ and brings the system back into balance or homeostasis.
Systems have boundaries that indicate what is and what is not part of the system. These boundaries are not closed so the system is said to be open. When a system becomes part of a larger system like a car entering a road of traffic it becomes embedded in that system. When embeddedness happens both the smaller and larger systems influence and are influenced by each other. The smaller system can be, to varying degrees, constrained by the system in which it is embedded.
Human systems are cybernetic. They are organised to maintain homeostasis in a number of areas for example maintaining closeness to other people but also managing the level of conflict that can come with this. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once compared humans to hedgehogs. When they are too far apart, they get cold and so are out of homeostasis. To correct this, they move close together to warm each other but then their sharp spines hurt each other and they must retreat again.
What are some of the systems of which you form a part? How do these systems interact and influence each other? What subsystems comprise the system that is ‘you’?