How Systems Thinking Made me Kind

I’m a naturally judgemental person. I’m not ashamed to say it. I spend a lot of my time thinking, as much as I can get away with, and when you think about things that much you end up methodically and rationally supporting all of your beliefs.

And when you encounter people whose beliefs are based on ‘what some celebrity said’ or ‘That’s what my mum taught me’ it tends to be a little annoying. Or a lot.

But I encountered an idea recently that changed all of that. It’s called systems thinking.

It’s a complicated theory, but the basic idea is that each one of us is a series of systems. We are made up of our upbringing, our genetics, our life experiences, the way our brain is put together and, crucially, the way all of these elements interact together to make up the system that is us.

When we perform an action, react to something, say something, believe something, it is the most natural emergent of the system that is us. After all, if it wasn’t the natural result then we wouldn’t do, say or believe that thing, would we?  

When you say it like that, it seems obvious. We’ve all seen the result of faulty input into human systems. People who were abused as children as more likely to abuse themselves. Tell someone they’re stupid often enough and they start to believe it and act that way. It’s the reason we use affirmations to encourage attitude change, trying to add new data to the underlying system that will change something in the results of those systems.

Sorry, geeking out here a bit, I’ll get back on track now.  

Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t like this idea. We don’t like the idea that we are nothing but the sum of our parts. We believe that we are something more, that we can rise above the components of our system and be more, that we truly have a choice in what we do and believe and can be.

And we can. But only if we put the right information and fuel into our system.

If we can be more, reach higher, do better, then it is because we have the seeds of that inside of us and then deliberately and dedicatedly act in a way that nurtures these seeds. You can see this in addicts, some of them stick out the program and get free and some of them don’t. Those who relapse don’t do it because of some inherent weakness inside of them that the other group didn’t have, they relapse because a part of their system didn’t support recovery and it brought the whole thing down. To carry this analogy further, this means that you can’t just take an addict and stick him in a sobriety program once a week and expect change. You have to change all of the systems; his habits, his friends, his relationship to the past and to his own pain. You need to change the system if you’re going to change the emergent.

To put it baldly, you have to change the system so that the result you want is the most natural result of the interaction between all the elements involved.  

This has all sorts of interesting implications for criminal justice and drug laws and everything really, but at this stage I’m more interested in the personal level.

Thinking this way can make you a kinder person. If someone is rude to you, mean to you, you often react with anger or hurt, either lashing out or withdrawing but definitely carrying blame and a sense that the other person is a bad person.

And maybe they are, but is it their fault that they interact with other people in that way? Think of the input that must have gone into their systems for hurtful and insulting behaviour to be the natural result today. Remind yourself that if you were them, with the same genetics and background and beliefs and memories, that you would act exactly the same way, there’s absolutely no way around that realisation.

Think about how you might positively change the systems that created them so that no other innocent child has to grow up on the same destructive path.

Realise that the behaviour isn’t about you, isn’t a judgement on you or your life or your beliefs. It’s entirely a result of a system that is somehow flawed or damaged, a set of components that you somehow missed out on.

And do your best to not add those kinds of elements to someone else’s system.






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