What follows are very incomplete thoughts and reflections on some recent readings. I would love to hear your ideas and feedback.
The world is a system made of systems, all inherently living–what Donella Meadows defines as “a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time.”
As I’ve come to better understand systems thinking and social change at a cursory level, I’m realizing that change starts within each of us. As we are part of systems, we are part of the problem, and therefore we are also part of the change. That change begins when each of us realize that we create both sides of the equation.
The authors of Presence: Human Purpose and The Field of the Future explain that an integral step in the process of changing a system is recognizing that we are part of the system, and not a victim. The authors write: “if ‘we’ are creating the problems we have now, then we can also create something different.” Because systems are living, they can change and recreate themselves; that’s the beauty. But to create that change we have to shift our mindset on an individual and collective level to recognize that we can change the system. (The notion that this also applies to the systemically oppressed and exploited seems unresolved or inadequate or insufficient. But I think the theory, on the whole, is interesting.)
The authors of Presence argue that being present and aware–by coming to a point of epiphany of each of our roles, and our own and collective histories–is integral to the process of change. Empathy also plays an essential role–it leads to understanding the root causes of problems by “feeling them from within” through empathy and “seeing with the heart.”
In his book on learning about empathy from primates, The Age of Empathy, Frans de Waal discusses the other side of the invisible hand often forgotten from Adam Smith’s philosophy. Smith’s theory of the invisible hand relies on honesty and morality much more than he is credited. “In effect, society depends on a second invisible hand, one that reaches out to others…The feeling that one human being cannot be indifferent to another if we wish to build a community true to the meaning of the word is the other force that underlies our dealings with one another.”
De Waal concludes that problems in society stem from lack of trust. Sympathy—a proactive concern and desire to improve the situation of others is not the answer, and perhaps even perpetuates problems, however well-intentioned. Empathy is “the process by which we gather information about someone else,” or the cliché, “walk in someone else’s shoes.” (This great animated video demonstrates the distinction between sympathy and empathy.) Instead of helping others out of sense of pity and desire to solve others’ problems, empathy leads to helping due to a sense of cooperation and togetherness for a shared future that recognizes everyone’s dignity.
Empathy is important to recognizing the problems within our systems, and also for shifting system behavior. Feeling empathetic isn’t sufficient though. We have to both think and do–a deeper form of learning and changing.
We each have to be better and do better, shift our behavior and practice empathy. Because we make up the system, and we aren’t going anywhere. There is no planned obsolescence for mankind, despite the fact that we continue to treat each other and the planet cruelly. Even on a smaller scale, changing individual problematic players in a system is not the answer. Meadows argues that simply changing the people in a system is not enough to create real change: “I said a while back that changing the players in the system is a low-level intervention, as long as the players fit into the same old system. The exception to that rule is at the top, where a single player can have the power to change the system’s goal.”
If the players in the system change themselves – rather than changing the players in the system—then that may be the difference. That change starts with the players realizing they make up and drive the system, empathizing (not sympathizing) with the other players, and then cooperating to change the system together. Of course, there is much more to it than that, but it sounds nice in theory.
A good place to start is with each of us recognizing the roles we play in our systems. As the authors of Presence write: “When we learn to see our part in creating things that we don’t like but that are likely to continue, we can begin to develop a different relationship with our ‘problems.’ … we’re inevitably led to the question ‘So what do we want to create?'”