In 1958, China’s Chairman Mao Zedong raged war on sparrows. His reasoning was on the surface logical enough: The sparrows stole the fruit of the people’s labor by eating their seeds. Zedong commanded his 653 million citizens to bang pots, pans, and drums until the sparrows fell out of the sky from exhaustion.
Zedong was logical, but shortsighted. Free of predators, the locusts thrived and swarmed across the hills and plains of China. In the end, that misguided decision contributed to the Great Chinese Famine that killed twenty million people by starvation.
Now let’s make a seven-thousand-mile leap from China to Washington D.C. The year is 2016. Congress is still in gridlock. But it was not always that way. As recent as the 1970s, representatives and senators met behind closed doors to unravel the Gordian knots of partisan politics. But after Watergate, such meetings were held suspect and the system was changed. Negotiations became more public and, consequently, less productive. The Atlantic columnist, Jonathan Rauch, was on target in his 2016 article, “What’s Ailing American Politics?”
“Smoke-filled rooms, whatever their disadvantages, were good for brokering complex compromises in which nothing was settled until everything was settled.”
A third example. In the desert of Southern Idaho there is a ranch for at-risk teenagers. Some of the teens arrive against their will in the middle of the night. Most are belligerent and spoiled. They are in for a grand paradigm shift. For the next month they will wander the desert with blankets roped to their backs. The first few days are spent in complete silence. Their first task is to march eight miles across the desolate landscape. If they make it, they will be fed; if not, they will go hungry.
As the month progresses, they learn to start a fire without the convenience of a match. They circle up in the evenings, pass a talking stick, and disclose their innermost secrets. By the end of the month, at least eighty percent of them are transformed by a new sense of achievement through struggle and responsibility.
And then they go home.
They are changed, but for how long? Their families and friends have not shared their experience; it is not something they can grasp or even respect. What they do understand is their own way of being. So they naturally do whatever they can to remold their child, brother, sister, or friend into the culture they know—even when the culture is dysfunctional.
What is the common thread of these three examples? It is this: a lack of understanding regarding the power of systems.
All things are part of one or more systems: an interrelated tangle of ecology, political relationships, interpersonal dynamics—and much more. Ignoring that association is tantamount to courting disaster.
Zedong was ignorant of or disinterested in the systemic nature of an ecological food chain. Members of congress were either ill-advised or politically coerced to abandon a time-proven process for crafting winning bipartisan compromises. The leaders at the wilderness survival ranch were correct in teaching responsibility and the natural consequences of ill-mannered behavior, but wrong in throwing their graduates back into the fray of an untrained and often chaotic social system.
Finding enduring solutions to complicated problems is never easy, but it is virtually impossible without a studied analysis of the natural or ruling system.
Now let's get up close and personal. How is this relevant to our daily life? The late American psychiatrist, Murray Bowen, who was a professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University, explored the intricacies of family systems.
Very briefly, these are three of his most important findings:
- Family members fall on a continuum of autonomy. Some are more emotionally and intellectually differentiated than others. That means they are more independent and, therefore, more likely to form their own moral code. Others are less differentiated and more likely to be fused to the family ideology and, consequently, far more dependent upon the family for approval and acceptance.
- Family triangles are formed within the family, often pitting two low differentiated members (two insiders) against a highly differentiated member (the outsider).
- A differentiated member is often emotionally cut off from the family through physical separation, silence, or the deflection of sensitive issues, such as politics, religion, or personal lifestyle.
The healthiest families are characterized by high differentiation, allowing unique differences to flourish and, consequently, removing the need to engage in triangular warfare and emotional shunning.
The point is that no one lives in a vacuum. We are all members of multiple systems. Understanding that is key to recognizing how our decisions negatively or positively impact the lives of others. It has the power to save literally millions of lives.