I love the word systemic.

I remember when I began to apply it broadly, around the same time I was having my “social justice” immersion experience with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Systemic injustice, prejudice, inequality. It projected this internal struggle against these ills outward, acknowledging that even if we are able to somehow uproot them in ourselves personally, they remain in the world “systemically”.

I think most reflective people must go through a period of estrangement with the overlapping and often conflicting systems that govern our behaviors in both local and global communities. At some point we become aware that though we think we are acting individually, we are still subject to these powerful currents that we can only marginally effect with our modest dog paddle.

Greek Jesus Photo Bombing...
Greek Jesus Photo Bombing…

The systems we distrust may be governmental, religious, educational, cultural, familial. And the period we enter or remain in this ocean of distrust varies greatly. Some people find their cynicism and social critique early. Some people wait until mid-life. Some people pass through it quickly, others get stuck, immobilized or thrashing against these powerful vortexes that organize human behavior.

In grad school I read some “pivotal” work about the Cuban Missile Crisis and varying theories about its escalation and de-escalation. The one thing that remained with me was the introduction of a systemic conflict theory. It was all about how systems themselves behave. How though these systems are originally built by the individuals within them, at some point, “God in the Machine” takes over and the Standard Operating Procedures that have been put in place may begin to work against the individuals that created it. In other words, the system becomes more interested in self-preservation than preservation of all the selves that make up the whole.

I think of it like cells in a body. Any deviation from the expected/accepted behavior and the white blood cells perceive the cell as a threat to the organism. Understandable. Estranged or mutated cells and souls can begin to erode systems, undercut them, attack them. Sometimes the systems have set themselves up for this rebellion. They have become unresponsive to those within for too long. Other times cells may be frustrated by a perceived lack of evolution when it may be that the rate of change for a system is so much slower than that of an individual cell.

But what would we be WITHOUT our systems. I like to think about those I couldn’t do without. Road systems. Communication systems. Support systems. School systems?

I’ve promised myself I’m NOT going to write about work until next week, but I will confess this. I think systemic auditing necessitates both kinds of divergent thinkers. Those who remain apart and those who remain a part. Those that choose the objectivity available (at least to an extent) on the outside of systems, who can call out directions or heckle from a better vantage point. And those who, despite the admitted mess, slow progress, and subjectivity that exists within systems, nevertheless choose to remain a part, in relationship with the very system that may slow its individual evolution.

At someone point I realized that though I like playing the free agent…I like to play this role WITHIN a system. Not without. I’m the weird aunt that people keep considering not inviting to the family potluck because she always brings something made with chia seed and talks about systemic social injustice. But I won’t be pushed out simply because I create a little good-hearted cognitive dissonance for the people around me. What’s more, I am a better version of myself, I find, when I can count on the patterns of others to create some order in my self-embodied chaos.

When it comes down to it, I’ve come to believe we don’t change each other through argument. We change each other through relationship. Individually AND systemically.

I’m benign, not malignant. I promise.


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