Part of a whole

I’ve been thinking about systems a lot lately.* I keep having moments of realization that we’re all just tiny, tiny parts in a complex system which we can never fully see nor comprehend. This leads to two opposite emotional reactions in me. One is a rabbit hole of doubt because I’m still processing its implications for the social impact work that I do. The other is a shiny ray of hope that helps me to be a creative day to day.

First, the Rabbit Hole

In one of the short stories that comprise his book Sum, David Eagleman compels us to imagine each human being as a cellular piece of an immense, godlike creature — the same way a cell in your body has a role and operates independently without any idea why or how it contributes to the body’s larger ecosystem. This made me think of the immune system: A macrophage sent to the site of a bacterial infection doesn’t know how the infection got there, nor how effective the overall effort is going. It just does its job, trades notes with its colleagues, and tries to discern from the body’s signals whether it should keep fighting or retire for the night. Auto-immune diseases occur when immune cells turn on the body itself, unable to distinguish between self and non-self. Do these rogues understand the harm they may unintentionally be inflicting as they go about their (to-them) natural routines and noble causes?

Who is to say whether we ourselves are helping or hurting in the grand scheme of things? There’s no simple way to assess it because we are inside it. We’d have to seek the outside help of an external being who exists on a much grander scale.

In a lot of ways, this fuels dismay. How can we have collective impact when we can’t even clearly see the bigger picture? When we start to see danger signs, how do we mobilize the entire ecosystem to react when we are one mere cog within the system? Even if we get traction, how do we know that our solution is best? After all, if we imagine all our body’s reactions as neutral, the fastest spreading ones are viruses and cancers.

Now, the Small Yet Shiny Ray of Hope

Let’s shift angles and tackle this idea from a different perspective — from the perspective of an artist.

One of the pre-dominant messages of our culture and the day and age in which we live is that: You are special. You are unique. The contribution you have to give to this world can only be made by your hand, your voice, and the distinct circumstances that have led you here right now to today.

It’s easy to conflate this rhetoric with the idea that our messages also needs to be unique, original, distinct — never heard before and won’t exist if we don’t put it out into the world ourselves. On one level, this can be a great motivator for someone to get her work out in the world. I have a responsibility to tell my story, dammit.

But it’s dangerous, too. That feeling of reading an already-published article that contains the same sentiments of one that’s been hiding out in your drafts folder? That feeling of seeing a comic in your Tumblr feed that shows beautifully what you have been trying and failing to draw for months? That feeling can start to preempt any future attempts at creating and publishing. The pressure to find something unique to say can be paralyzing. And you start to think…maybe you are not a unique snowflake after all.

Well, you are a unique snowflake, my dear.

But you’re also a part of a much larger system, and that system requires redundancies.

If we think back to the immune system: there are many macrophages in the body all tasked with the same job. Some need to be sent up to the throat, and some need to be sent down to the gut. All are unique, all are important, all have jobs to do.

The same is true of an artist or a creative. Someone else is probably creating some version of the same blogpost you are writing, the same song you are composing, the same painting you are drawing, the same joke you are crafting, the same movement you are dancing. And maybe that’s because the prime core of your artwork needs to be seen, heard, and experienced…not just by a small group of people but by the whole ecosystem. To ensure that the message spreads, the system has built in some redundancies. Which is why I feel compelled to write about this topic at the same time that everyone else seems to be fascinated with the same. So that those people in my immediate circle and in my zone of influence can hear this particular message.

That redundancy is freeing. Being a cog in the system is freeing. I don’t have to worry about trying to orchestrate something I have no control over. Once I stop that energy drain of worry, I can focus on the task at hand. I just have to do my work and trust the resiliency of the systems in play that if I am doing something that’s causing more harm than good, then the body will course-correct in time.

We all have our own small roles to play in the grand scheme of things.

* I haven’t dug into the science of systems yet. I’m looking forward to reading Sarah Brooks’s forthcoming book chapter about “designing for systems,” which sounds like a good introduction into that kind of thinking.


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