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  • Writer's pictureDavid Knell

Systems Are Stages

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

I stepped outside tonight to see the Super Moon, reportedly the biggest and brightest of 2020. As I stared at it, a massive cloud rolled across the sky almost covering the moon but not quite.

How are clouds formed, I wondered. I know how water evaporates into steam. But what forces shape clouds into different types of cloud formations? What atmospheric conditions result in a cumulus versus a nimbus versus a cumulonimbus?

I pictured a water slide, one of those curvy ones with an open top, like a looping halfpipe that carries some water downward constantly. A cloud formation is like the water, being shaped by temperature, air pressure, and other forces, which act like the pipe. The shape of the pipe shapes the water. If the pipe were invisible, you would see a waterslide-shaped stream of water.

I’ve always known climate is a system, but this struck me tonight: a waterslide is a system too. The water circulates: the output of water is carried back to the top of the slide and entered as input. There is a set of structures in place—the slide, its supports, the pool at the bottom, the pump that sends the water back to the top—to maintain this fixed system.

My eyes were still on the moon, and I thought about how the relationship between the moon and the earth is a fixed system too. An endless round held in place by invisible, curved spacetime that keeps the balls rolling forever.

This entire earth—its ecology, geography, meteorology—is one complex set of systems. Human society is, too, with its economy and institutions.

In my faith, a scriptural but not-often-mentioned belief is that the purpose of the earth is to be inhabited by people. Humans aren’t just some accidental byproduct of the earth being formed; rather, God wanted a place for His children to have the experience we call life—to grow and learn and have families—so He formed the earth as a place where that could all happen.

As that belief met with these thoughts about the moon and clouds being systems, an idea struck me.

Are all systems just . . . settings? Backdrops. Environments. Are all systems just the support network that allows something else to be possible? Are all systems just the means for some end?

In my last entry, I wrote about a “machine” and a “mission.” The machine isn’t an end in itself. It exists to perform a higher purpose. The example was a car. A car is meant to work: engine, transmission, oil, all that stuff. But its purpose isn’t to function. Its purpose is to take a driver where she wants to go.

Another word for “machine” is “system.”

The purpose of a waterslide is to bring a rec center patron a moment of fun. The slide needs to function, but just functioning isn’t the point. The point is making a human happy.

A stage needs to function. Moving floors, lights, curtains, set pieces that slide in and out. But functioning isn’t its purpose. Its purpose is to support a play, whose purpose is to entertain, instruct, delight, move an audience of people.

That stage has a lighting system. That lighting system has, among other things, an electrical subsystem, which has at its core, a natural system of particle behaviors we call physics.

You can go down and down and down into deeper and deeper systems. But even the deepest system, if you go up and up and up, serves a higher purpose that has something to do with people.

A house is a set of systems. Its purpose is to be a physical and emotional shelter for its residents (people). A company is a complex system. Its purpose, ultimately, is to provide customers (people) with products and services that meet their needs and employees (people) with an income. A body is a series of systems. Its purpose is to support its person in doing that person’s purpose.

As an aside, it’s a good rule of thumb to ask yourself about any venture or decision or small action, “What higher purpose does this serve? And is this the best way to achieve that purpose?” When you grab a Snickers, the reason is that you’re hungry. The purpose of hunger is to remind you to fuel your body with nutrients so you have the materials your body needs to function and the energy to do the important work you’re here on the earth for. Ok, great! So is a Snickers the best thing to eat to achieve those purposes? Given its limited amount of nutrients and its excess amount of sugar and other ingredients that will hamper the goal of having energy and good materials in your body, probably not.

This idea of systems as settings for a higher purpose brings to mind the principle in Gestalt Perceptual Theory of figure and ground. It’s a simple principle: when we perceive a sight, we interpret it as having figures (moving entities) and a ground (a backdrop those entities move across). Actors on a stage. Cheetahs lurking through grass. A bird flying across the sky. Your mouse cursor moving across the screen.

I wonder if ground is always a system, there to allow and support a figure to live on and interact in it. That entity that moves, if it moves on its own, is likely a living thing. If there is a point to this world, is it not to be found in relation to its living things? As stated already, that’s my belief.

What does any of this matter?

Because knowing a system’s higher purpose provides you with the proper perspective on how and whether it needs to be used, maintained, and upgraded. If a system isn’t meeting the needs of people, the system needs to change or be replaced by one that does.

Tax systems. Government structures. Family processes. Relationships. Morning routines. Software code. Diets. Security protocols. Even things as large and seemingly uncontrollable as climates and ecologies.

But perhaps more important is that just knowing that every system has a higher purpose, and that that purpose is, at its highest level, about supporting people—that puts a system, no matter how important, in its place.

I, for one, endlessly tweak and mess with and try to optimize the systems in my life. And at the end of the day, I often have nothing to show for it but the personal pleasure of tinkering. But that pleasure, like so many, is short-lived and becomes pain if it never led to purpose.

Thomas S. Monson’s famous couplet is a strong reminder: “Never let a problem to be solved become more important than a person to be loved.” The highest end of solving a problem is always to benefit and support people. So to cast aside people in the pursuit of solving a problem is wrong-headed and often like the proverbial bug fix that causes three more bugs.

So, conclusion?

Perhaps it’s that anything that is a system is not an end in itself. It is a support structure, directly or via additional systems, for people. And the inspiration and end result of all systems, of all endeavors, of all actions, of all thoughts ought to be the loving, helping, delighting, uplifting, educating, improving, strengthening of people.

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