The Nygaard Notes Fall 2021 Pledge Drive is over. It was a big success! Thanks to all of you who sent in a contribution to help keep Nygaard Notes publishing. I depend on your financial support, as it allows me to carve out the space to do the time-consuming reading and research that go into every issue of the Notes. Pledges are still coming in, and are always welcome, Pledge Drive or no Pledge Drive! But already the coffers have been re-filled to a level that should get us to the next Pledge Drive.
Financial support is not the only kind of support that readers offer to this project. Along with their Pledges, many readers include very supportive notes. My favorite from this Pledge Drive is a simple handwritten note that said, “Mr. Nygaard, By far the best fundraising campaign!”
Beyond the crucial financial support, readers email me and write me letters all the time, offering moral and intellectual support in the form of new ideas, critiques, stories, and other responses that have to do with things I’ve written or things they have experienced. The issue you are reading right now, for example, includes two pieces that were written in response to two such writings by readers. I had no intention of publishing them. But these readers made me think, and when I think I write. And often you get to read what I write. It’s a communal project!
My thanks to the two readers I just mentioned—you know who you are!—and my thanks to all the rest of you who have written to Nygaard Notes recently. If you haven’t written to me recently, well, what are you waiting for!?
I’ve got several ideas for the next Nygaard Notes. I’m not yet sure which path I will be taking. But, thanks to YOU, some path I WILL take, and I’m very happy that you’ll be coming along with me to see what we find there.
On November 22nd the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in Stockholm Sweden issued a major report called “The Global State of Democracy Report 2021: Building Resilience in a Pandemic Era”
Part 1 of this issue’s “Quote” of the Week comes from Jutta Urpilainen, the European Commissioner for International Partnerships, who had this to say upon the Report’s release:
“The Global State of Democracy report is not a wakeup call, it’s an alarm bell. Authoritarianism advances in every corner of the earth. Universal values – the pillars of civilization that protect the most vulnerable – are under threat.”
The press release accompanying the report supplies Part 2 of the “Quote” of the Week:
“The number of backsliding democracies has doubled in the past decade, now accounting for a quarter of the world’s population. This includes established democracies such as the United States, but also EU Member States such as Hungary, Poland and Slovenia. More than two-thirds of the world’s population now live in backsliding democracies or autocratic regimes. Overall, the number of countries moving in an authoritarian direction in 2020 outnumbered those going in a democratic direction… Half the democracies in the Americas have suffered democratic erosion, including notable declines in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador and the United States.”
Read the Report for yourself HERE
By the way, it’s not all bad news. The Report also says, “But democratic erosion is not a one-way street. Many democracies have proved resilient, including during the Covid-19 pandemic, by introducing or expanding democratic innovations and adapting their practices and institutions in record time.”
Still, if you find the Report depressing, then you’ll really like this issue of the Notes, which is all about not getting depressed!
Over the years, readers have written to me to ask me how I can spend so much time writing about “depressing” things. I know what they mean. That is, I’m aware that the pages of Nygaard Notes are often filled with news of war, climate disaster, white supremacy, and other difficult subjects. It was back in 2004—during a long-ago Pledge Drive, in fact—that a reader wrote a check to Nygaard Notes that included a note on the subject line that read, “Thanks for the great journalism and the good, if depressing, news.”
For some reason that simple comment got to me, and I ended up writing a four-part series that I called the “How Not To Get Depressed” Series. In it, I really tried to understand why it is that I don’t get depressed thinking about all the stuff I think about. I introduced the series by saying “I believe I’ve got it: it has to do with how I think. Not what I think. How I think.”
I thought this insight might be useful to Nygaard Notes readers. I still think it might be useful, so here in brief summary are the four simple points I made, lo these 17 years later:
In Part One—Thinking “Systems”—I recalled how I came into contact with what is called “Systems Theory,” saying “it seemed clear to me that there was a way of thinking involved in this worldview that seemed to explain behavior far better than the way I had assumed. Up to that point I – like ‘most everyone I knew – thought in terms of causation: What is it that makes people do what they do? I’ve stopped looking for that answer. I’ve adopted a different way of thinking.”
In Part Two—Thinking Dialectically—I said “Well, all this theory is fine, but what does it have to do with not being depressed? The fact is that how you think affects how you act. So, if you really come to understand the universe as composed of systems, and if you think dialectically, then you are bound to act differently than you did before. But, how? And why should you care?”
Part Three—The Power of Action—made a simple point: “If you ‘do something’ to make the world more aligned with your values, you will feel better.”
And in Part Four—A Radical Faith—I concluded by saying that “I believe that my work, as it adds to the work of others with similar values and similar dreams, DOES make a difference, DOES add a drop or two to the stream of justice, even though I have no ‘evidence or proof’ to support this. That’s the power of faith. A radical faith in the future.”
The main point I was making in the How Not To Get Depressed series was that the adoption of a systems way of thinking can not only help us better understand how the world works, but it also can be emotionally and spiritually transformative. At least, it has been for me.
I didn’t expect all of these changes when I started exploring Systems Theory. It just “made sense” to me to think this way. But now I see that my personal systems-related evolution involves more than my way of thinking. It also “makes sense” for me in terms of how I relate to the world, and how I maintain an optimistic outlook after so many years of thinking about and working on all these things that so many people consider depressing.
In the next essay I point to five distinct changes that I think you will notice if you practice relating to the world using a systems orientation. Don’t worry, I’m not trying to convert anybody here, like some sort of Systems evangelist. I’m just saying that a systems orientation is really a different way of operating, and if you practice relating to the world this way you might notice some important changes in your personal life.
In the year 2021, when so many people seem anxious and depressed about the state of this heartbreaking world, it seems like a good time to reiterate some things I said in 2004. Speaking of heartbreaking, 2004 was a time when the Presidential campaign that would see George W. Bush be RE-elected was underway, which caused a lot of anxiety and depression among many of my friends and supporters. That election is the last time that a Republican has won the national popular vote in this country. It was pretty bleak. A lot of people were feeling then kind of like a lot of people are feeling now.
It was in that context that I published the “How Not To Get Depressed” Series that I mentioned in the previous essay. In Part One I went so far as to say that “If you really start ‘thinking systems,’ it can have a positive impact on your mental health, on your relationships, and on your stress levels.” Here are the five changes I suggested you might notice—in your personal life—if you were to embark on such a path:
1. First and foremost, YOU WILL STOP STRUGGLING WITH THE DEBATE ABOUT WHETHER PEOPLE’S BEHAVIORS ARE DICTATED BY THE ENVIRONMENT IN WHICH THEY LIVE OR BY THEIR INNATE BIOLOGICAL NATURE, sometimes called the “Nature vs. Nurture” debate. It’s both, and we’ll never know how much of each one makes you who you are. In fact, if you want to look at it in an even deeper way, you may begin to see that the “inside” and the “outside” are the same thing. Now I’m getting into what some might call the spiritual realm, so I’ll leave it at that. Let’s just say that you can dispense of the “Nature vs. Nurture” debate when you start “thinking systems.”
2. YOU WILL STOP BLAMING OTHER PEOPLE FOR YOUR PROBLEMS. You’ll also stop taking the blame for the problems of others. Since someone else’s behavior can’t “cause” you to feel or act a certain way, it doesn’t make any sense to blame them, and vice versa. A little slogan from my counseling days says it well: “When you’re praising or blaming, you’re not thinking systems.” This doesn’t mean you will become an insensitive, self-centered jerk. You will of course remember that your behavior contributes to the context in which we all live – including YOU.
3. IT WILL BE MUCH HARDER FOR YOU TO JUDGE OTHER PEOPLE. Once you understand that everyone’s behavior grows out of a complex web of experience, genetics, opportunity, and who-knows-what, it becomes nearly impossible to think of people in terms of “good” and “evil.” (Including yourself!) Actions, policies, and behaviors can be judged in relation to personal or social values, to be sure. So I can condemn, for example, domestic violence, since it goes against my values. And I can condemn the behavior of certain institutions, for the same reason. Judge behavior, yes. Judge individual people, no. It doesn’t make sense if you’re thinking systems.
4. YOU WILL TAKE INCREASED RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR ACTIONS. Once you stop believing that someone else can “make” you do something, you also have to let go of the idea that you need someone else to change in order for you to be the type of person you want to be. At the same time, a systems approach says that context and interactions have a large influence on behavior. Systems thinking is not some “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” type of thinking.
5. THE SLOGAN “DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU THINK” WILL BECOME MEANINGFUL. That is, once you understand that everyone’s view of the world – including your own – is influenced by all sorts of things out of the individual’s control, it is a very humbling experience. My own youthful view of what determines success or failure in life, for example, was heavily influenced by the circumstances of my upbringing. And by my race. And by my gender. And by my status as an able-bodied person. And by my genetic endowment. And so forth.
What you have just read is a summary of things I wrote in 2004. It wasn’t until 10 years later, in 2014, that I began to talk about what I now refer to as “Systalectics,” by which I mean a combination of “systems” and “dialectics.” And I’m beginning to understand that it’s more than a “way of thinking.” It’s really a way of situating oneself in the world. I call it a “Systalectics Orientation.” At least, I call it that at the moment; the changes in my consciousness are still happening.
I write about Systalectics all the time, so I won’t go into it here. Instead, I’ll offer the next two essays, which are composed of correspondence I’ve had with two long-time readers, who are also good friends. One has to do with bitterness, and the other has to do with forgiveness.
About a year ago a long-time reader and supporter of Nygaard Notes wrote to me, talking about bitterness. Earlier that autumn I had written a piece called “Don’t Be Discouraged,” in which I suggested that the adoption of a systems approach—or what I now call a Systalectics Orientation—was the key to maintaining a positive attitude in times of trouble. This reader was troubled, and spoke of bitterness, specifically bitterness of a type which “does not seem to be something that systems thinking can reach.” The reader said that they were feeling a sense of bitterness when speaking with friends and associates about the current state of the world. “This bitterness seems often to be wholly justified,” they said.
I wrote back to this Nygaard Notes reader, addressing his points, and also connecting a bit of my personal history to the phenomenon of Trumpism. Looking at my response a year later, it seems interesting enough to pass on to all of you. So, here’s a good part of what I said:
“I found myself curious to know why I personally do not feel bitter, despite having suffered at the hands of others at various times over my sixty six years. I think it has to do with my not taking things personally. I’ll use the example of my father, at whose hands I suffered years of abuse. As a youngster, I hated him. But as I grew up and my world got bigger, I began to think systems. I came to see that he was in a lot of pain, and that his pain was bound to express itself in part by inflicting pain on others. I was a handy target, but I came to believe that the abuse had nothing to do with me. He had to do what he did – or at least he believed he had to – but he didn’t hate me, any more than a predator hates its prey.
“So, in that sense, I disagree with you about systems thinking not being able to address deeply felt individual wrongs. In fact, my personal experience has led me to believe strongly in the therapeutic power of a change in narrative, the type of change that is inescapable when moving from a linear to a systems thought style. Shaping the narrative is a huge part of leadership, and Trump’s power to create a victim narrative for the white working class has been perhaps his greatest ‘success,’ and it won’t go away when he’s out of office. Hopefully it will be greatly diminished, but that’s not guaranteed in today’s information environment.
“Your letter led me to look up ‘bitterness’ and Oxford says it is ‘Anger and disappointment at being treated unfairly; resentment.’ In yesterday’s Notes (issue #661; this was written in November 2020) I quoted the scholar Jason Stanley saying, In the past, fascist politics would focus on the dominant cultural group. The goal is to make them feel like victims, to make them feel like they’ve lost something and that the thing they’ve lost has been taken from them by a specific enemy, usually some minority out-group or some opposing nation.
“I think the bitterness that you have observed has been intentionally cultivated by the Trumpist intelligentsia (an ironic-sounding term, as Trump himself lives in the realm of emotion rather than intelligence). Political strategists know that fear is the most easily-manipulable emotion, and that to conjure up a fearsome, subhuman ‘them’—Trump’s Job #1—is to generate enormous fear. This fear is the precursor of the anger and disappointment which energizes the ‘base,’ and which has produced the phenomenon known as Trump. My fear that Trump is not the apotheosis of Trumpist fascism is what I am getting at in Nygaard Notes #661. (‘Fascism in the United States?’)”
Astute readers may notice that I refer repeatedly to “systems,” despite the fact that I have been trying to replace that term with the more all-encompassing term “systalectics.” Old habits die hard.
The previous essay looked at how systems thinking relates to bitterness. This essay takes a look at systems thinking as it relates to forgiveness.
A good friend and supporter of Nygaard Notes last March published a short piece called “Forgiveness.” I’ve thought about Forgiveness a fair bit, so I wrote to this reader to say that their piece “made me think. And so,” I said, “I’m going to try to express something that I have only occasionally – and without much success – attempted to explain before.” Here’s where I went from there:
“As the years go by, and I reflect and learn and experience more and more, I realize that forgiveness is not something I do.
“It’s not because I can’t let go of my anger, or bitterness, or whatever. In fact, it’s the opposite! I honestly don’t think I harbor any ill will toward anyone. I have no grudges, I don’t identify anyone as a transgressor, I’m not inclined to see anyone as my ‘enemy.’ So there’s nothing to forgive!
“I think the closest I get is that there are some people I don’t trust, and from whom I keep my distance.
“Of course, there was a lot of abuse when I was a child. But I don’t take it personally. Not for many years. I was pretty angry as a child, but no more.
“How can I say this?! I ask myself.
“When I studied to be a chemical dependency counselor I was introduced to systems thinking. It changed everything! When I’m thinking systems – which is now my default thinking style – I just don’t take things personally. When people do things that hurt me, I assume that it is THEIR pain that is acting out, and that it’s bound to impact whoever is in the radius. If it’s me, then it hurts, but there’s nothing to forgive. In fact, I may have somehow triggered their pain, so if anyone is to be forgiven, it might be me! But I know that whatever I may have done was not intended to inflict pain – although it sometimes takes some effort for me to remember that!
“Hmmm… That sounds like I absolve myself of any responsibility for any bad deeds that I have committed, I think. Well, THAT’S certainly not my intention. I simply extend to myself the same assumption that I extend to others: that my bad behavior is a function of my pain, or neediness, or yearning, or self-judgement. Or whatever it is that is making me uncomfortable in the world. The hardest thing is when I think I am not doing as much as I think I should do to help.
“But I don’t want people to ‘forgive’ me, whatever that might entail. If anything, I want to be held accountable, without being judged.
“I’m surrounded by people who love me. Sometimes we hurt each other. Sometimes the wounds take longer to heal than other times. Sometimes I struggle to understand what went wrong. But I don’t blame anyone else for my struggles, so there’s nothing to forgive.
“Finally, I don’t think it is my place to forgive anyone. If there is pain that results from my actions, or inactions, then I have a responsibility. But who am I to forgive anyone? I don’t blame them in the first place. They’re trying the best they can, just like I am. I have to assume that; how would I know otherwise?
“Yikes! I don’t know if I’ve expressed what is in my heart. But I do think about this quite a bit.
“Thanks for your writing about forgiveness. Something you wrote helped me to at least make an attempt to understand this odd facet of my spiritual life!”
Not every letter from Nygaard Notes readers produces a response as personal—and lengthy!—as this one, of course. But sometimes these personal stories help people to understand why I do some of the things I do. It is in that spirit that I offer these tales of bitterness and forgiveness.
I’m in the middle of reading a fascinating book called “Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism,” by Charles W. Mills. I mention this because Charles W. Mills died on September 20th. I will miss him greatly, and I want to say a few words here about this intellectual giant.
Mills was a philosopher, and a very articulate critic of the philosophy “establishment,” which in the West has long been dominated by white men.
I first mentioned Mills in these pages back in June of 2015, in an essay called “Thinking About Police Violence, Thinking Systems.” I cited Mills’ definition of racism as “a set of misleading views that distort social realities in ways that serve to create, perpetuate, and justify racial domination and unfair racial advantage.” This is a STRUCTURAL understanding of racism, and it contrasts with the individualistic understanding which Mills tells us reduces racism to “a racially-based ‘ill-will’ that is the product of the individual’s vicious heart.”
Mills’ 1997 book “The Racial Contract” had a huge impact on me, as it helped me to understand the centrality of race in U.S. history, and the profound ways in which white supremacy has distorted our understanding of that history. It had such an impact on me, in fact, that in 2016 I published a multipart series, Part 3 of which was “The Racial Contract, and Beyond.” You might remember it; I quoted Mills extensively. I talked about The Enlightenment, the birth of capitalism, and the Social Contract. I explained what the Social Contract is, and said that “the philosopher Charles W. Mills offers a different way to understand the basic origins of the United States, and of the Social Contract itself.”
Mills, perhaps more than any writer I have read, brought me to understand that the Enlightenment idea of the Social Contract forms the moral foundation of the United States, and perhaps more broadly of the fuzzy entity sometimes referred to as “Western Civilization.” And, as I strive to understand the true nature of the land of my birth (bringing Nygaard Notes readers along with me on that journey), Mills has forced me to confront the painful reality that he states like this:
“One could say, then, as a general rule, that white misunderstanding, misrepresentation, evasion, and self-deception on matters related to race are among the most pervasive mental phenomena of the past few hundred years, a cognitive and moral economy psychically required for conquest, colonization, and enslavement. And these phenomena are in no way accidental, but prescribed by the terms of the Racial Contract, which requires a certain schedule of structured blindnesses and opacities in order to establish and maintain the white polity.”
Mills was truly an original thinker, demanding of his fellow (mostly white) philosophers that they let go of the standard definition of Social Contract theory with its fantasy about equally-powerful individuals agreeing on the shape of society. Said Mills: “The simple central innovation is to posit a group domination contract which is exclusionary rather than genuinely inclusive, and then rethink everything from that perspective.”
Charles W. Mills has helped me to rethink everything. I’m sad that he has passed from the earth, but I’m happy that he lives on in his many books, and in the hearts of those whose lives he touched. R.I.P. Charles W. Mills.