Understanding Ourselves

Since the 1980s, leprosy is largely curable. In recent times the WHO has made the treatment widely and freely available. However, in spite of these advances, leprosy is still a problem in many countries. As Joy Rafferty, author of Curing the Stigma of Leprosy says,

Despite great advances, leprosy is still a problem in many countries. It is estimated that between 11 and 12 million people living in the world today have suffered from leprosy. Although most of that number will not now have active disease, for many the stigma of leprosy is still real and needs to be addressed. 

It is simply not enough for the medical profession and society to treat the disease and ignore the patient as a whole person. Many, despite their leprosy being dealt with, are still living a sub-existence, mere shadows of their former selves and their true potential.

So, it would appear that the complex ‘ball’ of reality that goes into being human produces a fear of being ostracized that is even greater than the fear of disease and deformity.  This may not seem reasonable or rational, and on paper would not seem to make sense, but value-judge it as we like, it is still largely true.

And it isn’t just about leprosy – this fear is also true of a multitude of other social issues and illnesses from HIV/AIDS to spousal abuse and depression.

A linear system is one that can be broken into sections, reassembled and will – once it’s back together – be just the sum of its parts.

Human society – and human beings – are not linear systems.

A complex, dynamic system has to be viewed as a whole if it is to be understood and – very commonly – it is much more than the sum of its parts.

Human society – and human beings – are complex, dynamic systems.

This may seem like a fussy distinction – after all, why would it matter what kind of a systems we form?  But the thing is, it does matter because, as Steven Strogatz, the mathematician and author of Sync says –

“…structure always effects function.” (1) 

Human beings are not a collection of symptoms but are people, each with their own unique self and experience, living in families and communities and societies with a whole, complex range of factors influencing everything about them. Any attempt to deal with a part of this system in isolation – no matter how important or sensible – will always run the risk of failure.

It seems obvious that this is true and yet we still persist in making the same mistakes whenever we approach human problems.

I really wonder why this is – you’d think we know better by now, wouldn’t you?


Joy Rafferty – Curing the Stigma of Leprosy – Leprosy Review (2005).  Volume: 76, Issue: 2, Pages: 119-126 – PubMed: 16038245


One comment on “Understanding Ourselves

  1. nrhatch says:

    I expect it’s because we are so complex and multi-faceted. It’s virtually impossible to follow all the “threads” back to their source.

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