I’d been traveling a lot and it’d been too long since I’d lunched with Bernard and Maddie. Maddie came to our table with a hat – a small, foppish affair that coerced a dopey grin from me. Of course, with the political sensibility of a place setting and a casual kind of emotional awareness, she was the closest thing I knew to an autistic savant and an odd foil to Bernard who had seemed to reverse this equation, as if these aged siblings were the ying and yang of emotional and social intelligence. Or maybe it was just my judgment that was skewed. In any case, I had missed our conversations. I had missed them.
Bernard was fretting about his granddaughter. “She doesn’t seem capable of just deciding who she wants to be outside of a relationship,” he said. “I worry about her. It’s almost like everything is up for grabs – from career to belief system – until she finds the right guy.”
“I know what you mean,” I chimed in. “How does she even know who the right guy is until she knows who she wants to be?”
Maddie cocked her head. “You boys have no clue, do you?”
“What?” I was baffled twice. Once that she’d actually called us boys and again with her accusation of cluelessness.
“I’ve been reading that stuff about systems thinking you suggested I read, Ron.”
“Yes. You suggested it but you don’t really understand it, do you?” She looked at me innocently but it felt like a strong accusation.
“Well, I would hope that I do,” I said hesitantly, unsure where she was going with this.
“Those systems thinkers use lots of fancy language, but isn’t the real message behind systems thinking that you cannot understand parts until you understand what they’re a part of?”
“Yeah,” I grudgingly acknowledged. “I guess that’s it, although that seems a little simple.”
“Or you can say that context is everything, right? If you don’t know the context, you don’t know the thing.”
“So what does this have to do with Emma?” Bernard inquired, insulted that Maddie would so quickly turn the conversation from his granddaughter.
“Well, guys don’t seem to take naturally to systems thinking. But I think that it is ingrained in us women. We know things intuitively that you simply don’t and we don’t need fancy language and models to know this.”
“Such as?” Bernard asked.
“Well, you are saying that your granddaughter should define her life without regard to her most important relationship,” she looked at Bernard and then turned to me. “And relationships are the whole point of systems thinking, right?”
“Yes,” I said, wondering how she had managed to so quickly get past the verbiage of systems thinking to its essence so quickly.
“Well, your granddaughter is much smarter than you, as women are, and that’s why men dominate in culture. It’s not just their brute strength that makes this a man’s world. Men make the choices and women, who understand that without relationships the world would fall apart, accommodate. They do this not because they are weaker. They do this because they are smarter. Of course your granddaughter is trying to figure out relationships first. If everyone acted like a marble in a pinball machine, the world would fall apart. The fact that you men are unaware of this doesn’t make you better – it just means that we women have to make adjustments that you won’t, that you are not even aware need to be made. “
I was more than impressed by Maddie’s uncharacteristically long speech. “So you are saying that women are naturally, intuitively, more aware of relationships? They’re the systems thinkers?”
“Well isn’t it obvious?”
“And because of this, a young woman starts with relationships and then fills in the parts, whereas men start with the part and then work to the relationship?”
“Wait!” Bernard actually hollered. “Wait,” he said more softly, self-conscious about his outburst. “You are saying that a life is just a part? A life is a whole. It’s huge. And you are saying that a life is just a part?”
“It kind of makes sense, Bernard,” I agreed. “We get created by our culture, by our society, by our families. In that sense, a life is just a part.”
“But you can rise above that. Progress – even psychological health – depends on you being defined by something more. It is a terrible thought, that we’re determined by these things, these relationships that we just wake up in.”
“You don’t have to be so extreme,” Maddie said. “Women choose how they adapt to relationships, even what relationships to adapt to. But they start with relationships.”
“Well what about you,” Bernard queried. “You start with relationships?”
Maddie beamed. “No,” she said. “Not any more. Now I’m free. I know what it’s like to be a man. And it makes life so simple.”
“My kids are grown up. My husband is gone. I don’t have to start with relationships anymore. I have so few variables to consider that I feel like my IQ has gone up by 30 points. Life is so simple now. I see now why you men seem to get so much done even when you spend so much time on the couch apparently doing nothing.”
“Ouch,” I said.
“Systems thinking is exhausting,” Maddie said. “It wore me out for 60-some years. Having to consider relationships and other people before I could figure what to do next. I’m so glad to be done with that. Now I even have enough intellectual energy left over to read books on systems thinking.” She reached over and patted Bernard’s hand. “Don’t worry about your Emma,” she said. “She’ll think like you do. Eventually.” And then Maddie got a faraway look in her eyes. “The real pity is that you men don’t know what this is like – what It’s like to think both ways. Just think what you could do if you did.”
I would have taken offense but Maddie’s foppish hat and smile completely disarmed me. I could, stupidly, only smile back and nod. “Too bad, indeed,” I agreed. “It’s like we’re missing a whole life.”
“That’s what you have us for,” she squeezed my hand. “We’re the life you’re missing.”
I could not contain myself. I leaned in and planted a kiss on her head, stylish hat and all.