You cannot get out of a chronic situation without going through an acute phase.
- Rabbi Edwin Friedman
Seventeen years ago, I turned, coffee cup in hand, and witnessed the second plane crash into the Trade Center Towers in New York. It is fair to say that the world has not been the same since that day. I was almost half-way through my thirty-six year public ministry of Episcopal priest. I have watched the cultures and peoples of this planet become more and more anxious caught between the twin imperatives of living things: Survival and Reproduction. Also known as the force for individuality and togetherness. These two, universal forces work on all protoplasm. The tension, even contradiction, between them Bowen termed, Chronic Anxiety. This is the life force tuned to face challenge real or imagined. No two systems react the same way facing the same challenge.
I began studying Dr. Bowen’s teachings over thirty years ago and had the privilege to sit at the feet of one of his students, Rabbi Edwin Friedman. While this way of thinking is contrary to most of the thought in the marketplace of ideas in the West, I found it profoundly useful and have employed it ever since. I believe this thinking is the reason Saint John’s Episcopal Church was voted one of the fifty best places to work in Memphis TN for five years in a row.
It appears that chronic anxiety is at a historical high in the West. Our country is badly polarized, such that we are almost incapable of communicating. The gifts and skills for finding common ground for the good of all is not just out of fashion, it is on the extinction list of states of being.
Someone asked me recently what they should read and study about challenges of our common life on this planet. First of all, let me be very clear, THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES! Trust no one who tells you that. Trust no one who tells you to listen them and only them. DON’T DO IT. Also, all who claim to follow Jesus, must recognize and accept that racism, bigotry and such are not standards of measure AVAILABLE TO CHRISTIANS. If that is one of your life tools, STOP IT. We are called to love all equally for his sake. There is not greater law than this.
The following is a modest annotated bibliography of books I consider of great value today.
- Bronner, Stephen Eric, The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists, Yale University Press, 2014. ISBN-13: 978-0300223842 New to me but very interesting.
- Edwin Friedman, Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Revised Edition, May 2017. ISBN-13: 978-1596272798 – Freidman died twenty years ago AND his critique is more accurate today than then. I encourage any thinking and feeling person to read it.
- Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements Harper and Bros. 1951. The title of Hoffer’s opus entered the English lexicon defining extremists. Every American adult should read it.
- Papero, Daniel V., Bowen Family Systems Theory. Allyn and Bacon. 1990. One of the best introductions to Systems Theory I know.
“How is retirement?” “It’s going very well, strange but fine,” is my usual reply. A common line is you look like you have really lost some weight?” After the third time, I latched onto, what is now, a standard response, “Oh, I am at least a thousand people lighter.” My cardiologist was thrilled that I had retired. All the numbers speak to my body being thrilled as well. Sleeping in on Sunday, an activity known in Alabama as “attending Bed-springs Baptist” has aroused no guilt. We did make it to Easter Day, let the record show.
I have devoted a lot of time getting my new office up and running. The car no longer automatically heads west from Shepherd Lane. Now it heads East instead, which is the direction of enlightenment. Now what?
After a very helpful pep talk from an old and valued friend, this is now my practice. Most days, I drive to 1049 Cresthaven Road, Memphis, TN 38119 and there I go to work. What is my work? At present, I’m diving deeper into Bowen Theory than I have ever done before. The Triangle is the object of my quest. I shall understand that little beast if God is gracious. The Triangle is the basic molecule of relationships. It consists of three people or two people and an issue. Triangles are also very fluid moving such that two points are in and one is out.
But suppose, one wanted to grow oneself up, while calming oneself down? What if one decided to take maximum responsibility for ones own self, focusing on one own functioning? Bowen called that Differentiation or more precisely, taking up the work of “Differentiating a Self.” Trust me if you should truly entertain such a notion for even half a day, everyone in the primary triangles you inhabit will know. In addition, if you should take up this “self to differ” the reaction will be progressive and predictable.
It will develop on this wise: 1. “You are wrong”; 2. “Change back”; and 3. “If you do not, these are the consequences” [Bowen, 1978, pp. 216]
Hell hath no fury like you arouse when you fool with someone’s heirloom triangle! Some of them have been around for eons. Remember, when someone leaves or dies, people are standing line to take the vacancy.
How is retirement? Well, I’m lighter, but not sure what else, just now… I live in hope, in spite of the facts.
April 5, 2018, John Sewell ACT3 1049 Cresthaven Road, Memphis, TN 38119
Definition – An emotional triangle is any three persons
or two persons and a part of a system with a ‘problem’
FIRST LAW OF TRIANGLES: YOU CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE
It is not possible from the position of A to change the relationship of B and C.
SECOND LAW OF TRIANGLES: PROTOPLASM IS PERVERSE
Continued efforts to change the relationship of B and C from the position of A will be converted by homeostatic forces to their opposite intent (pushing them apart will make them ‘fall in love’, and trying to push them together will create polarized opposition).
Start From Here Change in B and C can only come from changing one’s own relationship with either or both, individually.
If from the position of A you become responsible for the relationship of B and C, then you will wind up with the stress for their relationship, if not for the whole system. By “helping” (a synanom for controlling) B and C will not feel it. It may be that they need to feel the anxiety to get unstuck.
Bowen Theory – Notes from lecture by Rabbi Edwin Friedman
I have a hunch that the only thing worse than being a orphan is having a family! I know, that is a very dark thing to say… I also know from living my own life, observing as many as four generations of a family in a congregation and studying the dynamics of Family Systems that all families are troubled. Anxiety rising past the threshold of tolerance often produces “cut-off.”
“The concept of emotional cutoff describes people managing their unresolved emotional issues with parents, siblings, and other family members by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact with them. Emotional contact can be reduced by people moving away from their families and rarely going home, or it can be reduced by people staying in physical contact with their families but avoiding sensitive issues. Relationships may look “better” if people cutoff to manage them, but the problems are dormant and not resolved.”
(Bowen Family Center http://www.thebowencenter.org/pages/conceptec.html)
Rabbi Edwin Friedman said many times, “People who are cut off, particularly from their family of origin do not heal.” That being the case he said the bridging cutoff boosted the immune system. He encouraged clergy to work to overcome cut-off in their own family in service to their own health as well the healing of their people.
A useful question of Scripture is, “Where does my story intersect THE story?” One of the ancient practices is the Cycle of the Liturgical Year. The season preceding the Twelve Days of Christmas is Advent. It is a time to watch and wait. It is a time to be pregnant with Mary (and Elizabeth). It is time to pay careful attention to dreams, the inner life, with Joseph. Above all we await the coming of the child Jesus, Emmanuel: God with us.
When Ralph Waldo Emerson was dying, the story goes, his aunt exhorted him to make peace with God to which he replied, “I was not aware that we had quarreled.” His aunt’s response is, so far as I know, unreported. My answer to Ralph Waldo, is a quote from Isaiah the Prophet (9:2), “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”
Matthew the Evangelist picks up the melody, “The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up.’ (4:16). This is that for which we waited. Now Heaven is joined to Earth and Earth to Heaven. I other words, in Jesus the cutoff between God and humanity is bridged. This great universal theological truth is for the healing of our story, here – now – in real time. The immune system of all creation is quickened that healing will break out among the nations and indeed the whole of creation. JWS