This post originally appeared in The Finger Lakes Times (NY), as an installment in the weekly series, “Denim Spirit.”
I invite us to think about the dysfunction of alienation.
Our political and theological discourse has dragged us into the balkanization of states, the grim alienation of cultures, animosity among classes, and hostility between races, ethnicities, and genders. Let us consider this situation the way a therapist might when assisting in the healing of a family system.
When a child or adult is acting out with bad or disruptive behavior in a family, he or she is probably acting out a problem the entire family-system shares. The person doing the acting out is the incarnation of a bigger problem – some wound or difficulty in the family itself.
What we have learned about families over time, is that treating only the individual child – the problem child, so to speak – while not addressing the larger family issues, probably won’t create much progress.
Edwin Friedman, one of the first to articulate Family Systems Theory, applied his understanding to institutions beyond the family. I once heard him say that anxiety usually gets located in a particular part of a system, whether a family, business, or governmental agency. The anxiety of the whole system gets held by a single person or group, who then tends to act it out in disruptive or destructive ways.
In other words, the anxiety of the entire system gets associated with whichever particular part is holding onto it or exhibiting it in a given moment. But the individual or group, while usually blamed and marginalized because of how they act it out, is holding the anxiety that belongs to the whole system.
It will not resolve problems and conflicts within a family or organization if we only treat one person or one part of the system. A global example is helpful here.
We cannot treat climate change as if it is only an issue of oil and coal. Instead, it has to do with our entire economic system from top to bottom. Climate change involves every political
and business institution in the world, not to mention nearly every element of culture we cherish. To address climate change, we will have to engage all of them and not treat one as the enemy and one as the hero.
We need to think of ourselves, and those with whom we share the planet, as a whole loaf with many ingredients. Each ingredient is incomplete, and perhaps even undesirable by itself. But learn to incorporate and activate the salt with the sugar, and blend the butter with the flour, and boy howdy, it can be delicious.
The thing about alienation between individuals or parts of a system, is that reconciliation does not require agreement or an outcome that delivers one big happy family. People do not even need to like each other. We simply have to be willing to work together for the common or greater good.
Reconciliation between bitter rivals and enemies, and the positive outcomes made possible by working together, can be tantalizingly close at hand. It requires a willingness to risk self-interest for the sake of common interest, and the courageous tough-mindedness to be an ingredient instead of insisting on being the only thing that matters.