A Family Systems Approach to COVID-19 and Every Other Drama

How have you been handling the prolonged stress of the pandemic? Has your fuse gotten shorter? It appears the whole world needs therapy. How do we survive the madness we’ve been seeing? We have taken up sides on whether to mask or not, to buck “The Man” and become libertarian super-spreaders, or to hunker down and Lysol everything. What is going on? Whatever it is, we’re becoming afraid and frayed as a society. Anxiety is rampant. World civilization is at stake at the same time as the relationships in our own homes. We need help!

Family Systems Theory may offer a helpful strategy. It gives us a macro view of our society in the midst of COVID-19, but it also goes to the micro view as family stress is in everybody’s home. We need to recognize that what we’re seeing is a personal, communal, national and international systemic crisis. Systemic crises are like sepsis in the body that causes total organ failure, one after another. It’s the domino theory made very real. Seeing and treating COVID as a systems problem may actually help us survive, and find an emotional vaccine, if not an actual biological one.

Think of it like pulling in a medical team that looks at all of a person’s ailments instead of just the presenting problem. To help the person, you need to look at multiple body parts and interconnections. Edwin Friedman is the author of the two most-used books by therapists and clergy in situations like this. These two books are helpful to anyone. The first is his seminal work, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. The second book is one that anyone in a family, church, local community, or nation needs: A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

Most of us are individual-centered in our diagnosis of issues both in our personal family and nation. It’s like the couple that comes to see me so that their teenage son can get help. In family systems theory what happens to one member of the family happens to every member of the family. The teenage son is the identified presenting patient, but the whole family system is really in crisis. It’s like a baby’s mobile that is attached to the top rail of a crib. If you weigh one piece of the revolving objects down, it throws all the others off balance. Everything and everyone are interconnected.

The same is true in a community, church, country and world. As much as we would like to fix a particular identified patient or group, that only masks what’s wrong with the whole system. You can switch out individuals like Trump, Pelosi, Schumer, Barr, or whomever and things might seem to get some immediate relief, but it doesn’t take long before things revert to the same patterns. It’s called homeostasis or the “same state.” We try to change things, but the more that we try, inertia makes it all spring back into the same place. The names may change, but there’s still anxiety in the system. It shifts around, but that’s about it. We can blame it all on one thing like the “Deep-state” bureaucrats in the swamp, but the reality is that the whole system is a swamp, you and me included. As the saying goes, “We have met the enemy, and they are us!” We need a cure that really works, rather than one that just shifts the blame.

So, what should we do? This is where Murray Bowen of Bowenian Theory leads the way in an overarching manner, though, frankly, practitioners like Edwin Friedman and Monica McGoldrick make family systems theory more accessible to the masses. Whether one is talking about a family, country or world, the same principles are at work. The world needs to be in family therapy right now. We need to understand that it’s going to take a group effort to analyze our condition, and work our way out of it through some serious conversations. We don’t need to focus on individuals or even be sidetracked by constant fact-checking. Most conflicts are about emotional processes, not the facts. It’s often not what we say (facts), but how we say them (emotional process).

Joe and Sue get married and bring all sorts of expectations into the marriage from their families of origin. They are more in heat when they get married than in love. Along comes Baby, and their “perfect” world changes. They fall back on instincts, primordial cross-generationally transmitted patterns of values and ways of being. Tensions rise and guess where the tension goes – to Baby. Whenever we find ourselves stressed we tend to avoid risking our relationships with our key partners, so we pull in a third party or issue to be the dumping ground for the stress in the whole system.

We create a triangle to relieve the pressure. This triangulation has been on full display during the pandemic. We’re mad as hell at one another, but to salvage our relationship we put the onus on China, W.H.O., the CDC, Andrew Fauci, the President, the Congress, the Deep State, those pesky Russians, whomever, and somebody. Triangles are normal. As a matter of fact, triangles are the most stable form of construction on the planet. The pyramids are examples, but triangulation in a family, city, or country just picks a relief valve in one corner who then gets sick on behalf of the whole system. The problem is that it keeps us from figuring out what’s really eating us.

What we need is self-definition, or as Bowen, Friedman, and McGoldrick call it – self-differentiation. We need to step away from the triangles, defect-in-place while remaining in relationship, and exhibit non-anxious presence. We continue in relationship with the other parties in our many inter-locking triangles, but we refuse to play the stupid self-defeating blame games anymore. We need to metaphorically super glue our feet to the floor, and keep our mouths shut except only to make “I-Am” statements that define who we are. Differentiation and self-definition don’t mean we’re going to take our ball and go home through an emotional cut-off or fake distancing that really doesn’t help. You can move halfway around the world and still be caught in a triangle. Rather than cutting others off or emotional distancing, we promise to stay in relationship and work through what the real culprit is in our personal, national, or international crisis. It’s called leadership, responsibility, and engagement. It’s hard work!

What we’re after is like a crime drama, a psychological who-done-it where we ponder together where the anxiety in the family system is coming from. Once we can name the real reason for the drama, we can actually demythologize it and do something productive about it. We move from subjective emotional processes to objective reasoning. We need to keep asking the same question, “What’s really going on here?” Rather than blaming, shaming, or going for the obvious easy answer, we should avoid quick fixes and look at EVERYTHING, as if we were all observant Persian cats, taking it all in and figuring out, “Ah, this is where this is coming from.”

No doubt the answer ultimately comes from John 10:10, “The thief comes to steal, kill and destroy,” but Jesus says, “I came that they might have life to the full.” Amen, but to hear Jesus above the din of all the drama, we need to calm down and ponder. Ask the right questions. Don’t jump to conclusions. Take a step outside of yourself and take a big view of things. What is causing this, not WHO is causing this? Remember, what happens to one member of the family, happens to all. Let’s work on this together, by the grace of God!

Needing a New Exodus

Do you think things are improving, going sideways, or backwards in our world? N.T. Wright’s book The New Testament in Its World is proof-positive that the world has seen worse days than ours, but it also wonderfully lays out God’s plan in Jesus Christ to redeem the world, and set things right. It has been a timely study with all that we have going on. It addresses our COVID-19 ravaged and racially distraught world with mascots changing, statues toppling, and every other kind of turmoil.  It begs the question, “Where do we turn for an expectation that everything is going to be okay?”

 Decades ago we saw impoverished and victimized people find hope in Liberation Theology. The leaders of this movement were primarily in Central and South America, with people like Gustavo Gutierrez, Jose Bonino, and Oscar Romero. The 60’s and 70’s gave birth to similar movements in the US with the work of James Cone and Carol Christ with Black Liberationist Theology and the Feminist Movement. Though some have said that Liberation Theology is a relic of the past, recent events have given it new life.

If Jesus is King, though some might find the notion of royalty offensive, then how does that shape our current theology of God’s Peaceable Kingdom? How do we keep things both orthodox and sensitive to the plight of the oppressed? One way to do that is to use what the earlier practitioners used. They based their whole premise of God taking the side of the poor on the Exodus events. The Exodus became an outright call to revolt and protest in an earlier generation, but what many find most hope-filled about the Exodus is that God does the action, the saving, and the liberation. We’re actors in the drama, but God is the Director.

The Exodus is, therefore, not as much about anarchy and lawlessness, but non-violent witness. If focused on what God does, then it truly represents the original Exodus. The Jews in Egypt didn’t fight back. God did it for them. This has been the most successful model of real liberation. Although it is not natural for any of us to be passive, even Jesus’ “exodus” from the tomb wasn’t by his own hand. God delivered him, and He can deliver us! It is God’s mighty acts in salvation that give us hope. No protest movement or revolt will long live unless God be the Warrior that defeats pharaoh’s armies and parts the waters!

The Exodus events are echoed throughout the entire Bible and human history. Think about how its themes are repeated. Moses is called from childhood to be special as he was saved as an infant from drowning and raised as an adopted child of pharaoh. Jesus certainly had a unique birth through the Virgin Mary. Moses worked many signs and miracles, and so did Jesus. God provided Moses with bread from heaven in the form of “manna,” while Jesus fed the multitudes and called himself “the Bread of Life.” Moses liberated people, and Jesus frees us from sin, death and so much more. Moses led the people through the wilderness to the brink of the Promised Land, but Jesus takes us all the way in! Jesus is Moses on steroids. Jesus delivers and gives real hope that lasts.

There are more similarities than imaginable. For instance, it is perfectly appropriate for, “The Ten Commandments,” with Charlton Heston to be shown at Easter, an Exodus movie that merges with Jesus’ own exodus/departure from the grave. The Jewish deliverance commemorated via the Passover meal is fulfilled in Jesus, as it says in I Corinthians 5:7, “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast!” Jesus becomes the unblemished Passover lamb that was sacrificed to protect us. He is called “the Lamb of God” by John the Baptist (John 1:29), and “the lamb that was slain before the creation of the world” in Revelation 13:8. The connection with Jesus and the Passover meal in Exodus are obvious!

There are also plenty of similarities between Moses and Jesus. One is the comparison of Moses on Mt. Sinai and Jesus on the Mountain of Transfiguration. In their respective mountaintop experiences, we see that Jesus is transfigured and his face and clothes are brighter than lightening, while Moses’ face was shining so brightly when he came down from Sinai that people couldn’t dare look at him. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him up his mountain, and Moses takes Joshua. For both Moses and Jesus, a cloud covers the mountain, and God speaks from both clouds. The similarities are beyond coincidence.

Another similarity between Moses and Jesus occurs when they do miracles. Pharaoh’s magicians declared in Exodus 7:16-18 that Moses did his signs, “by the finger of God.” Luke 11:20 says that Jesus also did his, like driving out demons, “by the finger of God.” Over and over again, you can hear the words and phrases of the Exodus repeated and magnified in Jesus’ ministry and in all the writings of the New Testament. Words like “redemption,” “redeem,” “deliver,” “deliverance,” “slavery,” and “freedom,” are rooted in the Exodus experience. Maybe the correlation isn’t an accident.

Perhaps the storyline of the entire Bible and all of human history is about God’s rescue mission to give us all a way out, an EXODUS from whatever is attacking us. It’s not a new thought either. People have long clung to Exodus hope when caught in a bind or worse.  We need a Deliverer, and an Exodus. This has been repeated throughout history. For instance, it was Esther who, “for such a time as this,” helped inaugurate the Israelite’s return from exile back to the Promised Land, a mini-Exodus, out of Babylonian and Persian bondage. Just take a look at Nehemiah 9 to see the correlation. Look at Psalms 77 and 78 to encourage you when you feel in bondage. Both the Old and New Testaments use the Exodus as a sign that no matter what God’s people are going through, God isn’t going to let us down.

The Exodus inspired African-American slave spirituals like “Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land. Tell old pharaoh, let my people go!” To be set free, of course, is not just an African-American desire. We all need Jesus to get us out of the mess we’re in. Liberation is the desire for anyone who is overwhelmed by bondage as an oppressed people, those overcome by addictions, depression, health constraints, COVID-19, job losses, financial crisis, and death itself as it lurks at everyone’s door.

Would it make things better if we saw Jesus as the New Moses, a Better Moses, and the Only Everlasting One who can set us free? I think so, especially for such a time as this. We all need a mini or a maxi-Exodus. I pray so! Let it happen, God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Quit Calling People Ugly Names

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” These famous words from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet are spoken by Juliet, a Capulet, to Romeo from her family’s archrival house of Montague. These words and the whole play, for that matter, tell us that our name matters little compared to our character. If we love another does one’s last name matter so much? No matter what name or epithet, what matters most is not my name, but who I am and how I act. Romeo responds to her desire that names don’t matter by declaring, “I take thee at thy word; Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized; Henceforth I never will be Romeo.”

If you were, in Romeo’s words, “new baptized,” what name would you want to be called? Names carry such important meanings. Remember the saying from your youth, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” but they do, don’t they? Name-calling has hurt most of us at some point in our lives. Worse than saying somebody has cooties is the ugly name that sticks to us like a parasitic tick that sucks the life out of us. Even worse is when we damage others so much that calling someone “Fatso” evolves into a self-fulfilling prophecy of morbid obesity. Words are either God-given blessings or devilish curses that we heap on people made in God’s image.

Oh, how I wish we called each other endearing names that would bring out the best in us. Names stick like super glue. When I was a child I had a difficulty saying my fh, ph, and th-sounds so I went from “Tim” to “Fim,” until I put on some muscle. Truly trivial, but I have never gotten over it. I think about it every time I have to pronounce a word that starts with one of those sounds. I have to concentrate extra hard to get it right. Decency and civility should keep us from labeling others with any kind of name-calling, trivial or not. It matters to people, and people should matter to us.

I remember dealing with a family that had a wonderful son that was named after his father’s older brother. At the time of the son’s birth, the older brother was highly esteemed, but along the way fell into some bad behaviors. When that happened the younger brother transferred his disappointment over his older brother to his son. He started seeing flaws where there weren’t any, and became extra critical. The dad was afraid that since his son’s heroic namesake had fallen, he would too. A lesson in picking names wisely.

What if you were a guy like the one Johnny Cash sang about in his song, “A Boy Named Sue?” That couldn’t have been easy. Who in their right mind would name their daughter “Jezebel” or son “Judas?” Names are powerful. Samuel means “Our God Hears,” and Karen comes from the Greek, “Charis” which means “gift.” Our wonderful daughter-in-law’s name is Karen, and she is certainly a gift to our family. Her grandfather, Rev. Myron Von Seggern, and I officiated Josh and Karen’s wedding. He was such a sweet man and exuded genuine kindness, plus an added bit of good-natured mischief. He had special loving nicknames for his grandchildren and even his first born great-grandchild, Kaela, that he called “Chiclet.” The names ranged from Sugar Babe, Sweetheart, Pal, Honeycomb, Honey Bee, and more. Each name was a sign of love. It makes one wonder what one’s own name or nickname means? Where did it come from and why? Most importantly, is it good? If not, make a new name for yourself, and “be new baptized” like Romeo.

Children born 5 or more years apart from their siblings are said by psychologists and sociologists to practically be from different families because of the discrepancies in experiences. My brothers, both of whom were much older than I, were like that. My oldest brother, now deceased, was born August 15, 1940, my middle brother April 22, 1947, and I was born in late 1955. We were the “oldest only child,” the middle “only child,” and the youngest “only child.” Out of a desire to give my brothers some sense of investment in my survival, my parents gave them “naming rights” over me. My oldest brother gave me my grandfather’s name, “William,” and my middle brother picked out the name “Timothy.” I’m grateful for both, especially “Timothy,” because it means “honoring God” in New Testament Greek. When I asked him how he came up with that as an 8 ½ year old, he revealed that he actually got it from the Dick and Jane books, not the Bible. The name of the toy teddy bear in the books was “Tim.” Mama and Daddy edited it to the more Biblical “Timothy,” from whence it comes. I should be grateful. I could have been “Spot” McClendon.

All of this is to say, names are important in spite of Juliet Capulet’s wish otherwise. In the end it certainly made a difference sadly in what happened to Romeo and Juliet. When you’re passing out names, make them mean something or someone special. Everybody is, after all. What’s in a name? A lot! O Lord, help me to keep my words soft and sweet, for I never know from day by day which ones I’ll have to eat. Amen.