Murray Bowen (1913-1990) is my hero. His contributions to psychology changed everything.
Bowen pushed us – hard – to see human behavior systemically. That is, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as “individual behavior.” Each of us, Bowen insisted, is responding to a system of relationships. A marriage is a system, as is a parent/child relationship. A family is a system. A workplace. A house of worship. A neighborhood. A culture. A nation.
No teenager sneaks out of the house and burns down his high school gymnasium in and of himself. While the arsonist, legally speaking, must be held to individual account for the behavior, the reasons for the behavior are most accurately explained systemically.
Healthy systems, Bowen insisted, both contain and encourage “the differentiation of self.” To be well-differentiated means being able to separate our own intellectual and emotional functioning from that of the system. Well-differentiated people can and do need. They can interdepend. But they are neither particularly inspired by acceptance and approval, nor are they particularly reactive to rejection, criticism and disapproval. They tend to neither fight nor flee.
They stand as and with a self. They are … a self.
Psychoanalytic Theory (Freud) tends to ask, “What happened in the past that might explain your behavior in the present?” Systemic Theory (Bowen) tends to ask, “What is (or is not) happening in the present, leaving little other likelihood than the behavior we’re witnessing now?”
When the power brokers in any system are emotionally dishonest, themselves poorly differentiated, given to the boundary-less extremes of permissiveness and authoritarianism, weaving relationships with cruel double-binds (see Gregory Bateson) and unwitting narcissistic conscription … well, you can make people who aren’t crazy feel and act crazy.
Therapists, for example, often talk about The Poison Forest. We mean by this, quite simply, that you can do brilliant work with an adolescent in session, but, if that young person is going home to a low-functioning or even pathological “family system,” it’s like planting a healthy tree in a poison forest. Even the healthiest tree will not thrive.
Or, the story of a marriage to an alcoholic spouse. For 10, 15, even 20 years, it’s awful. But, inexplicably, the alcoholic gets treatment. Becomes sober and healthy. Then the couple divorces. It’s astonishing, until you look at it through Bowen’s eyes. Evidently, the marital system required an alcoholic to function. Because, with two sober people, it could not.
Or, the story of parents of 3 children. One of the children is the “black sheep.” Bowen would ask, “Why and how does this family system need a black sheep?” Who does that protect? Whose identity would be threatened if there were 3 thriving children and no black sheep?
I say all that to say this: I’ve been thinking a lot over the last decade about the palpable and disheartening regression in American ethnic and race relationships.
For a while there, it seemed like things were getting better. At least in my immediate world. The idea that human beings would see themselves or each other as more or less human, more or less deserving of justice and dignity based upon the variable proportion of melanocyte cells in the epidermis increasingly seemed as ridiculous as remembering a time when we were convinced the world was flat.
Only willfully stupid people would think that, right? Or terribly, terribly insecure and frightened people. Or, people who were hurt and angry and, unwilling to face that, needed someone to blame.
Freud would say, “What happened in the past that explains codified, acculturated, institutional racial injustice?”
Well, a lot did happen in the past. Some of the past still happens in the present. And certainly the consequences of the past still echo in the present, mostly in patterns of entrenched economic disparity.
But Bowen would ask, “What is (and is not) happening in the present, leaving little other likelihood but that racial tensions and animus would be once again surging and poisoning the forest?”
Now the investigation becomes provocative. Even threatening. And this question cannot be addressed (let alone answered) with corporate “diversity training” days.
Who benefits from racial unrest? Or, turn the question around: Who would lose if tomorrow there was no such thing as racism? Who would then be obliged to loosen their grip on power? Whose lever would have less leverage? Who would be forced to assume a more mature grip on personal responsibility and accountability? Who would be less in control? Who would be obliged to dig deeper for a truly human identity?
I’m asking, are there individuals and/or groups out there who have reason to be threatened by the possibility of racial healing and the harmony, justice, respect and dignity resulting thereby?
I’m thinking there might well be. And it disturbs me.
(Steven Kalas writes a regular column for this newspaper. He is an author, therapist and Episcopal priest. You can ask him questions or suggest column material by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)