Anxiety in the System and Regression– Murray Bowen

“Dr. Bowen, a professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University, established the Georgetown Family Center in 1975. He was a pioneer in family research who developed a new theory of human behavior and a new method of family therapy based on this new theory.” (From the website “Bowen Center for the Study of the Family.”)

Murray Bowen’s theory regarding anxiety in human systems helps to explain an array of unhealthy behaviors in families, ranging from addiction to chronic conflict to delinquency. (If you don’t know Murray Bowen’s work, google “Bowen Theory” for a menu of information.) Instead of taking the individual as the basic unit of analysis (a la Freud), Bowen starts with relationships. His theory accounts for the relative closeness and distance between people in relationships, and the level of anxiety that is inevitably a part of those relationships.

Some ways of dealing with anxiety are more adaptive and more helpful than others: both at the family level, and– very interestingly, for these times we live in– at the societal level. Bowen’s theory says that as anxiety in a system rises, we are more likely to regress to more primitive “fight or flight or freeze” responses– which explains why, when I am perceiving some kind of threat (real or imagined), I am more likely to yell at the children or kick the cat.

American society is a human system; much anxiety is in the system. Bowen’s theory predicts that the society will regress to acting out of that anxiety in unhelpful and shortsighted ways, in order to relieve the anxiety. (Example: yelling at the children temporarily relieves the parent’s anxiety, but it does not lower the anxiety in the long-run).

Here are the signs of regressive responses to anxiety in our American society:

1. hyper-partisanship, as people seek security in herding together and circling the wagons.

2. scapegoating, as people seek security by blaming others.

3. anti-foreigner sentiment, as people close off from the creative possibilities of engaging differences.

Here is Bowen in his own words:

 “There was growing evidence that the emotional problem in society was similar to the emotional problem in the family…. When a family is subjected to chronic, sustained anxiety, the family begins to lose contact with its intellectually determined principles and to resort more to emotionally determined decisions to allay the anxiety of the moment. The results of this process are symptoms and eventually regression to a lower level of functioning…. The same process is evolving in society.”

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Late in the Game

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry’s been saying it for years, in the context of culture, agriculture, and community: America is on an unsustainable trajectory. The soil– literally the earth, and metaphorically the source of moral and emotional nourishment– is wearing thin. In the midst of material excess and frantic busy-ness is spiritual depletion and physical exhaustion. We have lost our way.

There exists no shortage of people in the political realm who have the answer for what ails us: the Tea Partiers are ascendant for now, having supplanted the Obama-hopers, who in their ascendancy supplanted the Cheney/Rumsfeld neoconservatives. Such political lability in itself suggests that, politically speaking, no one really knows what to do.

Much of what passes for religion in America today offers two kinds of response to this age of anxiety, neither of which is satisfactory.  The first offer is personal salvation (and I mean that broadly to include not just Christian notions of “accepting Christ” and “going to heaven,” but also New Age/Western-inflected Eastern philosophies of “enlightenment”), a spiritual stance that looks inward and emphasizes the individual’s relationship with the Transcendent One (or Transcendence in general). This way is unsatisfactory because it doesn’t address the wider cultural system that generates our anxiety and depletion. It’s a way to cope, but not to transform.

The second response of religion in America today is to be more outward-looking, and to engage society from a religious point of view. While pointed in a more helpful direction (outward), the way religion in America generally engages society today is to join political battles on political battles’ usual acrimonious, highly partisan, highly anxious terms. Politics calls the tune; religion sings its assigned part, “conservative right” and “liberal left.” This is unsatisfactory because it unreflectively engages the wider cultural system as it is. It replicates the patterns that lead to anxiety and depletion, rather than offering an alternative narrative.

There is no easy answer, no tidy prescription. Part of what’s helpful is to sit with the dissonance, the unresolved chord– and listen, and wait: listen and wait in the hopeful expectation that God knows what’s going on, even if we don’t.

Shared Sacrifice in an Age of Anxiety– Part 2

The alternative to government-led, coercive shared sacrifice in order to reduce the national debt, is voluntary shared sacrifice. Given the limitations and frailties of human nature, such altruism is rare even in the best of times. Another factor is that the national debt is impersonal– it’s hard for you and me to directly experience, let alone imagine, both its cost, and the benefit resulting from its reduction. It’s a little bit like global warming: I don’t know about you, but on this raw November day, I’m feeling a little chilly. Global warming? Right now I’m more interested in being close to the wood stove.

It’s hard, in general, for us to imagine there’s a problem when we don’t have the immediate experience of it. If it’s difficult to imagine there’s a problem, all the more difficult, then, to move toward a solution (why move toward a solution if the problem can’t be imagined?)– and all the more difficult still, if that solution calls for sacrifice.

As an anxious society operates increasingly in survival mode, voluntary shared sacrifice becomes less of an option. Voluntary shared sacrifice requires capacities of reflection and deferred pleasure– adaptive responses to a challenging environment. Survival mode is non-reflective and immediate, with little choice and no creativity: fight, flight, or freeze. When we’re reacting rather than responding, shared sacrifice is impossible.

The most pressing religious questions of our age have to do with anxiety, and how we will manage that anxiety– both privately and publicly.