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.”

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.

What Makes This News Good?


In this Aug. 19, 2009, file photo, a shopper leaves a Gap store in Palo Alto, Calif. Gap will open 100 of its stores nationwide on Thanksgiving Day rather than waiting for Black Friday. Paul Sakuma/AP/file

The Christian Science Monitor reports that more stores are opening “on Thanksgiving Day, rather than waiting for Black Friday.” So let me get this straight: the day that we have set aside to remember what we have received, is now becoming just another day to see what we can get?

I’m exaggerating, of course. But still, I am prompted to wonder: where, in our society, do we reflect on our values and test, critically, our assumptions and standard operating procedures? Where do we ask, “What are we missing here?”

High Schooler Says Nose Stud Is Religious Expression

Trying to give some interpretation to this tidbit gives me an ice cream headache. The school should let the young woman wear her nose stud; and no one should pretend this is really a religion.

(From “Religion Clause” by Howard Friedman– link below)

High Schooler Says Nose Stud Is Religious Expression

In Johnston County, North Carolina, Clayton High School freshman Ariana Iacono is in a fight with school officials over the school’s dress code. The student, who along with her mother is a member of the Church of Body Modification says her wearing a nose stud is an expression of her religious beliefs. WTVD News reported Friday that that a minister of the church, Richard Ivey, explains: “We believe that the mind body soul are all one entity and that by modifying the body, you can bring the mind and soul into harmony.” Student Iacono says the nose stud helps her self esteem after years of abuse. However apparently the school district’s lawyer has concluded that the nose stud is not a necessary part of Iacono’s religion.

via Religion Clause: High Schooler Says Nose Stud Is Religious Expression.

We’re Still Here at the “Ground Zero” Mosque. What Does That Mean?

I went out to the barn at the end of last week to build a stall for the calf, expecting to be blogging about something else this week. A quick survey of the news revealed that we’re still here.

Whether a mosque should be built two blocks from the World Trade Center site is a question that’s been pretty fully aired; whoever has an opinion on this is not likely to suddenly see the other side’s reasoning and be convinced.

The interesting questions at this point are: 1. What are the dynamics driving the passion on this issue, and what does that say about who we are, as an American society, in 2010?; 2. What role do church and faith-community leaders and institutions have, in offering guidance for that society? (In other words, how do we– in general– bring wisdom (rather than adrenaline) to bear on vexing public questions?)