20 May 2009

Worry Much?

The following is a well researched lineal progression: anxiety leads to fear; fear leads to anger; anger leads to hatred; hatred leads to destruction.

After spending eight years working with Dr. Murray Bowen via Dr. Edwin Friedman, the above progression became like a prayer mantra. Murray Bowen was a psychiatrist who began his work at the Menninger Institute and then went on to found the Georgetown Family Center as part of the Georgetown University School of Medicine. During his long and very active career, Dr. Bowen developed what is now known as "Family Emotional Process." One of his many students was Rabbi Edwin Friedman. Dr. Friedman took the tools of Family Process and began working with church/synagogue systems. His seminal book, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, became a best-seller in the mid 1980s. I became a student in Dr. Friedman's clergy seminar and studied with him for eight years -- until his sudden death in 1996.

After the horrible events of 9/11/2001, our cultural anxiety rate spiked radically. In those weeks following the attacks, reports of terrorists erupted everywhere. Incidents of prejudice toward anyone who looked as though they came from the Middle East were rampant. It took months for us to come out of a fear-based state of being. Some of this is natural. It is good to be more observant and wary with the threat of futher violence; but fear-based actions lead to judgments that condemn innocent persons and do irreversible harm.

We are now in an economic crisis unlike any we have experienced since the Great Depression. I was born in 1950, and my parents grew up during the depression years. My dad fought with McArthur's army in the Pacific. My mom was an army nurse. What I noted from both of them was an almost mystical calm in the face of daily crises. They had seen what, for them, was the worst. Anxiety was not part of their repertoire of responses.

Those of us who have known relative security, and the lifestyle of mobility, abundance and ultimate convenience unparalleled by any previous or concurrent civilization are suddenly stunned by the loss of the resources making a lot of that possible. Our level of anxiety is higher than any time known in my lifetime. That anxiety has tripped easily into fear. What we see on television and hear on the radio only feeds that anxiety and fear. We have become a culture of increasing sensationalism -- over-reacting at the slightest hint of a new crisis. The first reaction is to look for a scapegoat...someone or something to blame for our predicament. We have many contemporary incarnations of the old western "lynch mob."

I am an Episcopal Priest of almost 31 years ordained experience. It has always amazed me how simple decisions or actions can become huge crises in a faith community. It only takes one highly anxious person to set off a firestorm of rumor, innuendo and actions of irreversible harm. I have done an experiment twice wherein, at the beginning of a sermon, I will share a statement with the first person in the front pew on my right...asking that the statement be passed from person to person from front to back and then across the aisle and back to the front on the left side. At the end of the sermon (about 15 minutes), I will ask the first person in the pew on the left side to repeat the statement. Not one word of it was part of the original statement! I have also started a scheduled class with a room of about 50 people and staged an interaction between two people (unknown to the group at large). The interaction contained loud words and obvious actions...some of which were threatening. I then randomly picked 10 people to share what they saw and heard -- writing it in journal form. Never more than one person saw and heard what actually transpired. Most saw physical blows (and no blows were ever struck).

Whether we like it or not, we see and hear what we want to see and hear. The Bowen rule is that all responses to real or perceived actions are emotional. We may believe ourselves to be logical, analytical folks; but the first response comes from the limbic portions of our brain...raw emotion. It's how we are wired. What makes us a higher form of creation is that we are also equipped to monitor that emerging response, check it and ask "data questions" that will reduce the emotional response and dampen the attendant anxiety. Doing so lowers the level of cortisol and other stress hormones and engages the portion of our brain that seeks homeostasis in the face of potential disruption.

What I have tried to describe is the state called "mindfulness." John Kabat-Zinn's book, Full Catastrophe Living, is a wonderful way to explore the dynamics of reducing anxiety and stopping the progression toward judgments and actions that are potentially destructive. Friedman's book, Generation to Generation, explores how we can understand our actions as part of our families of origin and investment in faith communities. The Gospels and New Testament Epistles are replete with examples and teachings on balanced living in the face of anxious environments (I can't imagine an environment any more stressful than first century Mediterranean Basin cultures).

All of this is an invitation to practice a kind of mindfulness that asks questions of ourselves and our environments that gathers meaningful and truthful information. For me, as a Christian, it is an invitation to "pray before you say." The act of prayer is simply to place one's self in the space of listening and seeking deeper truth. More on this will be forthcoming. Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for that good summary of Friedman's thinking, Fred. I, too, have learned much from Friedman and Bowen. Would that the former had written as clearly and as succinctly as you.

    You mentioned John Kabat-Zinn, whom I heard (or experienced) lecture, if you call it that. He led a group of doctors, nurses, clergy, and community people in an hour-long mindfulness exercise, using a Tibetan gong. It was powerful.
    And deeply restful.

    In my own spiritual journey from anxiety to faith, which is continual, mindfulness has been a great help. It's interesting that this teaching of Jesus has made its way now into other spiritualities and even therapies.

    May God bless your ministry in leading your congregation from fear to faith in Christ.