26 September 2013

Cancer and Society

Self-sufficiency is a delusion, a dangerous delusion.
We are all, to a degree, interdependent. It’s a fact of life. 
It’s true. And truth sets us free.
Truth opens the door to grace. 
Truth opens the door to blessing. Even if we cringe to hear it.
-Br. Mark Brown 

Of all the illnesses that affected the faith communities in my care, over 33 years of parish work, cancer was the most prevalent.  Cancer research is the largest area of medical investigation.  Much progress has been made over the past 25 years, but the rate and tenacity of cancer, in general, continues to dominate our society's medical energy.

This blog is not about the medical disease called cancer.  Cancer, however, is the model that has been used in other areas of behavioral, sociological and spiritual wellness.  I have said this before (numerous times, I think) that compartmental thinking is, in itself, a type of dysfunction.  To divide ourselves into smaller, systemic groups leads to the inevitability of our becoming unbalanced.  Such unbalance has rather far-reaching implications for our ability to attain the full measure of Self (as a total being) that we were created to experience and express.

This sounds like a mouthful of malarky.  Perhaps, 40 years ago, I was in that place of thinking such.  Science and religion were definitely two entirely separate entities, in my youthful, internal reality.  What I thought, how I felt, and what I did were three very separated functions.  At a particular point, around 1987, I came face-to-face with Reality in a way that I did not expect, and for which I was not prepared.  I cannot rehearse that story.  It did lead to a journey...one that continues.  It has morphed, as all authentic journeys do, but the process that the behavioral, sociological and theological disciplines call "integration" continues.

I sit on my lanai* this morning Tuesday, 9/24) and watch a progression of thunder storms roll in from over the Gulf of Mexico.  The rate of movement is inconsistent enough that clouds roll under one another as they move ashore.  This is not an isolated (compartmental) event.  A "cold" front is draped over Florida...having moved southwest from its origins in Canada.  Late last week, rain and storms affected long stretches of the central and eastern states.  With the Gulf providing a constant source of water, the unstable atmosphere ahead of this front has a great well-spring for generating storms that move from southwest to northeast along the front.

Watching this weather put me in mind of "systemic continuity," which is my term for the realization that all these storms didn't just arrive here for no reason.  We are simply the current locus of experience of a system that emerged in another part of the world and has morphed in its movement to be what it is for us in this moment.

It is a hard thing to wrap our heads around, but try:  Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens simply as an isolated event.  A point of origin, with a shift of some kind, creates a reality.  That reality has an affect on all reality around it...and beyond.   It's something like:  "a butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the earth, and a breeze is experienced on the other side."

An over-simplified schema of how cancer happens:  Our cells are in a constant state of creating new cells.  All cells, in their maturing process, "specialize" to become the specific cells needed for the organ or part of the body it serves.  This usually happens with a genetically programmed clockwork that is super efficient.  Occasionally, however, after division, a new cell will fail to mature properly.  These cells are rogue cells and are haphazard in their continued development.  These are technically called "cancer" cells.  Normally, the body reads this anomaly, sends a group of cells called "T-cells" that work to flush the rogue cell from the body.

If, for some reason, the above flushing process doesn't work right, the rogue cell attaches itself to the host organ or body part and begins sending signals of "normality."  Research shows that perfectly healthy cells adjoining the rogue cell can begin to "act out" in ways that mimic the rogue's activity.  This is the beginning of a cancerous lesion and future tumor.

What I just described is a tremendously complex event/process.  What I have done is simply describe behavior observed in research studies.  One of the many questions asked in this behavior is, "What is it in the healthy cells that reacts to a rogue cells in ways that produces dysfunction and degeneration of normative process?"  Finding that answer is part of the "package" of knowing an eventual "cure."

Dr. Murray Bowen, an MD psychiatrist, began his research in family emotional process at Menninger Institute in 1946 (after an internship at Bellvue Hospital, NYC and a fellowship at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN).  In 1954, after 8 years at Menninger, he began work at the National Institute of Mental Health (Bethesda, MD), where he developed the framework for what became known as Bowen Theory.

In 1959, Dr. Bowen became the clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University.  It was there that he founded the Family Center at Georgetown Medical School.  He still held that chair at Georgetown at his death in 1990 (at age 77).

As part of the Family Center, Dr. Bowen trained practitioners in family therapy.  One of his students was Rabbi Edwin Friedman.  Dr. Friedman developed a family practice in Bethesda, MD and, in his own research wrote the book, Generation to Generation:  Family Emotional Process in Church and Synagogue.  Dr. Friedman began working with clergy leadership in developing vocational skills for attaining congregations that reflected health and balance.  Both Bowen and Friedman began with the premise that, just as cells form the human body and function as a, usually, well-balanced system; so individuals in a biological family or any organizational group present the same innate capacity to function in ways that create a healthy and balanced relational field.

I came into direct contact with Bowen Theory when I read Dr. Friedman's book in early 1988 (it was a Christmas gift from a colleague).  It addressed a great deal of what I was finding problematic in working with parochial relationships and dysfunction.  Later in 1988, I was accepted into Dr. Friedman's "Post-Graduate Studies in Family Emotional Process" for clergy leaders.  I studied with Ed Friedman for eight years...until his untimely death in November 1996.  I continued to work with his Bowen trained faculty...on a more limited basis...until 2003.

I have utilized a lot of tools in the vocational work of parish ministry.  In terms of organizational leadership and the more clinical elements of pastoral care, nothing has served better than the tools of Bowen Theory and its applications in relational fields.  Primary to working in any system is the leader's own function in that system.  Here is where the cancer analogies are most useful.

1.  The leader in any system must have a healthy and balanced "self definition."  Internal regulation, ego function, emotional response and being in touch with one's own family of origin function/dysfunction are critical and continuous areas for being a viable catalyst for larger systemic health.  This is identical to the individual cell's healthy maturity and individuation process.  Dysfunction in those processes can create "rogue" dynamics.

2.  In the discreet dynamics of interpersonal relationships, one must know where "self" ends and "other" begins.  Something in healthy cells sometimes breaks down the boundary in contact with rogue cells.  In macro (person-to-person) relationships, the "acting out" of one person can shift the behavior of others who come into community contact.  Anxiety is a primary "dysfunction" in almost all humans.  When a person becomes anxious, he/she becomes reactive to anything that might either feed on or enhance that anxiety.  In a relational field, where boundaries are not healthy, anxiety can "amp up" to very high levels with the result of creating "tumor like" rogue functions in the larger relational system (a family, a congregation, a community, or an entire society).  Anxiety is the initial  "failure point" in further maturation.  Anxiety leads to fear.  Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to aggression on any number of levels.

3.  Being a "Non-Anxious Presence" is a quality of personal maturation that can diminish anxiety in the system.  In this work, however, Ed Friedman warned us of the "T-cell factor."  If the rogue cell(s) of the body has succeeded in disrupting the surrounding cells to the point that an undifferentiated mass (tumor) now exists, it is likely that the differentiated T-cells cannot neutralize the further affects/effects of tumor growth.  Non-anxious presence can, and does, neutralize anxiety in its early stages.  It requires a person to realize that the relatively anxious elements of the organism will attempt to sabotage the leader.  To the extent that others are functioning in a mature manner, the anxiety will have no place to "dig in" for further growth.  The anxious person(s) will either leave the system or begin a process of maturation.

4.  One of the more sublime elements of Bowen Theory is the individual drive and need to either win at all costs or to be right (correct) in ways that can be driven by forces other than those that seek the greatest functional health of the whole organism.  This is the part where, in Pauline theological analogy, "the eye cannot be the hand..."  Maturity and individuation does not lead to individualism.  The liver is absolutely essential to the well-being of a human body.  But, so is the heart, the brain, the pancreas, etc.  We can function at a satisfactory level without some parts, but, without those parts, other elements of the body must adapt in their specialization processes.  The great mistake of human community is to think that we are either, a) indispensible, or b) are the momentary incarnation of all truth.  If a liver gains the sense that the entire body must be a liver in order to be complete, dysfunction, degradation and disintegration will quickly follow.

For a number of years, I have experimented with how one functions in community.  I have been "measuring" phenomena regarding how anxiety is generated in a system.  In a sort of half-assed way, I have done this in the social media on a couple of occasions.  The latest one was last night (Wednesday, 9/25), when I posted a cartoon that had mostly no personal energy for me.  In fact, I decided to share it on my wall on a whim that it just might generate reactivity.  It did.  I removed the cartoon and shifted my self-regulatory stance to a place that was not neutral, but more conciliatory.  It created a different kind of reactivity (a measure of anxiety).

There are ways to enhance non-anxious function.  Next installment.

Love and Blessings,


[*Lanai:  a fancy name for a screen porch.  The term itself is Hawaiian in origin and was picked up by the construction and real estate folks to make having a screen porch seem more attractive to folks moving into places like south Florida.  Technically, a lanai is built into the structure rather than as an extension of it.  For the sake of what our condo association calls this space, I use the short term, "lanai."  For my fellow deep-south friends, yes, the damn thing is a screen porch.]

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