Dan Lord is the director of the Family Therapy Program at Friends University, Wichita, KS. He is a Diplomat in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors.
When clinical students first study a systems view of human behavior, they commonly report going through a "paradigm shift." Behaviors, even thoughts and feelings, become parts of relationships instead of individual properties. Symptoms become organizing elements of interactional sequences. Linear causality and blame are replaced with frameworks of circular causality and reciprocal influence. People in relationships display the dynamic flux of preserving sameness and seeking the new--reflecting a life context that forces both continuity and adaptation at the same time, sometimes more intensely so than others. Communication becomes a complex interpersonal dance blending predictability and spontaneity. Words and story become the social tool changing perspective, rearranging interactions, and resurrecting hope. Even the hierarchy, power, and privilege of the professional are surrendered to the mutuality of meaning making.
For me, reading Gordon Kaufman's thoughts on God provide a number of parallels to my continuing work in a family systems approach to therapy. To begin with, his thinking acknowledges and respects the total interconnectedness of all that we call life. This is a position also advanced by systems thinkers, commonly described as wholeness. Every part or unit of life is both a whole encompassing parts in relation, and also a part of a larger whole itself. Across the entire web of relatedness, including human families, each part both exerts influence on the rest and is influenced by the rest. This premise is probed in segments of most world religions and across the gamut of life sciences. As Kaufman acknowledges, it is the core premise of bio-evolutionary theory. In family systems lingo, it's called an eco-systemic approach. This particular facet of his writing is affirming and synergistic and brings theology into the conversation in new and refreshing ways.
A second organizing principle is one that Kaufman describes in terms of trajectories of organization and change. This is the notion that life develops through the mix of self-organizing systems that adapt and change within this ecology of interaction, and does so across broad expanses of time. While Kaufman tackles these on a cosmological level, again, these are ideas that permeate most systems approaches to therapy. Individuals are embedded in multigenerational trajectories that are much larger than our own life spans. Behaviors are shaped through enduring relationship patterns with beginnings far outside our personal awareness. We both perpetuate them and are forced to seek new adaptations to new influences all at the same time. So our personal life efforts both add momentum to existing developmental movements and also exert a unique influence on where and how these movements go into the next generation. Family therapy doesn't typically talk about the same expanses of time as theology, but even thinking of my life in terms of 10 generations and 1000 relatives over a mere 200 years is still mind boggling!
The third notion Kaufman presents in his theological model is that of creativity. This is where Kaufman's model goes head to head (pun not really intended) with the entrenched dominance of anthropomorphism in our Western religious symbols. To surrender God the Creator to an idea of God the Creativity somehow carries a bit of a gut-punch that's more emotional than reason. At the same time, though, I think that this step again mirrors something of a parallel in systems models of thinking. In family therapy training, a great deal of effort is given to moving from a focus on personalities to process, from seeing problems as people and their individual traits to seeing problems as issues of perspective and interactive response, or simply as dance. At the beginning of therapy, a couple's dogged determinism to convince the therapist that the real problem is the other--it's the other who must change for the situation to improve--has a similar strength of conviction as our religious belief in God as Other, that is as other personality, being, a creature in some way reflective of what we ourselves see ourselves to be as personalities, beings, or living creatures. It's as if this perceptual frame is necessary for us to envision any form of connection or relationship to the divine--and surrendering such a frame would mean to be utterly cut off, which religiously speaking would be completely anathema, let alone just plain disorienting. But this rigidity also blinds us to larger realities that are so vital to growth--realities like those embedded in process.
Kaufman's focus on serendipitous creativity, though, is what I think brings clinician and theologian to the most common ground. This thought provides an exceptionally useful vantage point for considering the therapy experience itself, which at its essence has to do with this tiny word: change. People seek therapy with the hope of change--somehow, somewhere, change. Clinicians study and train in prevailing treatment models in search of skills to more effectively help people change. Whether the therapeutic techniques be described as directive, nondirective, paradoxical, strategic, structural, cognitive, behavioral, or whatever… the purpose of them all is to generate change. Institutions like Prairie View dedicate a great deal of resources to tracking treatment effectiveness and outcomes, pretty much all couched in terms of change.
I think we have fairly common acceptance that all we do in the helping professionals is geared to helping people change--helping people facing incredible challenges, trauma, and loss, to change in ways that help them heal and find new meaning in new ways of living in new and maybe never-imagined circumstances. Surely beneath this premise is that life itself is intimately connected to change. And for the religious person, there is an accompanying, often spontaneous awareness that to intimately participate in and experience the transformative moments of this life process is indeed to walk on holy ground. Life-transformation--change--is sacred, with tap root into mystery and awe that overwhelms our human symbol-making ability.
So let me try to say something more about how such a framework affects the way we view and approach therapy. I have to confess that at this point in preparing my remarks I had something of the feeling like Nicodemus, who only wanted to know how to change in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus' comforting (?) answer was, "Be born again." To which Nicodemus replied, "Huh?" Here I am, trying to reflect on concrete ways to apply Kaufman's thinking to the fast and fluid context of therapy, and while I'll definitely affirm it's sacred space, there's still part of me that goes "Huh?" But regardless, let me try to articulate three or four proposals for consideration.
1. Change is not what the clinician must create, but rather that which clinician and client alike find themselves in the middle of.
Therapeutic encounters seem to be exceptionally vulnerable to the frame that "because X has happened in the past, the present is now fixed and unchangeable." Of course that usually gets intensely personalized, more like "because X has happened in the past, I am now unchangeable; or this client is now a this-label, or that-label."' The master-symbol of God that Kaufman presents could serve as a very useful corrective. In fact, even the phrase Kaufman uses repeatedly to describe our human existence could be directly applied, "So we find ourselves… here, now…" at this specific point in this huge expanse of life's development in the universe. This brings the working assumption that any present suffering or difficulty is embedded in change, not lacking change. The uncertainty to be recognized is not if change will come, but rather how change will unfold now. Simply this affirmation can be incredibly freeing, both to therapist and client. It can ease the pressure of "having to find a way to change" that so quickly takes on paradoxical qualities similar to the injunction of "be spontaneous." Change is not something that has been lost and must be found, but rather that which needs to be recognized as present and able to be relied on. It could almost take on a comforting aspect rather than threat.
2. Change is not what the clinician must generate, but rather that out of which generativity arises.
To recognize change as surrounding the therapeutic relationship is to see the context as change-rich rather than change-deprived. This can offer clinician and client alike the opportunity to consider new lenses for making sense of the present moment. Let me borrow from a current therapy approach called Solution-focused Therapy to illustrate what this might mean. The Solution-focused therapist takes on the role of being vigilant for client strengths and resilience. You might say that the therapist temporarily enacts the client's wellness memory--how it is when life is better. So interaction and questions are shaped by the therapist's ability to receive client angst with care and then to include attention to ever-invasive hints of health. This recovers awareness of strength and resilience that are very much present though overshadowed by current distress. So could Kaufman's thinking be transposed into this model as Generativity-focused Therapy, or Serendipitous Creativity-focused Therapy, where a therapist, even in the midst of client struggle, would be vigilant for unexpected, unexplained hints of transformative change? Of course timing is everything. This approach should never attempt to talk anyone out of their present suffering. But it does bring to play a corrective that reaffirms generativity to transcend, even to be inspired and stimulated by, suffering. The therapist becomes a watchman for the earliest signs, to be sure that the sun's powerful energy force is not missed in the storm.
3. Generativity is not an individual trait of a human being, but rather a life-force that courses through an ecology of relatedness of which we are a part.
The past decade has generated a growing body of research on factors that account for change in therapy. Would you believe that #1 is "external, client factors," or unpredicted events that happen to the client outside of therapy, and #2 is the "quality of therapeutic relationship." In a very concrete and somewhat simplistic way, this research reminds us that our human life is always intricately intertwined with multiple, multiple influences. The web of relatedness in which we live and breathe and have our being is not only immense, it is literally beyond our comprehension. It is like what I understand is an ancient Chinese proverb that says "It is only the fish that do not know they swim in the sea." I think therapy embodies this commonplace yet profound interconnection through the therapeutic relationship. This therapist-client relationship becomes like an atom, maybe even a subatomic unit in this larger relationship web that encompasses both. And because of the interconnection that is experienced in this one point of mutual influence, the continuing life events in clients' lives can come to have an added, even significantly different reference point. The relationship itself becomes a symbol that alters a client's ability to make new symbolic meaning out of everyday experience. Present day neuroscience and attachment theory are helping explain the mechanisms by which this unfolds in humans, but the source itself of such change is far more transcendent.
I must try to briefly share one last idea. Our Christian story uses human symbols to convey these larger-than-human connections to life's core processes. When Nicodemus asked Jesus his transcendent question, Jesus uses a human analogy to engage his mind and soul. We are human. That is our vantage point in this incredible ecosystem. Because we never escape this form of being and seeing, we can only use its symbols with care to help us probe what we cannot know. So it is in therapy, really. Our human vantage point gives us symbols of human experience--love, connection, imperfection, violence, redemption, and hope--finally, everything that encompasses birth and death and the mystery of its continuing cycle generation to generation. If we understand human transformation to be embedded in transforming life processes all around us, maybe the best image for ourselves as clinicians is that of midwife. We surely are not the agents creating the new life that is both immanent and yet out-of-sight. Our role is to stay present in the midst of other's pain and to be attentive and assistive to every sign of that which is about to emerge.
I have to say that I come away from reading Kaufman's work with a keen new awareness that our vantage point of human relationships and its myriad of symbols can be very useful and life-promoting or they can be very destructive, at any level of relationship or society. I think one of the primary values of Kaufman's work is to provoke our individual and collective reflection about how we use these symbols that so organize our lives and our life-force. It is crucial that the thinking he is stirring within us not be dismissed as academic or intellectual. If family relationships teach us nothing else, they teach us that we have stunning impact on one another. How we direct our life-force has equally stunning impact on all that our human life-force touches. Perhaps how we use our symbols, especially our master symbol, is our most important act of stewardship in both our life of faith as well as our professional roles.
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