Archive for ‘Family Systems Theory’

May 29, 2018

Rifts, wars, schisms, in families

by Rod Smith

Extended or immediate family discontent, even family rage, is more easily solved, healed, or negotiated sooner rather than later. Wait too long and it may go on for generations.

The longer schisms linger, the deeper they become and the more entrenched and “default” the reactive behaviors become. Bitterness, cynicism set in. Cut-offs become a way of life. Walls get higher and stronger.

The stories about who did what to who expand, often beyond recognition, in the heads of those who harbor and perpetuate the conflict.

To find healing or reconciliation, the “bigger” person, or the stronger member of the family, or the one who has the highest levels of “differentiation of self,” the one who wants the healing, initiates a conversation. That conversation must be devoid of all blame and all finger pointing. He or she does the necessary preparation and decides exactly what is wanted and what healing in a particular family may look like. Such an initiative demands humility, flexibility, and a deep desire for reconciliation.

Some families have been at war with each other for so long those who started it are long buried and those on the front lines do not even know anymore why they are fighting.

Please, don’t let that be true for you and for your family.

The consequences are too extreme, especially for innocent children who are inevitably caught in the crossfire.

May 17, 2018

Voice – part 2

by Rod Smith

Compromise yourself, your talents and skills for no one. Be silenced or made “smaller” or rendered without a voice for no one. It is never worth it. There is no cause, no relationship, worthy of your silence.

There is no person of any rank, no spouse, boss, or spiritual leader deserving of your downplaying or silencing who you are. Only those with dark motives will seek for you to be less, minimized, diminished, or silenced.

Walk away from such small-mindedness, even if it is costly to do so.

Loving, good people will celebrate your strength, encourage your freedom, and admire your talent. Stick with such people. Stay with those who enlarge your world, not restrict, shrink, or contain it. Live fully, love fully, and speak fully.

I am weary of men and women, irrespective of who they are, who hold others captive, especially in the name of love. I am weary of spiritual “leaders” who are afraid of gifted people; of bosses who silence talented people lest their own inadequacies be revealed.

If you live above, and beyond, the damaging jealousies that surround you, you will stimulate the dreams of everyone in your circle of influence, and make your dreams come true before your very eyes – and the world will hear your voice.

May 6, 2018

Abandoning mother?

by Rod Smith

Somewhat of a theme has emerged of late in my private practice. I’m seeing several parents, particularly mothers, who have difficulty treating their adult sons and daughters and their families as whole, separate entities from themselves. They appear to want mothering to continue when their mothering is over.

Yes. Mothering ends.  I’ve written on this theme often in this column.

It is as if the adult women are saying, “I raised them to have wings but I did not expect them to use the wings,” or, “I gave them wings but they need me to show them how to use them and where to fly.”

I have compassion for these parents. It is pronounced for those who have lost a spouse to death or divorce and who then see the natural separation their adult sons and daughters rightfully and appropriately enjoy as another evidence of abandonment.

If the adult sons or daughters are prone to guilt they will quickly capitulate to the pressure to take care of mother and/or come under her control. This will often expose stresses and stimulate conflict within the marriage.

It’s even more complicated when both spouses each have a parent who inflicts a couple with such expectations.

Am I suggesting abandoning mom? Of course I am not.

Remain loving, remain out of control, and remain connected. That’s what loving adults do. 

Write to RodESmith122@gmail.com

March 27, 2018

The Art of Leadership

by Rod Smith

I read, think, observe, leadership a lot. I’ve seen dismal attempts at it and men and women who seem to fully understand its art. Here are a few observations. Please, send me yours. I am always interested in new perspectives and approaches others have found useful:

  • Having your name on the top of the list or possessing the title leader does not make you a leader. You are a leader if your constituents are following you or are doing what you are commissioned to lead your constituents to do or to be.
  • If you are authentically leading your group, church, or business, and you are doing it well, you will sometimes (even often) feel a strong sense of isolation. It comes with the call of authentic leadership. It’s lonely. It is unlikely you are leading well if you are not facing some, if not strong, opposition. Authentic leaders stimulate necessary imbalance and some humans, those who set in their ways, will naturally resist such provocation for growth and change and may even portray you as an enemy.
  • Your own growth as a person within your family (all of your family) will do more for your effectiveness as a leader than anything you implement at work or at your church or wherever it is that you are supposed to be the leader.
March 17, 2018

I will call her Mary

by Rod Smith

I’ll call her Mary. She is a woman with a highly specialized career. Her work, traditionally dominated by men, takes her to multiple countries every year for high-level negotiations with government officials. Mary is known as a force to encounter and is widely respected. She is seldom intimidated by the challenges of her career. Mary and her husband run a home. Their high-school aged daughters, like her parents, are high achievers. By all appearances the marriage is solid.

Mary’s parents live within blocks of their daughter and they have not seen each other much at all in years. They wee her husband’s family a lot.

This is a source of great pain for Mary’s family. Cordiality rules, but there is no vulnerability, no free exchange of ideas, no joy. The tenseness is palpable when the generations meet for more than an hour.

“I can talk to boardrooms full of scary people without a problem,” says Mary, “but meeting my parents undoes me! I cannot put my finger on it.”

I am reminded of family therapist Rabbi Ed Friedman who claims it is impossible to have long-term emotional wellness while a person is disconnected from significant people their family of origin.

Deep joy (and some pain) awaits Mary as she determines to remove the blockage she experiences but cannot now name.

March 8, 2018

Is your high-school student a leading executive already?

by Rod Smith

How to know your son or daughter “gets it” when it comes to his or her future:

  • Blame runs for the hills. You no longer hear her blaming teachers or textbooks or peers or parents.
  • She gets down to it, whatever it happens to be. She regards immediate hurdles as opportunities to grow.
  • He assumes personal responsibility – for the people he chooses as friends, how he spends his leisure time, and especially how he uses money.
  • She “sees” her future and plans for it – this means aligning herself with the people and institutions that can help her achieve her goals.
  • He remains connected to his family but it aware that these connections can trip him up and become a problem. He therefore clearly states where he is going without apology and invites those who love him to join him on the journey.
  • Her sense of ambition is neither cold nor callous but it is determined in ways that observers admire.
  • He is quick to learn from errors and is open to hearing about how he could have better handled a problem – especially as it relates to dealing with people.
February 15, 2018

Tribal code

by Rod Smith

Each of us brings to every relationships a backdrop of how we view the world, understand commitment, view, and value people, join groups, terminate friendships, love, and leave home, nurture babies, pack the dishwasher, engage in or avoid conflict, and many things too numerous to mention.

Everything about our relationships is influenced by who, where, and how we were reared – among countless other variables, including natural endowment, and deeply held dreams and desires.

From these countless sources, experiences, and codes, both known and unknown, each of us was handed a Tribal Code or our truth about how life ought to work. How life was done, how relationships were conducted, talked or not talked about, became the folklore, the “correct” or the “right” way to live.

Your formative years did what they were supposed to do: they formed (and informed) you.

They taught you what, and how, to see, think and feel. They showed you what “normal” is to your family, and your experience became your measure of how life is supposed to work.

Then, when entering relationships, be it in marriage or if you are talking with your child’s teacher – the person opposite you has his/her own, and different, tribal code. He/she has his/her own lenses through which to see the world.

No wonder we can have a tough time getting along!

February 8, 2018

My weekend sermon / The Prodigal’s Father

by Rod Smith

A sermon based on the parable of the lost son: The Father’s Heart

Luke 15: 11-32 / Lewisville Presbyterian Church

Rod Smith / 02-11-2018

ProdigalFather

I purchased this painting from a street artist in Gorky Park, Moscow  in 1992. The subject immediately brought the prodigal’s father to mind.

Luke 15

Now the tax collectors and sinners (rejected people, “other”) were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees (schooled, religious) and the teachers of the law (leaders, elite) muttered (expressed dissatisfaction, complaining), “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (He does things that are against our religious laws and ways and things we would never do).

Then Jesus told them (he addresses them – they are important to him) this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents (renewal, turns around) than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two (this is a natural triangle – rivalry perhaps comes with the territory – it certainly has in my family) sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ (usually a disbursement reserved for after the father’s death – so the request itself is hurtful – this sounds like something many younger sons I know would do). So he divided his property between them. (I am sure this might have been a painful thing for the father to do. Notice that Jesus gives no inkling as to what it is that motivated the younger man to do the things he does).

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant (perhaps he desires to be unknown) country and there squandered (wasted) his wealth in wild living. (Sounds like he had a plan when he asked for his share of the wealth). After he had spent everything (probably a considerable sum since the father is portrayed as wealthy – he has a large operation with hired hands), there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. (We do know the young man understands the need to work). He longed (suggests cravings) to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. (I think Jesus is using a little shock value here to show just how desperate the young man had become. He is apparently friendless – perhaps when he still had money he was not. I have noticed Jesus has a way of rubbing it in – and with a handsome touch of perhaps playful and dramatic humor).

“When he came to his senses (implies he was not sensible to this point, when he got his sanity back), he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare (my father’s servants are better off than I am), and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father (treasured words of repentance) and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son (he is correct); make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. (An act that requires humility – loss of face – and effort.)

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him (notice the father sees him, it doesn’t say he sees his father – the father was looking out for him) and was filled with compassion (no anger, no recrimination, no lessons) for him; he ran (eager, undignified) to his son, threw his arms around (lets any other people who are nearby see his welcome and hi gladness) him and kissed him (the signs of a father who is overjoyed).

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ (He acknowledges his sin, he’s correct about having lost his place in the family).

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe (restore) and put it on him. Put a ring (restore his status) on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. (The father orders a party) For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. (The father does not have the same view of the son and what he deserves – his response is extravagant, over-the-top, and is in response to the son’s coming home, not in response to his waste or his prior senseless and uncaring actions).

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ (We see his immediate jealousy – even understandable jealousy.)

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded (sad that he had to do this) with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (the older son is correct – but “correct” does not accommodate extravagant love – at least in this case. Extravagant love seldom makes sense. We see the distinction between a place of entitlement and a place of undeserved grace.)

“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

*******************

Parable: Story, some long, some very short, to illustrate a larger or deeper truth, often humorous, often wild or outlandish. Once heard or read they seldom leave the searching reader alone. Parables niggle; present a counter view of a prevailing axiom; a good parable can be a bump in the brain of the thinking listener or reader. The upside is that parables are usually universally accessible. The downside, if there is any, is the church-reared has usually heard all the parables at some time or another and can therefore easily believe a particular parable to be fully milked. Jesus used parables as did and do many effective teachers.   

*******************

As you read and read and read the chapter over and over again (the underlining and the parenthesis are mine) kindly note several themes that emerge from the three parables: losing, finding, celebrating the restoration, in community. All three suggest rejoicing when what was lost is found. The man risks in order to find one of a hundred sheep (1/100) and rejoices and wants others to rejoice with him when he does. The woman employs great effort to find her one lost coin (1/10). When she does find it she rejoices and hopes others will rejoice with her. The father rejoices when his lost son returns and wants his family and the community to do with him (1 of 2). Each parable has something lost and something found and a reason for celebration. A wandering sheep and a lost coin suggests no act of will or deliberate action on the part of the sheep or the coin. The younger son is deliberate. His actions are an expression of deliberate rebellion. I will remind you that Jesus is addressing sinners (tax collectors, rejected, uneducated people) and the educated (Pharisees and teachers of the law) are watching and listening and muttering (expressing contempt) that he “welcomes sinners.”     

In the Biblical parable of the prodigal, the son who returns after squandering his inheritance, the father runs to meet the now-humbled penniless son and celebrates his return. A massive party ensues. He who was unreachable and in a distant land (no Facebook; no SnapChat) discovered the harsh truths of the consequences of diminishing and then vanishing resources. His desperation sends him home as one willing to be his father’s hired hand. The parable, the subject of a million sermons and interpreted by the greatest of artists over thousands of years, is about the father’s love. He is generous. He is patient. He is forgiving. He’s spent, we can safely presume, years watching for the son’s return, and when it finally happens, the father is overwhelmed with joy and there’s no a trace of recrimination expressed in his vulnerable, exuberant welcome. Of course the dad could be hurt again. He could use the return as a “teaching moment” but he doesn’t.

The Characters

FATHER: He never regards the son as anything other than a son even though the son has “bought” himself out, moved away, harmed himself, soiled his reputation, and squandered unearned wealth. His deliberate destructive decisions and the actions they birthed have succeeded in depleting his resources. They have have succeeded in knocking him from atop his high and entitled horse. They have succeeded in humbling his now-hungry self.

His actions have not succeeded in destroying or diminishing his father’s love. His father’s love for him is not about the younger son or his behavior. It’s about the father. The Father regards the son as a son and loves him as a son no matter what behavior the younger man has demonstrated. The father’s love is not in response to who the son is or what the son is. The father’s love emanates from who and what the father is. The father doesn’t buy into the son’s line that he no longer deserves to be part of the family. Once a son, always a son – is the father’s truth as revealed by his behavior.  

OLDER SON: He has no joy at his brother’s return. It is as if the return is a significant inconvenience, another expense, another drain on the estate. I can hear him asking, “Has he not cost us enough already? Are there no consequences for his behavior?”  The older brother is focussed on what he’s done (years of faithful hard work) and not who he himself is and what he himself has. He is filled with his own sense of righteousness. As correct as he may be, being right, being faithful, has not succeeded in transforming him into being a loving person, at least toward his brother. My observations and my experience tells me that love becomes generic. We specifically, perhaps naturally, love members of our family but the love we experience overflows into our lives and permeates all of our relationships and shifts everything about us and the way others experience us. Godly love is transformative. It transforms the source and the recipient. I suspect the older son’s attitude to his younger brother is something the father has tasted before today and about matters unrelated to his younger brother.   

YOUNGER SON: He is entitled to his share of the estate after the father’s death but wanting it sooner reveals something about him – perhaps he is precocious, has what we may call wanderlust, perhaps the wealth and the homestead are overwhelming for him. In many formerly British countries and in the UK it is quite common for a young high school graduate to take a “gap year” or a “walkabout” year – to embark on a lone adventure overseas. I know the feeling! Perhaps this is what he wanted.

It’s in being away that he becomes the prodigal (lavish spending, wasteful, extravagant) and is spending and carousing on resources he himself has not earned. In describing the younger son’s behavior Jesus is showing that he is unafraid to talk about such topics.

When he is at his most desperate place his eyes and his heart turn toward his father and his home. This tells us something (actually, a lot) about the father. We know at least that when he left the door was not sealed closed behind him.

Hunger drives him to humility and both make it possible for him to want to go home where at least he knows he will be fed and where at least he knows he will survive. There is no indication in the parable that he thinks he will be fully restored to his place in the family and be celebrated.     

Challenge

I don’t know what went on in his heart (and it is a parable) but I do know what it is like to receive my father’s love after years of distance and rebellion. Dads everywhere – please reach out to your sons and daughters today – young child adult, local or distant, and express the love for your sons and daughters that is burning beautifully in your heart.

What goes on in your parent heart?

I know what goes on in mine, I think. Mine’s like the furnace in middle of winter.

The furnace never turns off. My parent heart (or head) is working, thinking, planning, hoping, watching. There are times it’s distracted, but it’s never off duty. There are times it’s filled with anxiety and it can feel like it’s tumbling out of control. There are times love doesn’t always feel like love and feel like something quite different. It can feel like rising anger or a lightning jolt of protection. I see it expressed as I unwittingly scan the surroundings for dangers and potential dangers. I experience my heart as hoping beyond hope and wanting the seemingly impossible for my sons. I experience it as sometimes ignoring my own needs and placing all things on hold until I know what the boys may need. My heart (or my head) is constantly shifting through priorities, trying to identify what is crucial from what is necessary to what is mere waste. Sometimes, really only occasionally, it feels broken by a lapse in a son’s integrity or a harsh word or a moment of son-to-son betrayal – but it is thankfully, quick to recover.

I have come to see that a parent’s love has many seasons, a variety of intensities, and, while it seeks nothing or very little in return, when return-love and gratitude is expressed, even in the smallest and quietest of ways, the reward is wave-like, even overwhelming.  

Tell me what yours is like – please.

Application

May we all welcome all sinners and see the inner-sinner within us each. I find that I am both sons and I am the father – are you all three, too? I can be even more extreme than each son and fall short of the father but there are reflections of all three within me.

May the prodigal in each of us find the father’s welcome.

May the parent in all of us know how to welcome and celebrate all of our children (adult and youth and those who have left and those who are wasteful and those who are not).

May we have the hungry son’s repentant humility and none of the earlier haughtiness.

May we have none of the self-righteousness and harshness of the older brother.

May we learn the joy and the value of writing about our love on paper and then place it in the mail with a stamp and send it to out to the people we love, for their sakes and for ours.

I close with this quotation from one of my favorite South African novels, Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton.  

The Reverend Theophilus Mismanage says, But there is one thing that has power completely, and that is love. Because when a man loves, he seeks no power, and therefore he has power.
Benediction – from Colossians, chapter 1:

15-20 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Now, go out into the world, and may the Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the passion and the power of the Holy Spirit be with you, now and forever more.

Amen  

 

February 6, 2018

Love and freedom and what it is not….

by Rod Smith

Love leads to listening, freedom, warmth, care, and mutual support. It’s sharing dreams; it’s facing challenges together. It’s pooling resources for mutual benefit. It’s providing a safe place for each other and for any children with whom you share your life.

Love is not love when:

  • Coercion is threatened or used
  • There are attempts to seclude or cut off from family and friends
  • Betrayal is threatened or used
  • Love is used to trap, manipulate, or possess
  • Confinement is threatened or used – car keys hidden, doors locked, plans cancelled without consultation or knowledge
  • Privacy is denied (rooms, cupboards, purses, phone, computer, email, conversations)
  • Traps are set to test fidelity
  • Stalking, watching, tracking of any manner is threatened or used
  • Attempt at important talk repeatedly escalate to shouting matches
  • Violence of any kind (physical, sexual, emotional, psychological) of any degree of severity is used
  • Warmth, kindness expressed to others (old friends, family, former colleagues) is given as the reason for jealousy and conflict
  • When the use of alcohol or legal or illegal substances deplete mutual resources and lead to aberrant behavior or conflict

 

January 18, 2018

Yes, No: teaching both….

by Rod Smith
Teaching children “yes” and “no” is, in my mind, as important as teaching a child how to read, write, and to count.

I want my sons, according to their respective ages, to…

  • Say YES to opportunities even if they involve risk or if they involve venturing into the unknown, learning new things, and breaking unhelpful habits.
  • I want them to say YES especially if the opportunities involve meeting new people and people other than those with whom they’d usually mix.
  • Say YES to opportunities to travel, to serve, and to build and to assist in mending broken places.
  • Say YES to reading new ideas and to writing responses to them.
  • Say YES when they encounter opportunities to offer hospitality.
  • Say NO to toxic secrets, to behavior that judges or excludes others.
  • Say NO to religious teachings that limit their capacities for generosity and for freedom.
  • Say NO to anything that will potentially delay their formal education no matter how appealing or adventurous the idea may be.
  • Say NO to those who disrespect them or encourage them to treat the adults around them with anything less than utmost respect and close-to-perfectly good manners.
  • Say NO to those who dismiss their ideas and who treat them as a means toward their disclosed or undisclosed ends.