“I” Does Not Exist – The Power and Peril of Family Systems (Boulder, CO)

When One Suffers, We All Suffer

I have been trying to do soul surgery on myself ever since learning about the shooting at the King Soopers in Boulder, CO where I have shopped countless times and sometimes drop my daughter off for her gymnastics carpool. I am doing this because in my heart of hearts, I realize that at some point my depression will not serve the unified emotional body of our community. Even though I wasn’t there, most of my friends and many of the parishioners of the church I serve live in that part of town and shop there. And some know people who were killed. During the night, as we waited for the people who were killed to be identified, I dreamed about one of the cashiers who I know by name, anxious that she would be on the list. And as I was navigating this web of thoughts, I berated myself for the “un-Christian” thoughts that were going through my head and causing my body physical pain.

“You’re a pastor. Get it together. Don’t give in to anger. Do not despair. There is no fear in love. Love your enemies. Shut the hell up.”

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

1 John 4:18


I battle with love and fear daily. Almost every single day is a Gethsemane, going back and forth between wanting to give up and surrendering to God’s will. I truly want to love my neighbor as myself because I have become convinced that there is no other hope for this world than living the two great commandments. But then there are those times like what happened in Boulder when I realize the limits of my capacity and see how much work I still have to do. Honoring that there truly is no fear in love, I realize that my limits are no excuse. I can feel them. But I cannot pitch my tent there. Without saying too much more about the tragedy in Boulder right now, I’m going to talk about how and why I’m trying to process this tension the way I am. And, what it comes down to is that I realize that pain is communal and so is healing.

We Are Family

For the better part of a decade or so, I’ve been using what I’ve learned about Bowen Theory, aka Family Systems Theory, to frame how I experience complicated relational dynamics—both in my family and outside of it. Even when I am triggered by local, national, or global issues, I frame them as I would something occurring in a familial context. If you’re not familiar with Bowen Theory, here is a brief description from the Bowen Center website:

Bowen family systems theory is a theory of human behavior that views the family as an emotional unit and uses systems thinking to describe the unit’s complex interactions. It is the nature of a family that its members are intensely connected emotionally. Often people feel distant or disconnected from their families, but this is more feeling than fact. Families so profoundly affect their members’ thoughts, feelings, and actions that it often seems as if people are living under the same “emotional skin.”

Even before I had any of the language of Bowen Theory, I had observed much of what the theory espouses. Using my family of origin as an example, I remember when I visited home after being in the military for several years. With the anonymity that leaving home and joining the Air Force had afforded me, I discovered that there were many aspects of my being that I hadn’t cultivated much back home. For one thing, I had a broader emotional range than I usually expressed. But when I returned home with a more colorful palette of emotions, rather than the shades of grey that I typically used with them, I had trouble really reintegrating because my family and others who knew me in my previous incarnation expected me to fall right back into my previously held position.

My family, for the most part, was a virtual wellspring of emotions. And there was no short supply of emotional geysers either. So apparently, I showed up to play the role of the stoic and serious one because that’s what the system needed. I think my grandfather formerly held that space. But he died when I was 4. And that’s when I officially became the families “old man”.

Because I didn’t seem to act like a child and was somewhat serious—ok, very serious—I was often accused of being unfeeling. In fact, I had such low emotional affect in many situations that some people thought I was on the autism spectrum. But from my perspective, I just didn’t see a place for my feelings in our dynamic. It seemed to me that everyone else had the emotional extremes covered. So I just took what was left.

However, after spending a restful 7 weeks in Basic Military Training and 8 months in Tech School, I soon discovered that, on my own, I was more relationally dynamic than I appeared to be back home. Once I realized this about myself, I decided to put in the work to reclaim parts of myself that hadn’t been adequately nurtured.

Fortunately, my awareness developed in a context of conditional isolation from people who “knew me” and and the unconditional trust in God’s Grace and Love. But still, reimagining and recreating oneself is challenging in any circumstances. Because, as I observed and Bowen Theory articulates, “A change in one person’s functioning is predictably followed by reciprocal changes in the functioning of others.” What this means is that if one person in the family system changes, then the others living under “the same emotional skin” will also change to some degree. Unfortunately, when they didn’t sign up for that change, they will resist even if it is for your or even their own good.

Were it not for the teachings of Jesus that offered me insight into another family system, I am not sure I would’ve handled it healthily at all. But even with the knowledge that I had the Spirit of Adoption, as it says in Romans 8:15, I still got close to losing my mind in the individuation process. There is a psychological element to “fitting in”—even if where you fit in isn’t where you want to be—that often keeps us playing the roles that were assigned to us well after they’ve served any useful purpose.

For you have not received the spirit of slavery again to fear. But you have received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, “Abba, Father.” 

If you’ve ever tried to break ranks from a close knit group, but most especially a family system, you know that members of that group will typically do everything they can to reel you back in. Either they’ll tell you directly that you stepped out of bounds or they might try other tactics such as shaming, isolation, or even physical abuse to put you back in your place. As someone who has been on the receiving end of all of these attempts to make me conform, I can tell you that most systems detest variation. And conscious of it or not, the system will try to either assimilate or purge any anomalies.

If you’ve been through it, then you know that there’s nothing like rejection to make you question your convictions and sense of value. It is so painful. But what makes it hurt the most is the realization that those who reject you often sincerely believe that they’re doing it for your own good. I mean, the people who crucified Jesus weren’t doing it to be jerks. They really saw him as a threat to their survival. And from there point of views he brought it on himself for breaking the social norms. That’s why the Chief Priest, Caiaphas said that it was expedient that one man should die for the people. “Better him than all of us” was the sentiment (John 18:24).

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. 

Matthew 23:11

But one of the things I have realized is that even when you leave the nest so to speak and the people who wear the “same emotional skin” as you adjust and accept you, there never comes a day when things settle. As long as you’re alive, you will affect and be affected by those people with whom you share a family system dynamic. And it doesn’t matter what brings about the change.

Earlier, I mentioned that I became the “old man” when my grandfather died. It took me a long time to put it together, but I believe it was in part because we moved into his house after he died. My dad had already been gone for two years so as the oldest male in the house, even at 4, my family projected “old man-ness” onto me to fill out the void in the system. Either that or I am a reincarnation of someone older. Because I easily accepted that I was treated like an adult and, as they said, was the “man of the house” now.

But my grandfather’s death wasn’t the only one that changed the system and thereby me and everyone else. When my grandmother died, my mom and aunt strangely started “becoming my grandmother” almost instantly. Which again I think was filling the void. That rippled throughout the family. And when my dad died, both of my brothers felt like they were going to die the same way and changed into aspects of him. I felt myself trying to as well. But I’ve been resisting it for almost 12 years and getting bothered that this is even a thing to contend with. I’d rather change the system then let it change me.

But what has gotten me the most recently is watching how the system is trying to get me to adjust to my mother’s dementia. I can feel myself trying to hold on to painful memories more tightly than I did previously, simply because she can’t. She has completely forgotten my abusive stepdad who we had to run away from. It’s like he never existed for her. On one side, I am happy for her. He was worth forgetting as far as I can tell. But now I am remembering him and his emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual abuse more as if it has now fallen upon me to hold the system’s integrity. When I really wish that I could forget him too. Damn system!!!

But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.

1 Corinthians 12:24-26

Now I think I made it clear how family systems plays out in my own context. The reality being that even though I am able to think of my “self” as a separate “I”. In fact, there is no such person as long as one lives in the “same emotional skin” as anyone else. But further still, I would submit that all of us actually live under the “same emotional skin”. Despite our best efforts to deny it, we are all one.

As I wrestle with the events that happened in my community along with all of the other weighty issues in society and my personal life, I am becoming increasingly aware that many of us practice division because it can feel truly overwhelming to try loving neighbor as oneself. It can be maddening trying to reconcile the infinitude of feelings that arise within the sphere of humanity with the natural survival impulse. When we family with anyone (using family as a verb), we are choosing to live under that “same emotional skin” as Bowen put it. For all intents and purposes, that means joining with them in emotional life and death. Imagine living your life under the same emotional skin as all of Creation throughout eternity. How could any of us maintain a sense of a separate self under those conditions? And yet, I think this is exactly the destiny of all souls.

Perhaps it is the tension of this question that undergirds how many of us face the world. And perhaps, it is the knowledge that we cannot actually separate from the “All that is One” that will help us to wake up to what the Bible and other Wisdom traditions teach–that as one suffers, we all suffer. And if one is honored we all rejoice.

And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.”

John 12:32

2 replies »

  1. This is an interesting piece as it intersects with “kicking the dust off my feet.” Living in the “same emotional skin”, and loving neighbor as oneself, I ask, are we not all one, everyone sharing the same aspects of each other? If one is loving, are we not all loving? If one is hateful, are we not all hateful? If one is homeless, are we not all homeless? Some would say yes, others would say no-I am an individual who makes my own choices and my own path. “There is no fear in love, love your enemies.” Is it safe to say we are both individuals AND all are one? We are all born of clay, we all live within the Divine, yet at the same time are we not free to make our own way? These are questions I ask myself.

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    • I have come to know that within the beingness of God is space for the beingness of us all without contradiction. As recently as yesterday, I have had confirmation of this reality. And it is to this Reality that I surrender as often as I am able. I appreciate your questions and trust God does as well.

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