Once a year, or so, I make a point of browsing at length in a section of the bookshop I don’t usually go to. Business, home, New Age, Self-help, science, biography — anything other than fiction, poetry, cookbooks, or religion really. And then I come home with whatever strikes me. Good or bad, it will open up new lines of thought. So this time, it was Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve.
Friedman has worked variously as an organizational consultant, a family therapist, a White House adviser and a Jewish rabbi, and the book is a mix of all these things. The main thrust of the argument is that when we are driven by anxiety, we tend to make choices that are maladaptive — choices that move us towards regression instead of growth, and that leave us ‘stuck’ instead of freeing us from the problems that threaten to engulf us.
In a society driven by anxiety, therefore, the only hope is for ‘leaders’ (by which he means everyone ‘from parents to presidents’) to gain enough emotional distance from the dominant patterns around them that they can model a different way of being.
So far so obvious.
But he makes one observation that has stayed with me all week. He says that too often, in maladaptive patterns, we herd around weakness. That is, in a poorly functioning group (family, church, community, nation) our group processes adapt to that of the most immature members and we organize around dysfunction.
That seems counter intuitive at first. But it doesn’t take long to think of all the classrooms that fail because of one unruly pupil, all the families that crash because everyone is trying to dance around the most difficult member, all the visions that die because one or two people refuse to engage with change.
Friedman argues that instead of organizing around dysfunction, we should be resourcing strength: throwing all our support behind the strongest members of the group, giving our time, money and energy to those best able to self-differentiate and maintain emotional distance, because it is only when the natural ‘leaders’ are free to lead that the group gets ‘unstuck’ and can begin to grow.
So, I have been wondering: what would it mean to resource strength? Would it mean, in one’s own life, putting more time into the things one does well, and not worrying so much about the rest? Would it mean, in the church, focusing on the points of growth, the points of potential — trusting that the trouble spots would sort themselves out if the climate changed?
It is a strangely liberating idea.
And for a natural pessimist like me (redemption doesn’t allow us to remain pessimists, but we all have an initial base line…) — for a natural pessimist like me, the very exercise of naming the strengths and affirming the points of growth seems like a good idea.
So, that’s the game for this week: what strengths should we be resourcing — in ourselves, in our communities, in our churches?
For those who can be bothered, there’s another bit of the argument and a quotation that made me laugh below…
Friedman draws on Paul McLean’s theory of the triune brain which describes the parts of the human brain in terms of their evolutionary origins. The reptilian brain is the oldest part of our brain and controls instinct; the mammalian brain manages emotions, relationships and playfulness; then there is the distinctly human brain that deals with complex and abstract thought. The theory is that no matter how rational we sound, or how rational we think we are being, if there is enough anxiety in a situation, we are thrown back to our reptilian processes. Therefore, in any given situation, you can have people sounding like sound, rational adults, but behaving like snakes — and it helps to recognize that. So, Friedman quotes a CEO’s ‘aha’ moment, in reflecting on his team:
I was fond of using the ‘circle-the-herd’ model when I wanted to ’round-up’ my managers. If you bring in the herd, and find you have left one or two stragglers, it is very hard to get them to come in alone unless you take the entire herd out, circle them round again, and have the togetherness that forces the stragglers in… I never knew why this didn’t work with some of my branch chiefs, but now I understand. Circling the herd works on the mammalian braid, and I’ve been trying to use it on reptiles — rattlers no less.
Ah yes. I’ve always wondered what that slight hissing sound was in the corner of difficult meetings…