I recently played the disciple Judas in a performance that brought to life da Vinci’s famous painting, The Last Supper. Spoiler alert: Judas betrays Jesus. Some people in my congregation experienced cognitive dissonance as they watched their pastor portray Judas. During the meet and greet after each performance, the audience processed through the cast line, shook hands and took selfies with Jesus (and the other disciples). People walked past me with no hand shake or selfie. Or I should say, they walked past Judas. I can’t blame them, though. Don’t we all dislike Judas? He's the one to blame, right?
Judas represents the worst of human behavior: betrayal. For some, betrayal is an unforgivable sin. Still, there are those who make attempts to forgive in the face of betrayal. Forgiveness is a messy word. Some refuse to forgive as a matter of principle and conviction. To forgive would be to give in or give up. Others proclaim that forgiveness provides an experience of freedom. Forgiving others or forgiving one’s self has set them free. What really drives the decision to forgiven? It is the emotional process.
The emotional process describes how the behavior of others influences one’s behavior and vice versa. It’s a reciprocal process, and it’s predictable, like a script. If I say or do “x,” then someone else will predictably do “y.” Because this is a system view, multiple people play a part in how each person behaves. For example, the family functions as an emotional unit. Whether or not one forgives is largely based on a family script of emotional process. The family script is handed down from generation to generation. Going back and understanding one’s family from a multigenerational perspective sheds light on how the emotional process works in one’s family of origin. It can help an individual within the family move out of automatic, predictable reactivity to a more thoughtful, principle orientated response.
Dr. Murray Bowen wrote:
More knowledge of one’s distant families of origin can help one become aware that there are no angels or devils in a family; they were human beings, each with his own strengths and weaknesses, each reacting predictably to the emotional issue of the moment, and each doing the best he could with his life course.
Family Therapy in Clinical Practice 492.
I like portraying Judas because he challenges my automatic tendencies to see angels and devils in my family. Judas was human and reacted to the emotional issues of his day. Jesus even predicts his response.
It’s difficult to define what love is both from a scientific perspective and from a religious perspective. What we do know is that if we receive too much of it or not enough, we become reactive. Perhaps a faith-based definition of love is that we are all children of God and we are enough. It reminds of what Bowen stated that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have. Engaging the emotional process is about accepting others and challenging self.
Differentiation of self includes an effort to define one’s relationships. What kind of relationship do you want to have with your mother, father, siblings, etc.? How do you think about the relationship? What’s important to you about the relationship? We pretend that we are defining our relationships through things like politics, religion, social views, whether someone is adding to one's life. In reality we end up defining our relationships not by feelings (love), or by thinking (definitions) but instead by an emotional process: are you making my life easier or more challenging? In this way, our relationships get defined by the moment to moment reactivity that is in the family system. Differentiation of self consists of acknowledging the feelings associated with a relationship and then taking actions based on one’s beliefs and principles. It’s about knowing the difference between feelings and thinking.
What are the factors that influence a relationship status? They include the level of chronic anxiety in the relationship system, the current level of challenge or calm in the family, the capacity of individuals and the family to access resources to address a challenge, the number of viable emotional connections that are available at the time, and one’s belief about the nature of relationships. As one works on differentiation of self, there are no longer angels or devils in the family or the congregation. Instead, we discover that human beings are doing the best they can with what they have. And I, for one, can always do better.