In times of heightened anxiety and increased societal tension, it can be difficult to make objective and emotionally neutral claims about human behavior. Under such conditions, those who attempt to step back and take in a broader view of human behavior can be labeled as lacking empathy or cold. When societal problems escalate, people put pressure on one another to take sides. In the public discourse there is limited space for those who take a more complex, nuanced approach to the problems we face in society. In spite of the pressure, it’s important for system thinkers to persist.
A systems perspective moves away from the simple cause-effect model of understanding human behavior. The classic model of cause-effect thinking is A causes B, B causes C, and C causes D. In contrast, a systems model takes into account as many variables as possible at the same time. In this way, A, B, C, & D interact with each other in real time. In order to understand the behavior of A, one needs to study all the variable interactions. A is not only influenced by B, C, & D but also B, C & D are interacting and influencing the whole system.
So, when we are examining human behavior, it is not enough to look at one or two components. It is necessary to look at all possible variables. I once had a parishioner tell me he was divorcing his wife because she was bi-polar. He could no longer deal with her shifts in mood. He did not see how his interactions with her (or the interactions of other family members) played a part in her symptoms. He saw the problem inside her head. To him, her bi-polar behavior was the result of a neurological disorder. He is not alone in this way of thinking.
The diagnosis typically goes something like this: there is some abnormality that occurs to the brain in utero of someone who has a neurological disorder like bi-polar. It leads to an imbalance in brain chemicals. Because these chemical processes affect the way the brain fires, the faulty firing leads to swings in mood. Swings in mood lead to problematic behavior. That problematic behavior impacts other people in negative ways. In other words, A leads to B, B leads to C, and C leads to D. If a person is able to take medication to correct the original cause “A,” the end result will be positive behavior. This is a classic cause-effect model. This understanding of mental Illness is woefully inaccurate because it is not consistent with current research and because it limits the problem to being only in the other person’s brain.
Scientists are discovering that brain functioning is the result of multiple variables. Take DNA, for example. All of us have virtually the same DNA. Identical twins are two people who develop in utero from the same fertilized egg. At birth, their DNA is identical. Fast forward 60 years. Scientists have discovered that the DNA of identical twins no longer looks identical. How is this possible?
It turns out that our DNA has an outer layer called an epigenome. Epigenetics looks at the mechanisms surrounding the genome that functions to regulate gene expression. Whether a gene is up-regulated (turned on), or down-regulated (turned off) is determined by a methylation process on top of each gene. The epigenome is highly sensitive to our experiences of the world. These sensitivities allow us to be responsive to challenges in the environment. If the challenge is great, gene expression will more than likely change to meet the challenge. These changes make the human more adaptable over time and from one generation to the next.
Changes in gene expression occur at different stages of life. In the case of identical twins, life experiences alter their gene expressions. For others, it explains the onset of chronic symptoms as one gets older. It turns out that some of these changes are transmitted from one generation to the next. What was adaptive in one generation is passed on to offspring in the next.
In more recent years, it has been shown how relationships impact gene expression. The ways we perceive our relationship with other people, particularly in the family, impacts the expression of our genes. We know this happens in early years of development, but it can also happen as we age. In essence, over time, our genes are being regulated by our relationships, particularly our families.
Inflammation, a process regulated by gene expression, is involved with things like depression and chronic anxiety. States like depression and anxiety can impair the judgment of someone, making it more difficult to have an accurate perception of the world. Chronic inflammation is the result of the body perceiving a persistent threat which in reality is not there. The structure of the brain, an evolutionary development, favors a strong, automatic reaction to a threat making it more difficult for a thoughtful, factual observation of the world around us. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. In the case of a threat, a quicker automatic response saves lives. But what happens if chronic anxiety is high and the threat is perceived incorrectly?
Darren Wilson and the family emotional process.
The shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man from Ferguson, MO on August 9, 2014 by police officer Darren Wilson, sparked a national protest. It is one of many instances of a white police officer killing an unarmed black man. Wilson was not charged and was eventually exonerated by the Justice Department who determined that Wilson had followed protocols and had not willfully violated Brown’s civil rights. A wrongful death case is still pending.
The shooting of Brown has become a polarizing issue for many communities. For some, the actions of Wilson point to policies that encourage the excessive use of force which becomes tragic when coupled with racial profiling. For others, it highlights a lack of respect for policing which is the result of decades of lax policing policies in communities. These arguments are simplistic, cause-effect views of the problem. In reality, the situation is much more complex.
In August of 2015, The New Yorker Magazine ran an article on Darren Wilson. You can click here to read the full article. The article is useful because it explores Wilson’s relationships.
“Wilson, who is from Texas, is the son of a woman who repeatedly broke the law. His mother, Tonya Dean, stole money, largely by writing hot checks. After completing high school, she married Wilson’s father, John, who had been her English teacher. They soon had two children to support—Darren and his younger sister, Kara—but Dean spent wildly. She left John Wilson for another man, Tyler Harris, who ran a Y.M.C.A. They had a child, Jared, and Darren and Kara lived with them. ‘Tonya had me in debt—almost twenty thousand dollars—that first year,’ Harris told me. Dean, it seems, often repaid debts to one person by stealing money from someone else.”
Wilson notes that his mother never meant to hurt anyone. But she would continue to con people out of money even presenting herself as someone who was about to inherit millions of dollars. She never served jail time. She died shortly after being told by a judge that next time she would be jailed. Interestingly, Darren Wilson does not know how his own mother died. He believes it was suicide but does not know for sure, or isn’t saying.
Wilson, who was married and divorced shortly after arriving in Ferguson, eventually remarried his mentor from the Ferguson police department, Barb Spradling who is eight years his senior. In 2013, Barb’s ex-boyfriend assaulted her. Barb brought a son into the marriage with Wilson, and the couple also gave birth to a girl.
Each of us is responsible for our own behavior. Yet, rarely do we consider the challenges each person is up against in being more responsible for their actions. Self-regulation, something we assume is somehow easy for all of us to do, is often elusive for us and difficult to engage particularly when our level of stress is high. According to Dr. Dan Papero, we are a different person when we are stressed than when we are not stressed. While we like to believe it is possible for us to use our best judgment at all times, it is not realistic for the human to do so. Most of the time we are reactive, with some ability to alter our reactivity.
In the case of Darren Wilson, there is some evidence to suggest that his childhood was filled with higher levels of chronic anxiety. This would be evident in the mother’s inability to self regulate around her finances and in her apparent suicide. If there were facts available about his mother and father's childhood and their parents’ childhood it might offer clues to the patterns of reactivity and the development of chronic anxiety in this family. Individuals who are raised in highly anxious and stressful relationship systems are challenged in their ability to accurately process and filter sensory perceptions, something that is true for all of us to varying degrees. What accounts for the variation is our level of chronic anxiety, the amount of tension in the relationship system at any given time, and the level of environmental stress at the time.
In addition to one’s chronic level of anxiety, which comes out of one’s development in a nuclear family, there is the persistence of higher levels of tension in the family system which is influenced by the level of chronic anxiety. The challenges of relating to a difficult mother, going through a divorce, a spouse’s troubled relationship with an ex-boyfriend, and the intense realities of daily policing can all play a part in disturbing one’s ability accurately to assess a situation. It can make the difference between a split-second decision to de-escalate a situation or pull the trigger.
To be clear, again, we are all responsible for our actions. I’m not suggesting that Darren Wilson be excused for his actions. He is responsible for what he has done. What I am suggesting is that we have a long way to go in understanding how behavior is driven by a systems model of relationships.
There is wide variation in the way officers respond to a call. Some officers are better at assessing a situation and making appropriate responses that match the situation. What makes the difference? I think two things. The level of chronic anxiety that an officer carries with them from childhood into adulthood which is then sustained by the family system they create with a spouse. In the marriage, family patterns are replicated from one generation to the next. Efforts to lower one’s level of chronic anxiety requires what Dr. Murray Bowen called an effort towards differentiation of self.
The second is to consider the current stress of an officer. All of us make mistakes from time to time. Most of them are minor and easily corrected. What influences us to make mistakes may be the level of stress one is dealing with as it relates to one’s level of chronic anxiety. The higher the level of chronic anxiety, the less stress is needed to create a problem. The lower the level of chronic anxiety, the more stress is needed. So if you have an officer who has a relatively low level of chronic anxiety, and you stress them with massive problems at home (be it marital, parenting, or financial), under enough stress, their perceptions and behavior will be impaired. I have no doubt that when police officers are feeling stressed, they tell their boss and colleagues about their family problems. It’s what we all do.
While the scientific tools needed to evaluate one’s level of chronic anxiety or basic level of differentiation are not available, are there current ways to begin to assess it? Is there enough clinic evidence of the influence of chronic anxiety on the brain's ability to accurately perceive and assess reality to warrant a more in-depth study of policing? How might congregational leaders and those interested in Bowen Theory share these concepts and clinical evidence with law enforcement as an effort to improve the quality of community policing? Does Bowen Theory have something to offer those who work in stressful work environments? I think it does.
It's difficult to say if an evaluative tool based on Bowen’s concept of differentiation of self would significantly reduce the incident of white police officers shooting unarmed black men. But I do think the potential is there. Theoretically, those at higher levels of differentiation would do a better job of assessing a real threat from a perceived threat. And that’s the real difference.
Dr. Murray Bowen observed that someone pays the price when families have high levels of chronic anxiety. It is possible that young black men are paying a price for higher levels of chronic anxiety in society. The shooting of young, black men by white police officers is a symptom of a larger family emotional process that has spilled over into the general public. If we want to reduce the incident of gun violence, then we need to look more closely at the stress levels of families and understand better the role anxiety plays in affecting behavior.