There are several organizations I admire and respect. One of them posted a prayer on Facebook written by a social justice advocate. The prayer was published mid-June. To be honest so much has happened nationally in the last eight months, I can’t remember the social context that prompted the post. I find the prayer to be a good example of how institutions and social movements try to persuade people to be socially aware of the needs of others and less selfish.
Here is a sample of the prayer:
teach us what it means to live in grace — not just for ourselves,
but for the collective whole.
We have been individuals for far too long,
and in that individualism, we’ve forgotten how to hold each other.
I’ve said prayers like this in worship. These words have a theological ring to them that many believers resonate with, regardless of their faith. The individual is sinful. The community is virtuous. Selfish behavior is a challenge for covenant communities. It’s one thing conservatives and progressives agree on. For conservatives, selfish behavior leads to alcoholism, drug addiction, and a whole host of poor choices which harm the family. Think seven deadly sins. For progressives, selfish behavior leads to the pursuit of wealth and power which is always at the expense of the community which provides the labor force to make individuals wealthy and powerful. Think capitalism. These are generalizations, of course, but my point is that religious institutions promote the idea that selfish behavior is bad.
The challenge of selfish behavior is nothing new. Think Eve and Adam. The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament remind believers that they need God to be transformed into social beings. But this too is problematic. The notion that humans are inherently selfish and automatically individualistic is simply false. There is a treasure trove of scientific research to suggest otherwise. We are not independent creatures struggling to be social. We are social creatures struggling to be social.
What happens if our starting point is our need to be social, not an individual? In this context, being critical of other humans for “being individuals for far too long” makes sense. Why else would someone be sensitive to a perceived lack of caring, compassion, and being “held.” It’s because we are already aware of what it is like to be held, especially if we are used to being held too closely. Think the first day of preschool. The challenge in the infant/parent relationship is not the inability to bound properly. The challenge is in managing the intensity of the closeness. People struggle to be in community not because they are selfish but because they don’t know how to manage being together.
In my research on homelessness, I interviewed dozens of people. I heard one story several times. It began with mom or dad not doing well. In most cases, one parent developed significant health problems after the death of their spouse. One of their adult children (the one closest to the parent) volunteers to move in with the parent to provide full-time care. Before moving in with the parent, this adult child (who was fully employed and paying for their housing) gives up their job and housing to move in with the parent. For a time, the new arrangement goes well. At some point, typically after the death of the parent being cared for, the siblings get into an intense conflict. They battle over what to do with the house. With no money and no place to go, the adult child, who was providing care (who also has not handled the conflict well), ends up homeless.
At first glance, what looks like the sin of individualism (individuals behaving badly) is really the byproduct of too much togetherness. When the relationship system gets too hot, some people take off (or are pushed out) to find relief from the intensity of the togetherness. It’s not that people are selfish, they simply need an emotional break. Distancing is a common way to find relief from feeling too close. If the togetherness is too intense, the result will be a more permanent cutoff. When people decry individualism, what they are observing is cutoff from an intense togetherness.
What drives this force of togetherness is anxiety. Families come together when they are afraid. Think Irma! How many adult children who stuck it out this weekend in Florida have constantly been updating their worried parents? How many parents have been reassuring their worried adult children? When we are anxious, even worried, we try to tell each other what to do. “You need to leave. You need to find shelter. You need to listen to what the authorities are telling you. You need to do what I tell you!” When we are afraid, anxious, and worried about the future, we automatically tell family members what to think, feel, and do. It’s what we do.
So, perhaps a better place for us to start is with fear. Our perception of fear is what drives the process of an anxious togetherness. Our brains treat the perception of fear as if it is real. When we are afraid, the brain raises our anxiety, and activate the stress response system. This automatic response to fear is developed in the context of your family of origin. You are born into a way of responding to fear (an emotional process) that was developed over several generations. You can step back and observe the patterns that the family has developed over hundred, if not millions, of years. These patterns for responding to fear have a threshold which is determined by 1) the level of chronic anxiety in the family of origin, 2) the amount of stress the family is experiencing, and 3) how emotionally connected the family is to each other and the extended family.
Dr. Murray Bowen theorizes that individuality is not a bad thing. It’s difficult to explain in one paragraph so go to this link to read more about the concept of “differentiation of self”: [click here and then click on Differentiation of Self] Part of what goes into working on differentiation of self is: a) being responsible for one’s reactivity to anxiety in the relationship system (family, congregations, community, government, etc.). b) seeing how one’s reactivity and functioning contributes to problems in the relationship system (family, congregation, community, government, etc.). c) articulating and taking action steps towards life goals based on core principles and values, d) staying connected to important others through viable emotional contact.
So, what does all of this have to do with the prayer above? Perhaps a different way to think about a prayer would be useful. Something like:
Teach me the ways of being a self that is connected.
I have been automatically reacting to anxiety for far too long.
Teach me to become objective about reality and fear not.
Challenge me to see the world as it is.
Help me find the motivation, the courage, and the resiliency to discover new ways of relating to the family, and by extension, everyone else.
Help me to remember that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have, and we can all do better, starting with me.
Teach me the ways of self-regulation so that I might be a better collaborate with my neighbor.
It’s not pretty or elegant. Maybe you can come up with a better prayer. I’d love to read it in the comment section.
It has been reported that Dr. Bowen, at the end of his life, saw differentiation of self in the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. So, I’ll leave you with the prayer:
Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred,
Let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, Joy.
O Divine Master grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.