Friday, June 18, 2010

My Latest GoodTherapy.org Article

 Be sure to let me know what ideas this raises for you.  L

Can Gay Families Teach Us About Gender Identity?

Father's Day devotion from Pr. Peter Strommen

Peter is currently the Lead Pastor at my former congregation, Shepherd of the Lake Lutheran, Prior Lake, MN,
has written such a beautiful and wise devotion about faith, family and gender, I just have to share. Thanks, Peter. Awesome.

http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs044/1102142675015/archive/1103489936318.html

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Helplessness = Trauma

I have been thinking about my, and our, experience of helplessness in the face of the Gulf oil disaster. About what it feels like in our bodies to be continuously exposed to experiences in the world that we can't control but which have large, perhaps even life changing effects on our lives.

In the last 50 years or so, psychology as a science has become increasingly wise about experiences that wound the soul. The kind of happenings that lock up a part of our brains, quite literally, from easy connection to the rest of our inner experience and cause us to emotionally get stuck in the memory. We call these experiences traumas. Trauma with a capital T.

In the current mental health definition of post-traumatic stress syndrome, a person witnesses or experiences something life-threatening, shocking, and horrific, but with one key experiential ingredient : they feel powerless.

Powerlessness is what seems to turn a terrible experience into a Trauma; the inability to respond. Being able to do something in the midst of a rape, or fire, shooting or car accident seems to be the way that human beings help themselves mentally manage the horrors of life.

In all of human history, with the exception of the last decade, the way that human beings were exposed to the darkest part of life was that they lived it. Civil war, tornado, forest fire, genocide, death in childbirth were all experiences limited to the people who lived them in the Now. The average person may have heard about a battlefield massacre hundreds of miles off weeks after it was all done; the sinking of the Titanic days after the ship sat at the bottom of the ocean. The physical distance and the oral or written account were buffers from the sense of immediacy of pain. And while illness, death, disease, and war came very close to everyone, the human struggle had a local feel.

I am concerned for us in the age of constant media exposure. Not only do we hear about the devastation of Haiti or Guatemala after earthquake, we are taken there by professional as well as citizen video, blog, radio, television and internet streams. Rivers of emotional information, rushing at us day and night, eliciting in most of us sense of chronic helplessness. We are being exposed to suffering not in the scale of a single lifespan, but on a world-wide scale, a level most of us can't possible sustain. And the only way that most of us have of being less helpless, of sending money, is a weak antidote to the larger emotional burden the river of news places on us.

When we watch the oil wash up on the unique marshlands at the mouth of the Mississippi, or see a dead dolphin or pelican laying on the beaches of northern Florida, we layer yet another experience of helplessness on our brains. Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq. Over and over. It's trauma, with a small t.

Will we all become a species so accustomed to the experience that we will adopt what is called a "learned helplessness," where sooner or later nothing moves us any more, and we emotionally disconnect from the needs and suffering of others?

What do you do to limit the exposure you and your family have to trauma you can't fix, suffering you can't stop, horror you can't control? How can you spare yourself and your children from emotional wounds of trauma caused by round-the-clock media?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Parental Authority vs. Family Leadership

When I meet with families and teens, the form of family that most often seeks family therapy, the issue of Authority arises pretty quickly. It is frequently The Issue when it comes to teenagers and their parents.

As teens grow and develop their nascent emotional self, they need to take on more and more self control, discipline and choice. This conflicts with their parents' familiar patterns of control, decision making, discipline and tolerance of conflict, the sense of which has been developed in the family through that child's life. When children become more autonomous, the adults must flex more while maintaining steady goals for the family.

This isn't easy, and is generally full of conflict. Now add into the mix of many families divorce, step parents and siblings, shared physical custody and chronically changing schedules. The level of conflict and stress can get very high -- and everyone begins to act out their frustration and pain.

Unlike much religious and talk show wisdom on the matter, families and teens don't need more rigid boundaries, more rules and demands, more over-focus on grades and chores and language and privileges. What I work with families to co-create is a new level of parental Leadership. Leadership that is self focused, flexible, sacrificial and cooperative. A family that has high expectations, but can allow a steady measure of teenage development. A parent system that is talking more to each other about how the family is doing and is less critical of their teens who, I know, are always trying to do the best they can.

Dr. Sal Minuchin, an early pioneer of family therapy, describes what we're after this way:

"I describe family values as responsibility towards others, increase of tolerance, compromise, support, flexibility. And essentially the things I call the silent song of life—the continuous process of mutual accommodation without which life is impossible." 

 Mutual accommodation -- that's what true family leadership looks like.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Two-Faith Marriage


            For thousands of years, people have expected their children to marry within their family faith and culture. Family life, in its largest sense, is easier this way. Marriage partners are easier to find among shared communities like synagogues, mosques, parochial schools or parishes; families know more about each other and often form smoother in-law relationships. Religious rituals bind partners to preceding generations as well as to their future children and to one another. All the thousand small, nearly invisible connections shared faith creates helps to enable more stable marriages and thicker, stronger emotional ties between parents, children, in-laws and the larger religious community.
            It isn’t the distrust of the outside world as much as the desire to sustain the uniqueness of a specific religious worldview that has linked Catholic to Catholic, Jew to Jew, Muslim to Muslim, Hmong to Hmong in marriage for generations. The practical, easier simplicity of shared meanings between spouses hold traditions and expectations in place. And so, for generations, parents have expected their children to partner with people of their faith traditions; this has been especially critical to religions that have relatively small numbers compared to the general population, as Jews are, for example, in the United States.
            So, if a good Jewish young adult woman, whose faith teaches her that mothers are the parent who “passes down” the identity of Jew to the children, should begin to form a long-term relationship with a young adult male Gentile, a non-Jew, the tide of family anxiety may be loud. But now imagine an adult Jewish man planning to marry a Gentile woman: his children would not be considered religiously Jewish. The emotional hew and cry from his extended family may be so loud as to disrupt that planned marriage. While all this anxiety about blood lines and religious identity may be unwelcome and distressing, it’s quite understandable from a cultural point of view. But it doesn’t make it easier to manage this all within your own family. So what’s a “mixed marriage” couple to do?
1.      Understand and respect the family’s loyalty to their faith. While the family comments and distress may be pointed at you, it’s really not about you, personally. It’s about your possible intention of breaking community tradition and expectations.
2.      Take your time. Be sure those thousand small communal connections of the faith become more visible to you and that you try them on for size. They need to fit you, or at least be interesting and acceptable enough to have them become part of your life. What is simply a bother now may become intolerable. And intolerable isn’t good; it will kill a marriage.
3.      Negotiate before you commit. Work out the details of a future family life as much as you can. What is preferable you attend (Sunday service) and what is mandatory (Baptism)? Can you tolerate these agreements for the long run? Are they mutual? Talk them through, and even write them down.
4.      Can you agree to live within this negotiated difference? Expect this topic to never go away, but be a continuing area of adjustment, compromise and some level of sacrifice for the both of you. The larger presence of extended families, religious holidays, rituals, leaders and language will only increase this difference as you have children. Can you both embrace the long-term challenge in a positive, adjusted way?

            The two-faith marriage couple is on the increase across Western culture. And while such unions can appear to weaken a minority faith, sharing traditions can also strengthen the tolerance, appreciation and respect the majority has for minority traditions. It’s not all bad news! But a two-faith marriage is not easy, and is not for the faint of heart. Know what you need to do before you say “I do,” and your years together will much smoother.