Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Presumption of Dysfunction and the Bright Side of Life

I've been working on pre-work for two of my doctoral classes over the last week, and found myself musing a bit over something in the coursework for my counseling class.

I've been asked to pull together a genogram, a map of the relationship dynamics in my immediate family.  It's sort of like a genealogy, but it also integrates emotive and relationship content.  Meaning, not just names and dates, but a little bit about who these people were and how they got along.  I did a version of this years ago for my M.Div. Pastoral Counseling coursework, but it's been nearly a decade, and a refresh is in order.

Family dynamics are a good thing to explore, and a good influence to understand.  For all of our American focus on ourselves as individuals, we are deeply shaped by our family context and the complex latticework of our relationships.  I'm enjoying the work, and will also enjoy the reflections it stirs as I delve again into the history of my family.

Still and all, as I pore my way through the workbook I find myself struggling with something.

It's the thing I often struggle with when I engage with counseling/therapeutic literature: the presumption of dysfunction.

It's an understandable thing, given the focus of the counseling environment.  You're so often dealing with folks in emotional and spiritual extremis.  Having a strong sense of the influence of the negative and damaging is essential.  And Lord knows those forms of relationship are present in all families, my own included.

But as I look to map out the latticework of my family history, I can't help but feel confined by that way of framing existence.  In my genogram, for example, the primary tag categories…meaning the symbols you use to flag relevant characteristics about an individual…are all negative.

A square indicates a male.  That's not negative, or so I hope.  If that male was an addict or an alcoholic, the bottom half of the square should be blackened.  If that male was mentally ill, the left side of the square should be blackened.  If both, I guess only the top right quadrant would remain clear.  If they were slightly eccentric and enjoyed an occasional tipple, maybe you can use grayscale.  Hard to say.

Lines between personal symbols indicate relationships, and while a double line indicates particular closeness, there are an array of varying lines to mark conflict, estrangement, "entanglement," and other forms of interpersonal mess.

What is missing is an equal focus on that place where joy dwells in families.  What is missing is any sense of the gifts.

How do I mark the heterochromatic ambidextrous mathematician-athlete?  Or the playful, fiercely mischievous soul who sparkled and shone through life?  Or the gifted actress?  Or the pastor who could make a laconic Scots elders openly weep in worship?  How do I mark the self-made woman, the successful entrepreneur who built a business at a time when women's work was the kitchen?  How do I mark the relative who taught himself calculus as a young teen?   How do I mark the musical and the creative, the kind and the supportive, the strong and the spiritual and the gracious?

If I am operating from dysfunction as my primary framework for understanding existence,  I do not.

Seeing the broken things, and naming them?  That's essential for healing and growing.  It must be done.

But if we do not acknowledge graces and the gifts as having not just equal standing, but deeper power, then we inhibit our growth.

Always look on the bright side of life, as they say.