Candie and Miles* were upset and afraid. Their neighborhood had recently erupted in multiple instances of gun violence, some of which had happened right in front of their home. They wanted to move as soon as possible. When this couple shared their prayer request at a Sunday morning church service, their distress and fear for themselves and their children immediately evoked the care and concern of the community.
As a pastor of a local congregation, my study of Bowen Theory has helped me see how intense emotion like that shared by Candie and Miles sends a ripple through a congregation and can easily shape the group’s functioning. It is only natural when all or part of a community is faced with a threat, real or perceived, to organize in reaction to it. For instance, it would have been easy for the community to start lobbing suggested solutions at their problem or offering resources to help them leave their neighborhood.
So it was interesting to me that a small group arranged to meet with Candie and Miles in a different mode. The group planned to use a practice called “Meeting for Clearness.” Instead of gathering to solve a problem, the group meets in a structured format that creates space for clear thinking to emerge.
Near the beginning of our meeting, Candie and Miles shared their thoughts regarding their situation. They were still quite anxious, feeling trapped and ready to run. Instead of seeking to calm, affirm, or confront their fears, the group sat still with them, and then each person asked a question. We spent the first hour asking questions, with no back and forth, and a lot of thoughtful silence. Some of the questions opened the door to new ways of thinking about the situation.
At the end of the first hour, I asked if either of them had noticed any shift in their thinking. Miles noted that he was registering the implausibility of moving out of the neighborhood immediately and that he found himself getting curious about what it might look like to engage creatively with potential neighborhood allies. But both still felt stuck – that to be able to stay they would have to know something “unknowable,” namely, that the violence would stop.
During the second hour, Candie and Miles asked the group some questions and invited advice. There was some advice given, but more often, the questions continued, probing and eliciting their thinking.
By the end of the two-hour meeting, Candie was speaking about her values and priorities: staying in one place, unlike her own childhood, and ensuring safety for her children. Miles said that he was sensing real energy to explore partnering with neighbors and discovering assets that could affect the neighborhood system.
What struck me the most over the course of our meeting was how their sense of being trapped seemed to have abated. Their thinking was more free flowing, and their sense of possibility in the face of real and perceived threat was increased. According to Dr. Bowen, maintaining a neutral, emotionally balanced presence alongside individuals in an actively anxious system can reduce the dominating effects of the stress and free up space for clear thinking to emerge. By avoiding the pull of emotionally focused “togetherness,” as Dr. Bowen called it, the group created a different kind of space.
Candie and Miles were initially highly reactive to the stress of their neighborhood system but the meeting for clearness format seemed to open up some freedom for them. The neutral atmosphere of the meeting enabled them to access the clarity and flexibility of their own good thinking.
*All names have been changed.
David Swanson, M.Div.
WPFC Board Member
The WPFC blog will return with a new post after the holidays on January 6th 2021!