Seeking Clarity with a Neighborhood on Fire

  • December 16, 2020
  • David Swanson, M.Div.

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!

8 Replies to “Seeking Clarity with a Neighborhood on Fire”

  1. Thanks for your description of a real live clearness process in action. Moving from fear and avoidance to moving towards with options. Thank you.

    1. Hi Priscilla, I appreciate your comment. It was a remarkable time. Last week, which was about a month after the meeting, I followed up with “Candie.” Fascinatingly, the energy and clarity they accessed in that space has lasted and led to myriad opportunities in the neighborhood, plus they have also pursued and uncovered avenues to make moving possible, if needed. In other words, they are pursuing options in two directions that seemed impossible just weeks ago. Pretty neat.

      1. I was struck, in the meeting, by individuals in the group who, in the first hour of questions would begin to offer advice, or have an instinct toward more back and forth, but would remember the agreed upon format and manage their own functioning. It seemed that the format facilitated the calming of not only Candie and Miles, but also the rest of the group, to where people, none of whom have studied Bowen Theory, became more self-aware of their own instincts and ultimately exercised better management of their own functioning.

  2. Dave,
    Thank you for recounting this experience. It is a worthwhile teaching for me, both in terms of what we humans can be capable of, if given the right conditions but also that there is such a practice (“meeting for clearness”) which I would like to learn more about.

    1. Glad it was useful to you, Wendy. “Meeting for Clearness,” also known as a “Clearness Committee” originates with the Society of Friends (Quakers). I have taken part in them periodically over the past 20 years, but it is only since studying Bowen that I have been able to “see” what really goes on in the practice.

  3. Dave,
    I am feeling thankful for this sharing. I myself know what it’s like to get stuck in a process of thinking there is only one way. It is really lovely to hear a process that can open that up.
    I also was struck by this part “they would have to know something “unknowable,” ” Isn’t that something? I am sitting with how often we come across something unknowable and the process we humans can get into in attempts of knowing.

    1. Thanks for these thoughts, Heather. “Miles'” articulated the problem of having to know something unknowable, and I, too, thought it vividly captured a common shape that the process takes in individuals and the group. Both the the need to know the unknowable thing, and the idea that the thing is unknowable are part of the emotional process, I think.

  4. Rev. Swanson, your post is an excellent example of how, given space and time, people can come up with a direction forward for self. And how doing that prompts it in others. Having a way, the format of the meeting, allowed individual strengths to emerge that collectively can make a difference. I’m interested in a follow-up on this couple and the neighborhood sometime.

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