Family Systems

May 12, 2017 Length: 13:57

Dr. Rossi once again interviews Fr. Sean Levine, a graduate of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary and now chaplain in the United States Army, regarding Family Systems Theory and how it applies to our healing the growth.





Dr. Albert Rossi: Today I have the honor, real honor and privilege, to do a podcast with Fr. Sean Levine. I did one a while ago, and anyone who’s interested can look in my archives. That podcast was on post-traumatic stress syndrome. Today Fr. Sean is going to talk about a wonderful, different topic—family systems theory—as it applies to real people and real lives: you who’s listening and me. And we have a lot to learn from family systems theory, about approving our own human lives. So, Fr. Sean, where do you want to begin?

Fr. Sean Levine: Thanks, Dr. Rossi. I guess I’ll start just by saying family systems is a way of honoring something that we already know, I think sometimes unconsciously and often consciously, that the individual person is largely a mythology, that people are always people in relationship, and that if we want to move from the idea of the typical Western view of the individual toward an Orthodox Christian view of the person, we realize in that transition that a person is someone in relationship. An individual is often kind of a molecular, detached, kind of lonely experience. In the Orthodox Church we see…

And Elder Sophrony and St. Silouan always wanted to talk about persons rather than the individual. The individual is kind of a philosophical concept; the person is one in relationship with others, certainly with God and then with other human beings. So family systems in family therapy is a recognition of the idea that you can take a single person, you can treat a person as an individual and get them to a place of relative wellness. If you put them back into a system that does not support that wellness, they will quickly regress back into whatever the problem was that caused someone to bring them to therapy.

The original insight into this came with working with schizophrenic children, and therapists would work with the children and get the children very stable and out of any psychotic state, and then when the parents visited, they would watch the children often regress back into their psychotic behaviors, just because of the presence of their adult caregivers, their adult parents. So it became quickly evident that causality, in terms of mental illness, also had something very powerful to do with the family system in which the person lived.

So if the family system can be the cause of dysfunction in a person, it can also be a context for healing and wellness. So working with the whole family, then, brings healing and wellness, not just to the individual person, the one person, but also into the whole system, such that wellness and healing and wholeness can be maintained over the long haul, because the system is facilitating that for everyone involved, not just for the “identified patient.”

Dr. Rossi: Thank you, Fr. Sean. Those ideas, for me and, I don’t doubt, the listeners, are ideas profound. That is to say, there’s a lot of mental mileage to be had just thinking about the truth of all that. I’m reminded of Fr. Schmemann’s famous saying, “I am my relationships.” There’s no such thing as an I, the letter I, not e-y-e. The I doesn’t exist as itself; it only exists as a sum total of all our relationships, which include our relationship with God. But that that constellation is continually evolving and changing, so relationships change. So the I is constantly changing as a function of the relationships, and those relationships are often mental, that is to say, I’m not with my children—they live in other states—but they’re in my heart, so I have a relationship with them, even though I’m not at the dining room table with them.

Say a bit more, if you would, about the impact of this theory on living a Christian life.

Fr. Sean: Sure. I think it’s very easy for us sometimes to slip into an individualistic mindset in terms of spiritual well-being and living the Christian life, because we live in a Western culture that largely defines a person in individualistic terminology. I think realizing the power of systems thinking and of family systems really helps to situate each of us into a network of relationships. I think it can help us choose that network as well.

Some networks of relationships are not wellness-producing, and it may be helpful at times to extract ourselves from those particular systems, whether that’s a family system of a literal family; sometimes it’s a family system at work; unfortunately, God be merciful to us, sometimes it’s a family system in a church, where that particular way of doing church life is not helpful for somebody’s internal spiritual growth and development and that it’s okay to recognize that there are relational contexts that are better and worse for us, to be attentive to that and sometimes to take the bold move of moving ourselves out of those systems.

That, of course, shouldn’t lead to isolation; we then have to find new families, sometimes literally, other times figuratively, new families to involve ourselves in so that we are receiving the positive benefits of healthy relationality. I think that the main shift of mind as away from an individualistic “I’m going to do this with me and God on my own” kind of perspective versus involving ourselves intentionally in social groups, in family systems, that help us to grow, to develop, and that give us a place to contribute, not just to take, but also to give of ourselves in healthy and healthful ways.

I don’t know that I would necessarily contrast this with our hermits and those who are called to an isolated life of prayer. I think it’s easy to realize that not all of us are called to that level of Christian life, that that’s not the calling for everyone. So while there are those who have been in isolation, that’s not the calling for all of us, and even those who did lead those kind of isolated Christian lives, they were not cut off; they still belonged to the Church and remained connected to the Tradition and to the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church. I don’t think those two things stand necessarily in conflict. We all belong in systems and in families and in groups, and where we can’t find health and wellness in one, we then find and look for intentionally places of health and well-being in other systems. We just can’t do it on our own. We have to have other people to be in relationship with in order to live the Christian life in its full authenticity.

Dr. Rossi: Thank you, Fr. Sean. One of the things that strikes me right now is that we, knowing this, [know] how vital it is for us to use our freedom to choose our friends wisely, to affiliate, as much as we can, with people who will lead us to greater virtue, and, to the extent that we can, not fraternize with those who are going to take us down. And we don’t want to be judgmental—human beings are human beings, and we all need God—but we also know our own needs and what impacts us toward depression and darkness and what impacts us toward inspiration and more health.

As you were speaking, I was thinking of a statue I saw a picture of—I never saw the actual statue—and the statue was called “The Self-Made Man.” It’s a statue of a man who is—it’s hard for me to describe. So it’s in marble, and there’s a base, and the base comes up and is at mid-calf for him, and he, nude, is bending over with a chisel and a mallet, carving himself out of the marble. So he’s making himself, and he’s only three-quarters made in the statue, and is a self-made man. That is to say, he is doing the chiseling to make himself. There’s a sense in which, to be stereotyped, that might be a part of the American culture—certainly not dominant, necessarily—but it’s also in each of our hearts. As Solzhenitsyn says, “The line separating good and evil runs through the human heart,” so we all have this temptation to become the self-made man or the self-made woman. “I’m going to do this one solo.”

So, that said, Fr. Sean, what would you like to say right now?

Fr. Sean: Yes, I think that’s probably the predominant system that family systems seeks to counter-balance. It is the idea of the self-made person. It simply is a fact that we don’t—in fact, we can’t—make ourselves. Outside of relationship and outside of interaction, those things that we are built for, spiritually, as human beings, the self really doesn’t become. Even if we extract ourselves from all that interaction and relationship and think that we’re growing—we may be growing physically, and we may be going through changes, but the idea of development and of really blossoming as human beings, simply, it just can’t happen outside of relationship, and in particular, good relationships, the ones that foster these kinds of positive effects.

Of course, relationships, as we said earlier, can pull us down and pull us away from becoming who it is that God really has us to be, but we just can’t get there on our own, and the power of relationships to put us in a place to really connect with God and to connect with others, and us become who it is that God has us to be is just something that is. We don’t have to know about it or we can intentionally fight against it, but the reality is that God built us to know ourselves, not as a separate I, but in terms of an I-thou relationship that can’t ever be reduced or simplified or taken out of the equation.

Dr. Rossi: Thank you for that. I think of Jesus who spent his adult lifetime relating to his apostles and then so many others, and there’s no sense in which he did anything, except the crucifixion, alone. He was always in some form of connection with others.

So with that, Fr. Sean, I’ll say thank you for this interview, which I don’t doubt is beneficial to me and to others, and I’ll also say to the listeners that Ancient Faith Radio thrives on our support—prayerful support, financial support—so I ask myself and you who listen to actually send a check or a credit card donation—it can be found on [the] Ancient Faith website—and support the ministry.