Tuesday, March 12, 2013



I’ve been reading a book called The Lucifer Effect, about how “systems” come into being. Naziism is a system. Capitalism is a system. In our culture we have the legal system, the prison system, the economic system, the military system. Author Philip Zombardo orchestrated the notorious Stanford Prison Study, which separated folks into prisoners and guards and had to be called off after a week because the guards had become so brutally sadistic. Everyone was traumatized and after that, they were more careful about what kind of psychological experiments were run.

 In a system, everybody foists responsibility upon everyone else. We follow along and next thing we know, it's kill or be killed, torture or be tortured. Not everyone will participate in cruelty but apparently a whole lot of people will. Personally I'm so afraid of ridicule, so prone to bow to peer pressure, so desirous of being wanted, needed, and loved that I fear for myself in systems. I like to think I wouldn't have been a sadistic guard, but who knows?

Zombardo features several whistle-blowers. He points out the extent to which Joe Darby, the guy who blew the whistle on Abu Ghraib was vilified, nowhere more than inside the military. So that's scary, but have you ever tried to blow the whistle in your own family?  To say, for instance, "I love you but you're not welcome here when you've been drinking" Or "If you hit me again, I'm going to call the police" or "That's not okay to speak to me in that tone of voice"?

My own family blew the whistle on me back in '86. We notice your drinking, they said in so many words. It's affecting us. I didn't like it any more than people like whistle-blowing in the corporate boardroom or the military. And it saved my life.

Still, is there any system harder, or maybe initially harder, to stand up to than our families? Is there anywhere harder to break the often generations-old cycle of psychological violence, ridicule, intimidation, passive-aggression, getting even, having to be right, showing people who's boss, bullying, than with the people closest to us?

To in one way or another say I'm not going to be the Rescuer, the Fixer, the Caretaker, the Victim, the Scapegoat, the Clown, shifts the whole system in which we were raised. Jesus was detaching with love from the "family system" even as a kid. Even as a kid, he was saying I love you, I honor you, but "Did you not know I must be about my Father's business?"...

It takes tremendous, tremendous courage to speak truth to power. Christ spoke truth to political power, ecclesiastical power, economic power, social power, the power of the family, which may be the strongest power of all. And of course ‘they’—meaning we—killed him.

Love thine enemies.
Love one another as I have loved you.
How many times must we forgive? As many as seven times? "No, seventy times seven"...

This sense of the hostile is something animals have, and it reaches as far as their vulnerability. Creatures are so ordered that the preservation of the one depends on the destruction of the other.

This is also true of fallen man, deeply enmeshed in the struggle for existence. he who injures me or takes something valuable from me is my enemy, and all my reactions of distrust, fear, and repulsion rise up against him. I try to protect myself from him, and am able to do this best by constantly reminding myself of his dangerousness, instinctively mistrusting him, and being prepared at all times to strike back....

Here forgiveness would mean first that I relinquish the clear and apparently only sure defense of natural animosity; second, that I overcome fear and risk defenselessness, convinced that the enemy can do nothing against my intrinsic self....

But the crux of the matter is forgiveness, a profound and weighty thing. Its prerequisite is the courage that springs from a deep sense of intimate security, and which, as experience has proved, is usually justified, for the genuine pardoner actually is stronger than the fear-ridden hater.

--Romano Guardini



  1. Thanks, Heather, for this. Read this earlier in the "Magnifical". It is easy said than done, but so true, so powerful. It is so hard to let go of our so-called security blankets within our families, to changed. It is withing these circles that I am in contact with God. I find the real me through my family members.

  2. Psychology can take us just so far, though.

    I like Bonhoeffer's words on this:

    “The most experienced psychologist or observer of human nature knows infinitely less of the human heart than the simplest Christian who lives beneath the Cross of Jesus. The greatest psychological insight, ability, and experience cannot grasp this one thing: what sin is. Worldly wisdom knows what distress and weakness and failure are, but it does not know the godlessness of man. And so it also does not know that man is destroyed only by his sin and can be healed only by forgiveness. Only the Christian knows this. In the presence of a psychiatrist I can only be a sick man; in the presence of a Christian brother I can dare to be a sinner. The psychiatrist must first search my heart and yet he never plumbs its ultimate depth. The Christian brother knows when I come to him: here is a sinner like myself, a godless man who wants to confess and yearns for God’s forgiveness. The psychiatrist views me as if there were no God. The brother views me as I am before the judging and merciful God in the Cross of Jesus Christ.”
    ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community

  3. I often try running away from my own messy family system in the name of bettering or healing myself. To this tendency a whistle was recently blown "I love you, and know you want an adventure, but I cannot let you get in the car and drive to California to live on a sailboat with a coke-addict! Running away from your family system, to California, is only making a puppet of you. Stop allowing your family's messes to control you and drive you across the nation!" I hated that whistle because it not only was a damper to my plans, but it also required me to blow the whistle at my own family system, to in essence say "While I love you I won't be controlled by you anymore." You are right - standing up to our families IS most difficult, and it DOES require great courage to speak the truth to such systems of power and influence.

    On another note...

    It was said forgiveness means "that I overcome fear and risk defenselessness, convinced that the enemy can do nothing against my intrinsic self...." Do you not think it possible to forgive someone with your guard still up? I know in my own life there are situations where I have forgiven someone for the wrong they've done onto me, yet I find it entirely necessary to continue to protect myself from them (ie not put myself in a situation where they can hurt me again). I'm struggling to see, in most cases, how risking defenselessness is a wise decision, and how it is impossible for a forgiven offender to influence or hurt my intrinsic self. Hmmm... I'm intrigued by this idea though...

  4. Oh absolutely we can forgive while still protecting ourselves. Loving our enemy (a ridiculously difficult, ongoing, life-long process at which we are bound to often, if not mostly, fail) NEVER MEANS BEING A DOORMAT.

    I think this is why forgiveness tends to have such a bad name: we tend to equate it with wishy-washiness,softness, cowardice.

    You can love someone but not trust them. You can forgive someone but not trust them. You don't call the cops on your abusive husband then offer yourself up for more. He might still be the love of your life but you take the kids and get the hell out.

    What really takes courage is not being a doormat on the one hand, and on the other not making the other person into the anti-Christ, into an adversary. That is the tension Christ held on the Cross...

    When they staged an intervention, my family had to brave the possibility of my rage, my ridicule--this may come as a surprise, but I can be VERY SARCASTIC--of my refusal to get treatment. Like many families, up till then we had tended to be the kind of family that talks behind each other's backs instead of face-to-face.

    So they had the courage to speak power to the unspoken "system" and that has had transformative consequence that have gone way beyond my getting sober...To speak truth to power and find you can still love and be loved; to be the one spoken to and to realized you are being spoken to out of love--these things are transformative. Being grounded in love gives us the courage to speak to other kinds of power. I really think war stems from our general feelings of rage, impotence, incompetence, the wrong kind of powerlessness...which of course starts with our families...

    The point isn't to jettison our families, of course, nor to march around telling people what we think under the guise of "honesty," but rather constantly to ponder what it means to love one another AS HE LOVED us...

    Again and again I'm led back to asking God to purify MY heart, to looking at MY hatefulness, violence, fear etc...

  5. Thank you. That can resonate within me.

  6. Hi Heather,
    First I want to say that I got very good reviews on you before I ever read your work from Fr. Joe Sedley CP in Pittsburgh PA. I work here at St. Paul of the Cross Monastery as the Rector's secty. Have worked here off and on for over 30 years. I love this place!!! Fr. Joe says to tell you hello and Happy Easter!!!

    Your writing is such that it reminds me of my own experiences in my growing up family. I too had a drinking "issue" which God took from me. . .but we all struggle with our families from time to time b/c with families it is harder to stand up to someone who you love to point something out or to receive any critical comments.

    I write my own blog as well - www.sandyshopefulroom.wordpress.com

    I look forward to reading more of what you have written.

    May you be blessed!
    Sandy Ozanich

  7. Very glad your family loved you enough to blow the whistle on you. My family-those that knew, prayed and about three weeks later I woke up and had enough. Still, have had enough. Although, there is a beautiful wine store that opened up a block from where I work and I haven't stopped to look-but, there have been longing glances at the beauty of the displays.

  8. Thanks, everyone--Sandy, welcome! Fr. Joe I'm quite sure is a saint--I need to write a post on my time at St. Paul's--and thanks, too, for sharing your own blog. I have taken Pittsburgh into my heart--


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