The “Change Back” Temptation

As a pastor, I was trained in Systems Theory. In this approach to family counseling, we seek to discern how the various people in a group function in light of how the entire system works: the part and the whole are deeply intertwined.

Systems Theory also prepares counselors to recognize the fearful, knee-jerk “change back” reaction.

  • A woman who has been abused begins to stand up to her abuser.
  • A man who has been drinking or doing drugs gets sober.
  • A teenager who has carried his parents’ emotional toxicity sheds his shame and learns how to become whole and independent.
  • An employee who has been taking responsibility for the problems in the office steps back and lets the boss deal with her own consequences.

Whenever people start changing their own unhealthy patterns, everyone in the system is forced to adjust. What was comfortable and predictable becomes disorienting and distressing. Thus the demand of other people in the system is (all too often): “Change Back!”

I keep processing what has been happening in our American society lately, trying to understand our current cultural turmoil. Here are some insights.

In the past, white male patriarchs have been in charge of all our institutions, governments, businesses and churches, but in recent years, more and more of us have been growing into leadership and stepping up to a much fuller participation in our society than ever before.

Me as a woman in the male dominated vocation of clergy, people of various ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds—we are more than ready to move from the sidelines to the frontlines.

We are not children needing a patriarch’s protection; rather we are mature adults capable of the full range of participation and leadership in all our institutions.

It is time, we say; it is high time.

The real America is increasingly White AND Black AND Brown; increasingly male and female, straight and gay, Christian and non-Christian, conservative and liberal. America has moved away from a neat, homogenous contrived reality and embraced our more authentic social complexity.

The face of American power and influence is shifting.

I consider the recent changes within America’s social fabric to be good and healthy and I see much positive change. The American reality has shifted and we can never go back; these societal evolutions are irrevocable.

However, some Americans don’t seem to be ready for this new reality. “Change Back!” they cry. “What was comfortable and predictable has become disorienting and distressing!”

Those of us who were schooled in Systems Theory were taught to provide a calm, non-anxious presence in the midst of what-feels-like chaos. We have been trained to keep our focus on the big picture and thus help those within a system adjust and adapt to the inevitable changes that growth always brings.

Sometimes growth is gentle, even subtle so that we scarcely notice the change. But sometimes growth comes in spurts and—as in the turmoil of our human adolescence—we find ourselves flailing and lashing out in confusion.

So I’m challenging myself to be a calm, non-anxious presence in the days ahead. I want to try to keep the big picture and trust that our nation’s social change is a natural thing that will soon enough be widely perceived as good and healthy: as part of our evolution into greater understanding and deeper maturity.

In these anxious days, I am challenging myself to patiently and persistently help reluctant Americans accept, adapt and adjust to the inevitable social changes that are developing within our society.

Our society won’t “change back.” We can’t. I believe the movement forward is inexorable.

And so I’m looking for non-anxious partners to help hold the big picture with me, patient partners who will trust in and work for a future that will be big enough for all of us.

Here is an article by Harriet Lerner: Coping With Countermoves” (When you challenge the old rules, anxiety rises like steam.)

Here is an article that explains a bit more about Systems Theory in counseling approaches

3 thoughts on “The “Change Back” Temptation

  1. Thank you for the story of what I call “paradigm change” (the scientific system theory training) in the terms of another story you give here, as well as in your Prophets of Israel story.
    When politics came up in a group of older people a couple of years ago, one woman spoke simply, “change is just coming so fast, too fast for me sometimes”. I felt she nailed it! I have remembered her with great empathy ever since, and remind myself of this simplicity when I have to suffer through all the drama of big public meltdowns for “changing back”.
    So this country is having our own meltdowns from our own origin story, but of course this Change is worldwide, seen a while back as the European people had a fit about “boat people” refugees from war-and-climate-torn lands and from other countries going broke. We are not innocent any more of this being one world, one planet, one people, though with many gods and many stories all relevant. (However, I still feel rather insulated from the dramas in the other, non-white, countries of the world.)
    Hmmm, those meltdowns feel to me like TANTRUMS, and I’ve been feeling that “non-anxious presence” you refer to as the grownup parent holding the field for toddler tantrums all over the place. To be expected among those having trouble with growth in their necessary human development. We humans have had to adapt before in our long history, but it sure ain’t easy especially for those grown brittle and fragile from privilege, along with the Rise of the Rest who just can’t wait for change to get here already!

  2. I also was trained I Systems Theory, but by a specialist in a series of seminars over 14 years, and, sister, you are SO right in what you assert.
    Now, as retired clergy, I do what I believe to be my individual call to discipleship as I participate in a new community, in my larger faith tradition, that has long been in the forward moving part of my denomination. I am grateful to be where I now can grow and be encouraged in that growth by my peers. Keep on keeping on!

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