Can Someone Please Take Out the Trash? A Family Systems Approach to Lebanese Dysfunction

flag_of_lebanon-gibran

By Robert Hamd

Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion…

Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero, and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful…

Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpeting, and farewells him with hooting, only to welcome another with trumpeting again…

Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation.

Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran in 1934 captured the hearts of the people of Lebanon in his prophetic words about his beloved country. I think poetry has the capacity, with razor-sharp words and emotional accuracy, to describe the actual reality experienced on the ground. In a mere 23 lines, Gibran encapsulates the broader complexities and paradoxes of Lebanon in his poem, “Pity the Nation.” According to Gibran, the country that is to be pitied is one that is unwilling to honestly assess its repetitive behavior, or, once it is evaluated, does not have the courage to change.

The other week while preparing to write this post, I stumbled upon 1976 and 1983 British Thames TV documentaries on YouTube covering Lebanon during those dark days. It was eerie to see the war covered on 16mm film. Somehow, film has a quality that conveys a visual impression that you’re watching something surreal — a Hollywood Manichean story of good versus evil. However, for us Lebanese, the Hollywood story doesn’t end so well. There is no nice and tidy ending with a clear winner and loser. After watching these YouTube documentaries, I couldn’t help but think that things haven’t changed much.

Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation.

The Lebanon War was the backdrop to my teenage years and lasted until my early twenties. The teenage years are hard enough for anyone, but the war provided an ample script for confusion, anger, rage and hatred to make my growing-up years all the more complicated. As the war raged on, you tried to make sense of it by treating it as a distant relative, if you will: the kind you ask nonchalantly about, hoping to ignore any unpleasant news.

Fast-forward to today and my generation, now in our mid-fifties, represents the leaders, workers, bankers, business owners, fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters of Lebanon. We’ve worked, raised our families, bought and sold land, built homes, saved money, but I presume we’re all wondering why Lebanon remains so dysfunctional. We thought we’d do better than our fathers and mothers, didn’t we? Did we leave the country better off for our children who are entering college, career, or marriage?

Once again, dysfunctions rise in Lebanon and our region – the trash crisis, persistent economic inequalities, religious frictions – and the political impasse continues, and yes, war in Syria rages. If Lebanon were a person, could we not safely assume there exist repetitive unresolved issues that need therapy? Clinical psychologist Edwin Friedman, who contributed to and expanded family systems theory, pioneered the use of genograms to help patients comprehensively analyze their family constellations. A genogram is a specific family diagram mapping out a family constellation. Genograms are widely employed in family systems theory, the field in which Friedman is most noted for his contributions. Friedman argues that all systems interact within a framework of interconnectivity rather than through sole cause and effect as we’re so conditioned to think. In family systems theory, genograms help to map out patterns and repetitive behaviors (whether they be dysfunctional or holistic) as interpretive tools to honestly assess what is the real issue.

If Lebanon were a meta-patient sitting in a grand clinical psychologist’s office (let’s pretend for a moment, shall we?), I question what our collective genogram would look like. Our family history is filled with painful accounts of violent, broken relationships, migration, poverty, death, war and neglect, to name a few of our common issues. Is Lebanon willing to take an honest look at the big picture of our actual systemic dysfunctions as a people?

Friedman argues that looking beyond the “identified patient” is the first sign of getting to the root cause of the problem. An “identified patient” is any one person in a family constellation with an issue, a behavior, or an uncharacteristic response. We tend to focus all our attention on the “identified patient” to fix him or her. We believe if we can “fix” that person, then our family troubles are over. The “identified patient” in our case could have any myriad of issues to illustrate, but let’s narrow it to the trash crisis today. If we try and fix that, would we solve our family dysfunction? Rather, Friedman tells us we need to look beyond the “identified patient” to our whole system to understand the family’s stress or the pathology that has caused the issue. Is Lebanon ready to trace our current “family” trash problems and assign them to the role of the “identified patient,” or are we willing to do the honest and hard work required by family systems theory and realize things are out of whack and we need major therapy?

Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion…

I wonder what therapeutic role religious leaders could play in this landscape of our grand narrative? How can clerics (my question is posed to all religious communities) play a role in leading their communities to move beyond the familiar “identified patient” and examine the repetitive cultural patterns of hate, prejudice and violence which gave rise to the trash crisis? As a Christian, I believe that change requires honesty so as to see ourselves as we truly are. We need to move beyond assigning blame to the “identified patient,” challenge our deeply held assumptions and confront the status quo.

Organizational experts Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, in The Leadership Challenge, provide a helpful tip for our religious leaders, reminding them that leadership is not about position, power, or prestige but is more about “model[ing] the way.” Church leaders in Lebanon should first and foremost be characterized as moral and spiritual leaders of their communities, challenging the dysfunctions of our culture, looking beyond our hedonistic, self-centered selves, and reminding us that we’re part of the human race. We need to care for our most vulnerable, care for our environment and model the way as peacemakers.

In John’s gospel, Jesus models the way for us and provides us with a way forward with a healthy approach:

You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free (8:32).

We need a dose of reality before Lebanon spins out of control. If Lebanon does, (and I sincerely pray it won’t), then we all lose again and pass on the dysfunction we’ve inherited from our fathers to our children. We need to break family dysfunction.

Our spiritual leaders must challenge us as a collective in Lebanon to seek the truth and ask the honest questions necessary to break us free of our dysfunctional and repetitive patterns. Lebanon needs to awaken from its culture of denial to face the real social, political, and spiritual realities of our context. This requires the clergy to remind us to “know the truth, and the truth shall set” us on a new path of self-discovery and honest assessment. As Christians, we need to draw inspiration from the normative Biblical text to inform our faith and practice. I think we need humble dependence on our triune God to have the courage to take a truthful look at our genogram and, after assessing it, determine the needed therapy. I hope our spiritual leaders have “bold humility” to be prophetic. We need it now more than ever.

Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpeting, and farewells him with hooting, only to welcome another with trumpeting again…

We don’t need more of the same old patterns because we Lebanese know it only means we’ll repeat the sins of our fathers and find ourselves back to the same familiar dysfunctions. We need to reach across the impasse and begin talking truthfully about our shared political, social, economic, and spiritual systems. Maybe if we saw Lebanon as one big family, then perhaps we’d be able to work on our family problems to halt the violence and dysfunction and reaffirm the dignity of all. We must be bold enough for an honest assessment. This requires the capacity to talk with our neighbor, love the other as we love ourselves, and have the courage for the task. It compels us to take a bold look at our collective genogram and truthfully admit we’re a dysfunctional family – we can’t even take out the trash without a fight.

Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation.

One thought on “Can Someone Please Take Out the Trash? A Family Systems Approach to Lebanese Dysfunction

  1. Enjoyed the article and think you are right on target. As a Christ follower I beleive that by His design we are made to be drawn, not pushed. It is proven out in His pursuit of us, no power play and no manipulation, only an offer of Himself and His desire that we be drawn to Him.

    Kouzes and Posner are hitting on the key, I believe. The Old Testament prophet said, “Without a vision the people perish.” Vision draws it doesn’t push or manipulate. Vision is about desire, that again part of our design, and desire moves us in ways that power and manipulation never will.

    As you have said so well, until our spiritual leaders can give us a vision (model) of something that draws us more strongly than our fears there is not much hope.

    Thanks for your thoughtful words.

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