Don Paglia | Marriage and Family Counseling. Constellations Workshops


Tip # 68:

“After the doctor’s departure Koznyshev expressed the wish to go to the river with his fishing rod. He was fond of angling and was apparently proud of being fond of such a stupid occupation.”

 Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Most people surround themselves with their tablets, cell phones, TVs and all sorts of technological and electronic advances. These theoretically are supposed to improve our lives, but also can have some negative consequences, as well. I know people that have a radio playing while they are in the shower. God forbid they have to be alone only with themselves and their thoughts. This is a sad thing.

The non-reflective life is not a life at all; it is a mere existence. Hunters, sailors, fisherpersons, stamp collectors and many others know the power of quiet time and reflection. A number of hobbies and interests that are basically solitary activities are often done for the purpose of being able to be alone with one’s own thoughts.

Those who engage in these things will tell you they do so because the fun in the race of life is in the running, not just in the winning; that our happiness is its own justification, and that a day spent at a stream or a pond with a goal in mind is a joy even if the goal is not achieved, though, perhaps, a greater joy if it is.

Last time I wrote about the societal grid lock and stuck systems. I proposed we are presently engaged in such a stuckness. I mentioned three characteristics of a societal grid lock and stuck systems. I briefly addressed only the first of these. The three characteristics are:

  • An unending treadmill of trying harder
  • A focus on finding answers rather than reframing questions
  • A polarization of thinking and relationships into false dichotomies

I will expand on each of these here:

The Treadmill Effect can be likened to a fly perpetually bouncing off a window it can see right through, with the result that despite its thousand eyes its perseverance gets it nowhere. Partners, parents, bosses, clergy, and consultants – all who keep trying harder to get their charges to change – are doing this very thing. The treadmill effect is driven by the assumption that failure is due to the fact that one did not try hard enough or use the right technique or get enough information. Fixation can influence behavior and persevering behavior can perpetuate the fix.

Answers rather than Questions is a continual search for new answers to old questions rather than an effort to reframe the questions themselves. In the search for the solution to any problem, questions are always more important than answers because the way one frames the question, or the problem, already predetermines the range of answers one can conceive in response. When I am with a couple who report that they are miserable with their presenting problem I often ask them “What is good about this problem?” What or who does it possibly serve? Who might stand to benefit from it? What does it keep you from?

Polarized Thinking is the third characteristic of imaginatively gridlocked relationship systems. This is the polarized either/or, black/white, all-or-nothing kind of thinking that is very much in vogue these days. Such thinking eventually restricts the options of the mind. Intense polarizations are symptomatic of underlying emotional processes rather than of the subject matter of the polarizing issue. Rigid dichotomies almost always hint that there is something wrong in the original orientation that is causing those thinking processes to be formatted in a polarized fashion.

As an example, the differences in any system, whether it is a marriage or a legislature, rarely determine the nature or the intensity of the differing. Whether one is baking a cake or examining an institutional mix, the interaction of ingredients is almost always a function of the temperature and pressure of the environment. When troubled couples make a breakthrough, often the issues that they differed over have not gone away but the two sides have become less reactive to those differences. Whenever differences do polarize, it is always in relationship to the same emotional processes that contribute to the treadmill effect and the failure to reframe the question. The way out of this stuckness requires boldness. It calls for a reorientation to reality while still living within the current one. This requires one to think about one’s thinking, and to look for new and better questions, as well as, to challenge the polarization of thinking so as to gain a both/and perspective. Ultimately it requires taking risks. One of the biggest obstacles to a great marriage is a good one. The couple are afraid to rock the boat and so they settle rather than grow further.

One must gain a sense of adventure. Imagination requires risk and a willingness to go deeper or further. Discovery that leads to new possibilities and paradigm shifts means one must step out from the comfort zone. Comfort is another word for familiar. Risk is to step into the unfamiliar. Within this process one needs to take on the notion of the ultimate unimportance of mistakes. They become part of the process of the quest that is driven more by adventure rather than certainty.

In addition one needs to appreciate the importance of allowing for encountering serendipity as a way of becoming free from one’s own thinking processes. I must add one of my favorite slogans: “Don’t believe everything you think.” This includes gaining a capacity to overcome the influences of myths, illusions, erroneous beliefs, and imaginative barriers like “we’ve never done it this way before.”

Family secrets are part of the myths that get carried forward. Often they are things that people tend to vastly discount having influences on future generations. Also there are larger myths or beliefs that limit us and create emotional barriers that go unquestioned. The effort to run a mile in less than four minutes serves as an illustration of the power of emotional barriers. Many tried to break the four minute mile and eventually concluded that it was not physically possible. Then in 1957 Roger Bannister broke the barrier, and the following year three men broke it in the same race. Today we have Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco, who holds the men’s record at 3 minutes and 43.13 seconds.

Great explorers have demonstrated the power of what boldness and a spirit of adventure makes possible. They and others all have certain things in common. These are:

  1. A capacity to get outside the emotional climate of the day.
  2. A willingness to be exposed – or vulnerable.
  3. Persistence in the face of resistance and outright rejection.
  4. Stamina in the face of sabotage along the way.
  5. An ability to remain “headstrong” and even “ruthless.”

None of us can come to such a shift in our thinking without first the benefit of slowing down and the accompanying reflection. Fishing is just a metaphor for such slowing down. Perhaps our self-imposed quarantine and our necessary shutting down has begun to serve us in a useful way. I am even suspicious that the powers-that- be are aware of this dangerous phenomenon that seems to be upsetting the status quo –  the old normal – and potentially leading many people to be mindful and aware: conscious.

It is my prayer that we do not rush back to what many think of as normal and that we become more and more intentional people who take on the creation of a new and novel normal, for the betterment of our building a more perfect union, instead.