I use Bowen Family Systems theory a lot in my work. One of the phrases that I hear a lot when engaged in learning about this work is, “Don’t react from your emotions, respond from your principles.”
When we immediately react to something from the feeling we have (anger, disappointment, charmed, etc), usually that emotional reaction isn’t the most helpful. It doesn’t have much thought behind it, and it simply counters or inflates what you received.
Instead, it’s often best to take a breath. Take a beat or two. And then respond with some thoughtfulness. Respond in a way that aligns with your values and beliefs. Respond from your principles.
Cool. OK. I can buy into that.
But then, I realized that I didn’t actually have a good sense of what my principles really are.
Making Time to Discover Principles
I recently took two weeks of vacation, including 4 days all alone in a beach house. During my time alone I turned off all media, removed all clocks, didn’t talk to anyone and just focused on rest and renewal. I thought about my current life and my future. What I want and what I don’t want. What I have and what I need. I spent significant time uncovering the underlying principles that guide my life.
Here’s my draft, in hopes that it might help you clarify your own principles:
Everyone has the opportunity to participate.
This principle has been clarified for me as I’ve encountered others who don’t share it. If we plan a mission trip, then anyone can sign up–cost should not be a barrier. If young, healthy members get to come to church and get communion, we need to have a way to get communion to those who are not comfortable gathering with others in the time of COVID.
My principle is that there should not be insurmountable barriers to participation.
Family factors into my decision.
Outside observers have reflected to me that I factor my family into decisions more than many people. I value my family’s thriving over career advancement.
This doesn’t mean I coddle my kids or that their desires completely run our household. But it does mean that I want to make choices that enable them to grow and thrive.
We are blessed to be a blessing.
Genesis 12:2b is a foundation of my life. I have been blessed, and I have been blessed in order to be a blessing to the world. Same for you. The gifts and talent and joys you have are not intended for you alone. Share them with others.
Sometimes I/it/you is not enough.
I sometimes have a tendency to believe that if I work a little more, try a little harder, love a little more it will be enough. But often that is simply not true.
More often than not, I am not enough… You are not enough… It is not enough…to save the relationship, to make the next piece work out, to help the friend in the midst of addiction…fill-in-the-blank.
I am working on living into the principle that sometimes our “just a little more” is not enough.
A corollary of #4. Giving is a way we imitate our gracious and giving God. I give financially and as I am able. The one year I felt great about our giving is when at tax time we calculated that we gave away 17% of what we had made that year. That felt like enough, financially. (And I’m not sure we’ve been able to do that since. It was pre-kids.) I also donate what I’ve been given in other ways. I donate blood, I grow my hair and donate it for wigs, and I am signed up to donate bone marrow and organs if/when that becomes possible.
Empower and encourage others.
One of my spiritual gifts is around empowering and encouraging others. In my life, this looks like coaching others, organizing groups to support women in ministry, praying for bishops, teaching laypeople to be stronger leaders, etc. It also looks like being an empowering and encouraging parent to our kids.
Failure teaches more than success does.
Failure is not bad. In fact, failure can actually be more helpful than success in the long run. When we fail, it gives us the opportunity to see what did not go right, and thus what is necessary for things to go better the next time. When we succeed immediately, it is harder to know why that success happened, which makes us less likely to know how to do the next thing well.
Secrets aren’t helpful.
Confidentiality is important. It is a meaningful way to show respect and concern. Confidentiality is about allowing appropriate privacy. It builds connection and trust. On the other hand, secrets are something different. Secrecy grows out of fear or shame. It builds “in groups” and “out groups,” mistrust and gossip.
Be trustworthy with confidential information, but don’t get trapped in secret keeping.
Uncover the evil in the system.
I have repeatedly found myself in places where I gain an understanding about some evil in the system. Some people can let it lie and walk away. One of my principles is that I need to deal with it when I encounter it. Sometimes this looks like uncovering unhealthy patterns in myself or our congregation. Often, this looks like learning about and inviting others into examining racism, patriarchy, and other evils that have warped our society. Sometimes it is more sinister and I need to call in back-up for support. This is important work, and best to be done with team support.
When I encounter brokenness in the world or a person or myself, I strive to offer what healing I can. Often simply being present is the most healing thing that can be done. Sometimes it’s doing a load of laundry, or offering prayers, or helping to find a moment of joy in the world.
Good enough is good enough.
I much prefer to do something “good enough” rather than keep working until it’s perfect. I remember how flummoxed and frustrated my high school frenemy was by this attitude. When I was happy enough with a B-grade or content with being a second-string tennis player, she would exasperatedly say, “But you CAN do better, why don’t you!?!” I’d shrug my shoulders and tell her that good enough is good enough. By not getting straight A’s or being the star tennis player, it gave me time and energy to devote to other interesting things. I’m more of a generalist.
(An odd corollary is that I get bored easily and prefer innovation over doing the same thing again and again. So… “good enough is good enough, but here’s a way we can do it better next time.”)
Understand and follow Jesus.
I deeply desire to grow in my understanding of Jesus and to follow Jesus more closely. I am becoming more and more clear that I am not interested in convincing others of their need to follow Jesus or understand him more closely.
This second part feels weird for a clergyperson to say. But it’s true for me. If you want to know Jesus better, or follow Jesus more closely, I am all in with you and will support, nurture and teach you. But I can’t convince you that you should want this.
There is so much beauty in the world around us. It is a lost, a waste, (a sin?) to ignore it. Beauty makes life better. Each moment of beauty I notice improves my day/my attitude/my alignment. I want to notice beauty regularly.
Now that you’ve read my list of principles that drive my actions in the world, think about yours. Take some time to make a draft list of your own principles and think about how they have motivated your past actions, and how you can rely on them more completely in the future.
Read more of my thoughts about Bowen Family Systems here: