Healthy Families Play

Edwin Friedman’s book Failure of Nerve is an excellent diagnosis of what ails many organizations, whether they are families, businesses, churches, schools, or government agencies. He notes that our society has become what he terms “chronically anxious.” He then goes on to list five characteristics of chronically anxious systems. Here is the first sign: reactivity. When Friedman uses the term “family” or “families” he is not just talking about biological families. He is talking about all systems and organizations, such as churches, businesses, biological families, clubs, etc.  Everything indented is a quote for Friedman. I bolded certain phrases.

Reactivity As a Sign of Organizational Devolution

The most blatant characteristic of chronically anxious families is the vicious cycle of intense reactivity of each member to events and to one another…This state is not to be confused with “emotionality”: dogged passivity can also be a reactive response

Members of chronically anxious families…are constantly taking and making things “personal.”

The family is easily “heated up” as feelings are confused with opinions…Family members therefore are easily brought to loggerheads over the most inconsequential issues…Members of highly reactive families wind up constantly focused on the latest, most immediate crisis. 

What also contributes to this loss of perspective is the disappearance of playfulness…Lacking the capacity to be playful, their perspective is narrowed. Lacking perspective the repertoire of responses is thin. Neither apology nor forgiveness is within their ken…The relationship between anxiety and seriousness is so predictable that the absence of playfulness in any institution is almost always a clue to the degree of its emotional regression. 

This is the most striking idea Freidman proposed in this section. Loss of laughter, humor, comedy, playing is a sign that an organization is dead or dying. Christians could translate this into loss of joy. But I like the term playfulness.  It brings the proper perspective to it. Life is a comedy. The dead rise while the living are already dead. Fools are made kings and kings are thrust down. A Jewish carpenter saves the world when a Roman Caesar could not. Dead “families” are always very serious. Living ones know that the joke is on them and can laugh about it.

The most damaging effect of intense reactivity in any family is on its capacity to produce or support a leader…Reactivity, therefore, eventually makes chronically anxious families leaderless, either because it prevents potential leaders from emerging in the first place or because it wears leaders down by sabotaging their initiatives and resolve with constant automatic responses. 

As with any chronically anxious family, there is in American society today an intense quickness to interfere in another’s self-expression, to overreact to any perceived hurt, to take all disagreement too seriously, and to brand the opposition with ad hominem personal epithets. As in personal families, this hardens hearts and leaves little room for forgiveness or balanced accommodation.  

With chronic social anxiety, the major regressive effect on leaders is the same as in families. They remain in a reactive stance themselves, led by each emerging crisis rather than being able to take a proactive stance that develops out of an objective perspective or principle.

Friedman’s analysis is excellent and puts a name to something that we see all around us. We are a culture that reacts. Leaders react to polls. Pastors react to parishioners. Parents react to children. Husbands react to wives. You cannot lead this way. Reactivity is the opposite of leadership. Leadership means you are going somewhere and you want people to follow you. Leadership is not bouncing from one crisis or one overreaction of your constituent or one complaint from your wife or one bad experience to another. Leadership is calm, focused, and knows what direction to go. It is not sidetracked by constant little fires that arise.