Fragmented Lives

Expanding the Conversations at Princeton Family Institute

It may seem to be an odd time to start a series of occasional blog posts about life, about therapy, about individuals and couples and families, about relationships and health and well-being, and about everything in-between written by members of Princeton Family Institute. So much more seems at stake for most of us: Job security, the success of our children in school and college, how to be a good parent, how to continue to enjoy our relationships, how to make life transitions, how to cope with illness or to mourn the death of a loved one, how to create meaning for us and the people we care about.

And yet, this may actually be an opportune time to share ideas about life in relationships, about how people can come together to strengthen and improve their personal lives, and how they can recover their hopes. Our life situation, more than ever perhaps, reminds me of the 2000+ pages of the health care reform bill. Life appears fragmented, overwhelming, confusing in all its details, and, seemingly, without clear direction or purpose. And above all, it is increasingly difficult for us to form an image of our life as a whole, to get beyond noticing all the minute parts and perceive the entirety of our life’s journey and its complex set of connections with others.

With the PFI blogs we hope to shed some light on issues that constitute an often heavy burden for the people who come to our office to talk with us. The ensuing conversations, at the office and, hopefully, through this blog, aim at bringing greater clarity, renewed determination, and above all courage and trust to the participants. Respectful and collaborative conversations enable us to overcome the hurdles obstructing our journey to savor life together with others.

We would like to extend the conversations we have with people at our office to include people who write to us and interact with us using the internet. You, the reader, are invited to comment and let us know your ideas and reactions to the blogs written here. Each blog will have the e-mail address of the author(s) so you can contact us. At a future date we will have a special place on our website for comments and questions.

Fragmented Lives

When family members or couples sit down in my office and begin to draw me into their conversation one observation occurs to me with some regularity: They don’t have very often conversations with each other about their relationships, what weighs on their mind, and how the two are connected. Couples hardly face each other to share what moved their spirits on a given day. Parents are too stressed to relax together with their children and rarely let themselves get caught up in conversations in a manner that transcends instructional (“pick up your clothes!”) or corrective (“How come you didn’t complete your homework?”) interactions. Teenagers hide behind their music, disappear into their rooms, or get pulled into the virtual world of their social networks. Parents and children are on overload with work related tasks. So they end up living a large part of their daily lives isolated from each other in parallel universes. Conversations that connect are rare. Inner monologues to one self replace chats that could activate relationships.

Fragmented Therapy

So it should not come as a surprise to us that when something is wrong with somebody, in our society most people’s first inclination is to focus on the individual and to find faults or weaknesses or moral shortcomings or neurosis or “mental illness” in that individual. No wonder that there are so many psychological schools trying to explain what’s going on inside that person. And nowadays all these theories are challenged by those who assume a malfunctioning brain as the root of all disorders and “mental illnesses” of a person. Fragmented lives lead to fragmented therapy.

So, when one of us gets depressed or acts in a way that is hard to understand or loses her job and gets close to suicide or cannot seem to control his anger or becomes addicted or loses his mind and acts in bizarre ways, it is very tough to be helpful. All around us everybody assumes that there must be something wrong inside that individual that needs to be “fixed”. Whether the cause is his attitude or motivation, her serotonin levels, unconscious conflicts in his psyche, the wrong way to go about life, a genetic brain flaw or a malfunctioning brain, people look at the individual and conclude from observable behaviors, expressed emotions, or thought patterns what must be going on inside the bio-physiological organism of that person.

From a family therapist’s perspective this is akin to not seeing the forest for the trees. Family therapists take a radically different perspective and focus first on a person’s relational network, such as a couple or family relationship system, sometimes a work unit or a group of friends. Not that we ignore the complexity of a person’s bio-physiological organism or her inner life and developmental history. Rather we prefer first to look at somebody’s entire personal and relational world, before we make conjectures about the inner life or the brain functions of a person.

As we listen to someone’s story together with the people who are closest, we see the whole picture materialize before our eyes, we begin to discover connections, we build up a wide-ranging level of understanding, and we perceive strengths and opportunities for change and growth. And we discover how much suffering and confusion has to do with factors and stresses intruding in our lives from the outside, from the physical and social environment in which we live.

Therapy as practiced by the colleagues who are members of Princeton Family Institute proceeds from the entire picture to specific details and aims to overcome the frequent fragmentation both in our lives and in the professional efforts to assist people in the process of restoring their lives.

Allow me to conclude by sharing with you the story of:

THE BLIND MEN AND THE ELEPHANT – As retold by James Baldwin

THERE were once six blind men who stood by the roadside every day, and begged from the people who passed. They had often heard of elephants, but they had never seen one; for, being blind, how could they?

It so happened one morning that an elephant was driven down the road where they stood. When they were told that the great beast was before them, they asked the driver to let him stop so that they might see him.

Of course they could not see him with their eyes; but they thought that by touching him they could learn just what kind of animal he was.

The first one happened to put his hand on the elephant’s side. “Well, well!” he said, “Now I know all about this beast. He is exactly like a wall.”

The second felt only of the elephant’s tusk. “My brother,” he said, “You are mistaken. He is not at all like a wall. He is round and smooth and sharp. He is more like a spear than anything else.”

The third happened to take hold of the elephant’s trunk. “Both of you are wrong,” he said. “Anybody who knows anything can see that this elephant is like a snake.”

The fourth reached out his arms, and grasped one of the elephant’s legs. “Oh, how blind you are!” he said. “It is very plain to me that he is round and tall like a tree.”

The fifth was a very tall man, and he chanced to take hold of the elephant’s ear. “The blindest man ought to know that this beast is not like any of the things that you name,” he said. “He is exactly like a huge fan.”

The sixth was very blind indeed, and it was some time before he could find the elephant at all. At last he seized the animal’s tail. “O foolish fellows!” he cried. “You surely have lost your senses. This elephant is not like a wall, or a spear, or a snake, or a tree; neither is he like a fan. But any man with a particle of sense can see that he is exactly like a rope.”

Then the elephant moved on, and the six blind men sat by the roadside all day, and quarreled about him. Each believed that he knew just how the animal looked; and each called the others hard names because they did not agree with him. People who have eyes sometimes act as foolishly.

Please, send your comments, questions, reactions to:

Norbert A. Wetzel