I met someone the other day who was tearing their hair out over the behaviour of a friend. They said to me that they had poured their time and effort into that person, but it seemed to be to no avail.
It’s a common scenario. Especially for Christians.
We spend an inordinate amount of time on people who seem to get no better. At all. We find ourselves being a listening ear, running errands, helping out, giving advice – then being entirely frustrated when there is no discernible movement in their situation. They are forever stuck. We pray for them: “Lord make them better”. We begin to talk about their situation with someone else, you know, to help them. They’re such a problem!
In therapeutic terms this is a scenario called triangulation.
In Scriptural terms this is a scenario called scapegoating.
Christians are often ‘fixers’. We know at our core that there is something wrong with the world. We have it pumped into us that we are partners with God in God’s Mission, so we go into that world already primed to be the fixer. Something is wrong – we know the cure.
The trouble is that often we don’t really know how to apply the treatment. So we can end up simply being part of the systemic wrongness that we are trying to combat – we want to fix, people won’t be fixed (damn them), we get frustrated, we scapegoat (“there’s something terribly wrong with them”). And that is the problem. We forget that human relationships are systemic. In recent years we’ve become quite adept at seeing structural sin in institutions and global realities – we understand the systems that contribute to two seemingly unconnected particulars impacting on each other, or at least we recognise the complexity, that there is a system at all, rather than discreet unconnected atoms.
But when it comes to humans and their relationships, we seem to forget this. So when we arrive into a relational problem and try to fix it, we have, often unwittingly, entered into a system.
Rather than the bringing a cure, we’ve brought more problems – our own anxieties, sensitivities and patterns. It may change the manner of the problem, but the problem will still be present in the system.
So what is the answer? How do we practice our calling to be those in partnership with God, joining with God in recreating the world and everything in it, without becoming simply part of a new problem?
I think that our first job is to notice. Notice when someone, or perhaps a whole community of people, are being scapegoated. This is a sure sign that there is something wrong with the whole system. Noticing who the scapegoats are will give you a fixed point to map out the rest of the system. It happens in families when there is deemed to be a ‘problem child’, a ‘weird uncle’ – a section of the family we don’t talk to. It happens in institutions where there are those who just won’t shut up.
It is likely that the scapegoats are exhibiting the symptoms, but it is the whole system where the problem resides. Trying to fix the scapegoat is simply serving the system.
And it doesn’t work. So often the scapegoat becomes excluded and the system begins to recalibrate, which can often look like a cure. This means the exclusion of the scapegoat is vindicated for a while.
But did you ever notice that patterns in institutions re-erupt? And over generations in families the same patterns are exhibited. Almost like the institution has its own DNA.
Once we have noticed that someone or a group are being scapegoated, our job is to find the others, to try to understand how the system is working, and fundamentally to understand our own part in it.
Because here’s the crux. Whilst this way of looking at the world is a bigger study than this post, the basic truth is one that I think you probably already know.
The first job in fixing the system, is to fix you. Fix your part in it. Work on your own stuff. Don’t be drawn into the scapegoating of others, but don’t think you can fix the scapegoaters either. Just don’t do it yourself. Your job is to define yourself in the system. Create a healthy grown up you and it will automatically impact the whole thing.
Or don’t. It is, of course, entirely up to you.