Shifting The Spider’s Web

The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change. Communication does not depend on syntax, or eloquence, or rhetoric, or articulation but on the emotional context in which the message is being heard. People can only hear you when they are moving toward you, and they are not likely to when your words are pursuing them. Even the choicest words lose their power when they are used to overpower. Attitudes are the real figures of speech.

– Ed Friedman

Early in our lives we had a devastating experience that terribly confused us. We had been a part of an NGO agricultural project where we were accused of being troublemakers by refusing to falsify documents needed in order for the organization to receive more funding. Our refusal exposed the degree of collusion inherent at all levels of the organization. We simply resigned and left as a result.

That experience troubled us for years until we finally decided to try and find some resolution to our confusion. It was at a conference that I attended a couple years after returning that I attended a workshop by Ed Fiedman. It was my first exposure to family systems theory.

Friedman worked with this insight, that families are more like constellations…individuals, points on a spider’s web. And these systems invariably worked to maintain stasis as their overall goal. In simple terms, if uncle Bob was an alcoholic, the family would work to keep him an alcoholic, not because they condoned alcoholism, but because they all had predefined roles that would have to change if he stopped being an alcoholic. This means that if you wanted to get uncle Bob to stop his abusive alcoholism, you didn’t have to work with uncle Bob, you could work with family members to shift their behaviours in respect to their place in the family.

This is a very powerful, and insightful way to personally both address dysfunction/toxicity and to engage in social change at any level.

Ed Friedman worked with family systems because he had been trained at Bethesda hospital in Maryland by Murray Bowen. Bowen had developed his psychological insights after reading the work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy. Bertalanffy was a post-war immigrant who taught and researched biology at the University of Alberta. He was the developer of organic (general) systems theory. This is the opposite of corporate systems theory, which analyzes component parts of an organization and rank orders things in order to gain better control over behaviour and production. A very linear process.

Bertalanffy’s theory did just the opposite. His insight came when he, as a biologist, was working with colleagues to come up with a plan to alter the environment. Working in the lab they introduced change to an organism which changed the behavior of other organisms in the lab, resulting in a new environmental outcome. This was cutting edge ecology in the late 1940’s. But they found that when they applied this in the field and introduced it there, there was no change in the system. Why? After long analysis they found out that all the other organisms in the field were actively working overtime to compensate for the failure of this one organism, keeping original stasis in their system intact. Bowen asked if the same was true in human society, and in particular, families. But it applies to every other form of human society as well: governments, civic groups, corporations, religious institutions. All of these corporate policies are in place to structure and control production, and woe to those who recognize and address it.

if you are interested in trying to understand this further, then a fun place to start is with Friedman’s Fables, and then to move on to Generation to Generation: Family Process In Church and Synagogue. Friedman was a rabbi and addressed this within the context of his own religious congregation.

This is a major part of the dynamic with which we function as a Catholic Worker farm, and operates on many levels in our hearts and minds and planning and behaviours. Our goal is not to provide insight to people who may find us neat, or cool, or a curiosity, but who could really care less. Instead, our goal is to work by pulling on different strands of the spider’s web to effect systemic change itself in all of the organizations of which we are a part, and perhaps shift some of the behavior of those closest to us, hopefully in more life-giving ways.


Bertalanffy, Bowen, and Friedman