Defined & Connected

I’ve been learning about something called Family Systems Theory. It’s a sociological theory of human behavior that views the family as an emotional unit and uses organizational thinking to describe the complex interactions in that unit. I know; sounds like a bunch of psycho-speak. But here’s the fundamental insight I have learned:  

Healthy people are both defined and connected.  

Here’s what that means: family systems theory defines emotional health as the ability to embody two often-opposed values. 

First, emotionally healthy people are able to define themselves. That is, they are aware of their own identity, values, fears, and needs. They are able to say who they are, what they want, and what they feel, apart from the expectations of any other person, family, or group. When I tell my wife that I want something different than she wants, I am defining myself. I am being my own person. That is part of emotional health.  

The second part is much harder. Emotionally healthy people are able to stay connected to others who want and feel differently. It is one thing for me to articulate my own needs. It’s another to love someone whose needs conflict with mine. An emotionally healthy person is able to love someone who is separately defined, without adopting the identity of his beloved (subservience) or insisting that the beloved adopt his (domination).  

That’s what it means to be defined and connected.  

There is, I think, a spiritual foundation for this pattern of emotional health. God himself fits this theory. Each member of the Trinity is clearly defined, distinct from the others, and intimately and eternally connected to the others.  

Likewise, the best aspirations of the church are that we would be a collection of disparate individuals (defined) knit together into the body of Christ (connected). Paul made such an aspiration clear when he described us as separate and unique parts of one cohesive body: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it." 

As our churches and nation continue to grapple with complex and divisive issues, it will be increasingly important for emotionally healthy people to lead the way, to set an example of how to love those who are different.