All Systems No

What is it that causes us to make the same mistakes, even when we know how they have cost us in the past? They can be more or less significant – from looking at pornography to leaving a half hour message on your old flame’s answerphone, just to let him know just how Over him you are.

Some of these are funny. But some of them are unbearably painful. We see it too in families.  Children scarred by their parent’s abuse or addictions often go on to perpetrate the same patterns. So this week I was reading Rachel Trezise’s memoir of an alcoholic mother.  Despite the shame, horror and pity engendered by her mother’s behaviour, in her late teens she herself began binge-drinking.  She says:

‘I’d discovered that what I witnessed in childhood was not menacing enough to deter my own desire for drink…I recognised what alcohol is and why it appealed to my mother.’
Whatever our struggles, when we survey the wreckage in our own and in other people’s lives, it’s hard not to think, why can’t I just learn?  It doesn’t need to be an addiction or even an obvious problem.  But, given the opportunity, most of us revert to dysfunctional ways of managing pain – whether it’s a bottle of whisky, by blaming or demanding from others, or a shopping spree.

Sometimes the message actually lodges in our brains.  But at the moment of truth, we lack the willpower and strength to challenge these old patterns.

If you ask me, the whole female multi-tasking schtick is a massive hoax.  When I take on too much, let me tell you what happens.  I behave a bit like my mum’s old BBC computer.  Not  Good. So, when stressed – often because I’ve got too many programmes running at the same time –  the outcome is painfully predictable. Once I pass a certain point, a whole army of animated paperclips offering help won’t make a button of difference.   I’ll freeze, warning lights will start flashing and I’ll crash, losing all the data I’ve been working on.  I’m left feeling angry, frustrated and inept.

The computer analogy may also help us to understand why we keep repeating not just our own, but other people’s mistakes. (Bear with me here, I know nothing about computers, but I’m trying). As babies we’re like blank disks on which the family software is installed. Our subconscious tells us that our survival is linked to the family system – however damaging that may be. So if the family system is threatened, we feel threatened too – even if this system isn’t working or is doing positive harm. But it’s not just a question of taking out the old programme. Just as your computer needs software to operate, if we take out the family one, we can’t just leave it empty.  That old data can be very firmly encoded – unless it is replaced, we keep returning to it, especially when under pressure. We’re also vulnerable to hackers and viruses from other people who want to use our data for their own ends.

Is our  family software necessarily a bad thing?  Absolutely not.  Our parents can give us brilliant models for how to relate to others and to the Lord.  As Proverbs argues, ‘train up a child in the way he should go and he will not depart from it’.  So if we have good or rather, good enough models, they give us a brilliant start in life. All  parents make mistakes – and contrary to popular belief, I’m not convinced that missing a few sessions of football practice or baby yoga will leave lasting scars. Where you might want a bit of help is if for example, you’re a Christian and haven’t been brought up in a Christian environment.  This was my experience – and my parents did a great job, for which I will always be thankful.  However, as I think about how to relate to husband in a specifically Christian way, I don’t have an existing model. (This is perhaps why working out what headship means has been a bit of battle.  Although, thinking about it, my overriding need for absolute control might also have a hand in there).

An alternative parenting model becomes increasingly important for those who have experienced actual harm – whether physical or mental.  One of the most agonising implications of abuse for example, is the way in which these patterns can be perpetrated from generation to generation.  Perhaps this is part of what the Bible describes when it talks about the sins of the fathers being visited on those of their children.

So what’s going on with this circle of abuse? Well according to some psychologists, we ‘re trying to complete the “unfinished business” of childhood. In subconsciously reverting to those areas where the parenting process was incomplete or inadequate we’re acting as a kind of “proxy parent” in “getting it right” second time around.  The problem is this  – given that we usually only have one model of parenting, we reparent ourselves in the same way.

Whether or not we accept this particular theory, one thing is clear.  If we are believers – if we trust in Christ and are therefore indwelt by His Spirit, we’re not the victim of our circumstances. This is not to underplay the horrific and damaging consequences of abuse, nor the battle required to overcome and challenge it. But it does offer us real hope, whatever our experience. As believers, we have already been made new.  And we have a new family- not just of Christians, (although in the main they’re great), but with a heavenly Father who loves and cares for us perfectly.  Who not only redeems and reprogramme our faulty systems, but gives us a whole new computer. One that’s fully insured, whether we drop it or spill coffee over the keyboard.

For many of us,  real change requires nothing short of a miracle.  But miracles are God’s business. And He will work them, in His time. Some of our new applications won’t work in full till the New Creation.   But it’s a world away from the old model – inside and out.

2 thoughts on “All Systems No

  1. This is excellent and hopeful. Thank you for explaining some of the reason behind why abuse tends to happen again and again. I can also relate to the desire to deal with pain in a unhealthy manner and have been seeking God for how He wants me to cope with pain rather then my own ways.

  2. Hi Sarah

    Thanks for your comment.

    It’s hard to know how to deal with pain full-stop, isn’t it? – let alone in healthy ways! My instinctive response is to do anything to make it go away – or to tell God how it should be managed. But your approach sounds exactly right – asking the Lord for how He wants us to cope instead. Question is, am I prepared for the answer…?

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