Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Modern Fable

Edwin H. Friedman, an ordained rabbi and practicing family therapist, is famous for his volume of Friedman's Fables, a collection of short psychological tales that illustrate conditions which are commonly encountered in dealing with people today. His last book, published after his death in 1996, is called A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, and builds upon the insights he gained from a career spanning over thirty years as a therapist. But his fable -- actually, closer to a parable -- published in the earlier collection, and titled "A Nervous Condition," is the starting point for his psychological analysis of "leadership in the age of the quick fix."

As such, it is well worth bringing to the forefront in the current crisis brought about by ECUSA's intentional deviations from the norms of the Anglican Communion, as laid out by the Lambeth Conference in 1998, and its wounded reactions on being suddenly called to account for those deviations. (To those who would object that the Lambeth Conference is not normative, I regret to say that your objections will not be entertained here. Comments attempting to make the point that Lambeth resolutions are not "binding" on member churches will be summarily rejected, not only because [a] readers of this blog already know they are not binding, and so the point is worthless, but also because [b] Lambeth resolutions are normative, at least on matters which pertain to the character of bishops who are acceptable to the whole Communion. In stomping on all such comments, I simply adopt the approach advocated by Rabbi Friedman in the fable reproduced below.) :>)

I do not know whether or not, by quoting Friedman's fable (one of 24) in toto, I transgress the "fair use" parameters of the copyright statute. Certainly there is no revenue earned from this site, or from the featuring of his tale and the book from which it was taken. Let the parable, therefore, now be set forth, and let those to whom it applies, or for whom it makes a point, draw the appropriate conclusions:

* * * * *

A Nervous Condition

When little John was about a year old, his parents noticed very thin fibers protruding through his pores. After another few months the fibers had extended themselves. They began to form curls. The condition alarmed his parents, so they took little John to a doctor. The physician, after examining him carefully, called in several specialists. They, in turn, summoned their colleagues and, after conferring for several hours, announced: Little John was unique in medical history -- his ganglia [nerve endings] were growing outside his skin.

Since there was no record of this having happened before, it was not clear what the ultimate effects of such a condition would be, and since little John was otherwise in excellent health, it was decided to do nothing for a while but observe.

Of course, one immediate problem was little John's rapidly developing, extreme sensitivity to everything and everyone around him. The doctors alerted his parents, warning them that they must be supersensitive to his every move and touch. Being very sensitive people anyway, they agreed.

As little John grew, so did his ganglia, until they trailed about him as he walked. While it was not a pretty sight, surprisingly it turned out to have some advantages.

He learned from the very beginning, for example, first from his ever-concerned parents and the from others, that he could always count on someone watching out for him. Indeed, he learned early in life that anyone who came into his orbit would always pay attention to his every move for fear of hurting him. He found that he could plow a path through any group of friends by just walking toward them. People would always retreat at his advance for fear of "stepping on his feelings." When he engaged in sports, or when he just wanted to be first in line, all he had to do was start in the direction he chose, and his approach itself proved to be an "open sesame."

Sometimes he encountered people who had not been forewarned about his condition, and then he had to point it out as early in their relationship as possible. Once they understood, however, they never tried to get in his way.

All of this is not to say that individuals never felt resentment toward little John. Some of his classmates, and one of his brothers in particular, who were most competitive with him for certain goals, felt handicapped by his handicap, but they never spoke it aloud. All managed to quiet their resentment with self-recriminations about their own insensitivity.

And so it went. Little John graduated high school (having done fewer homework assignments than any other child who ever attended), and he obtained a secure job, though less qualified than most of those seeking the same position.

One day he met a woman whom he liked. Being extremely shy and not having enough confidence or experience to refute her own poor image of herself, she was thrilled at the advances of this very attentive, if somewhat strange, creature. She treated him with the utmost deference, and her pity soon became love. Everywhere they went she watched out for him. In time, the guiding principle of her life became, "How can I help this man avoid pain?"

But after they had been married a while, she began to tire. Still she tried, for this poor man could not help himself. But it became increasingly difficult for her to be constantly mindful of his needs. She decided to confess her increasing insensitivity to her friends. She mentioned it to her family, to her minister, to her doctor. She sought professional help. All comforted and sympathized but could offer little practical advice, and so they urged her to be more patient. She tried again to shape her existence to his needs. Then the headaches started. Then the little tic in her eye. Soon she found she was losing weight. Colitis further restricted her freedom, and it was not long before her thoughts were bordering on suicide. She dared not tell little John, of course, for fear of hurting him. Why, if he knew that all of this was due to his condition, he would be inconsolable.

One day, as she was walking home, she chanced upon a mother cat giving suck to her newborn kittens. As they scrambled over one another in their thirst, the mother carefully guided each one to its turn, stretching out a firm but gentle paw as she lay contentedly on her side. Then little John's wife noticed that one of the kittens had been born lame; its leg had not been fully formed, and it had more difficulty maneuvering than the others. Strangely, it was also the most aggressive. While the other kittens, when satisfied, went off to sleep, this one kept coming back to wiggle its way in front of thirsty others. Each time, however, the mother cat pushed it away, at first gently, then with successively harder whacks.

Little John's wife watched the poor kitty and the "inhuman" mother. But when she returned home, upon finding her husband reading in a room, she planted herself in the doorway and began to stare. A little while later, little John, desiring to enter another room, marched straight for the doorway that framed his wife. She did not budge. Closer he came, closer, never thinking actually to ask her to move (after all, he had never had to ask anyone to get out of his way before). Suddenly, he stopped, confused. What should he do? First he assumed his most wounded look. Then he tried one that was more winsome and boyish, but his wife was like a rock. In desperation, he finally spoke. “Move. You know I cannot squeeze by.” Nothing. “What's the matter with you?" he yelled. "What are you trying to do to me? This is like a trap." Then she did begin to move, not aside, but rather directly toward him. He retreated. She continued on. He moved back faster, but still on she came. Soon he was cornered.

“Have you lost your mind?" he said incredulously. "Careful there, you almost hurt me,” he said pathetically. That did it. She raised a foot and STOMP, with all her might came down hard on one of his trailing nerve endings. He screeched, either from pain or shock. Again she stomped, and again and again. He ran past her, but she pursued. He screeched again, and the scream encouraged her more. STOMP, STOMP, she continued chasing him from room to room, up and down stairs, to the cellar, to the attic, through the kitchen, to their bedroom, until, exhausted, they both collapsed and fell asleep.

When little John's wife awoke, her headache was gone for the first time in months. Her eye, too, had lost its quiver, and for the first time in a very long time she sighed without a pain and felt relaxed. But more astounding still was what she saw beside her. For, when she looked over at little John, she found that his ganglia were no longer curled around him all about the floor. On closer examination, she realized that they had disappeared altogether. In fact, they had completely recoiled inside his skin.

* * * * *

[If you visit the link to the Google Books excerpts from Friedman's Fables, be sure to read as well the fable that follows this one, called "The Friendly Forest." It also has relevance to the situation in the Anglican Communion today.]

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