Family Dysfunction and Sin

A wit noted years ago, when systems theory was in the vanguard in clinical culture, that “families are to be from.” He was addressing the need of “cutting the cord” from the family of origin which has been an issue from eons past in our history. And I don’t think we ever do it perfectly but most of us accomplish the task to some degree. In my clinical work, however, I often came across gross examples of family dysfunction where the “cutting” of that cord was difficult to impossible and the problem was often multi-generational.

T. S. Eliot wrote a very interesting play that is relevant to this issue, “The Family Reunion.” Eliot’s lead character, Harry, is deeply enmeshed with his family of origin, especially his mother…of course…and the play is about his emotional anguish as he sought to free himself from familial bondage. He also used the concept of sin to describe the emotional baggage that families breed and perpetuate, identifying it as “instinctual energy.”

He declared that “sin may strain and struggle in its dark instinctual birth to come to consciousness and find expurgation.” He noted that one basic prerequisite for this expurgation to take place is for the struggle to be made conscious, to find the light of day. He suggested that often a particular individual in a family will be the “consciousness of your unhappy family” and described it as a “bird sent flying through the purgatorial fire.”

Just as with individuals, no family is perfect. Families are always flawed as they are comprised of flawed individuals. And, as system theory teaches us, the family usually appears quite devoted to perpetuating the “flaw.” It is our task as adults to wrestle with the “demons” that have been dealt us, to seek “expurgation”, and try to not pass our particular allotment of poison on to those around us.

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