On the last day of 2015 I had the great honor and pleasure of meeting and interviewing Aranka Siegal, a survivor of the holocaust. She wrote the book, Upon the Head of the Goat. She is a lovely, perceptive and gracious woman with a wonderful sense of humor. Suzanne Brue, who has studied Bowen Theory extensively, made the interview possible by introducing me to Aranka Siegal. She and Judy Baily brought intellectual ideas and questions to this most unforgettable experience. Thank you both for your contributions. See photos of the interview on my website: www.YourMindfulCompass.com.
After the interview was over, I realized how moved I was by Aranka’s inspirational story. This was more than simply a story of survival under the worst of conditions, although, of course, that is a very compelling part. Her story was about one woman expressing a very deep and human impulse; to be caring and cooperative in the face of unspeakable cruelty.
Time and again we know that cruelty can emerge in a kind of an arms race between those who are cooperative and those who are selfish. A cyclical effect takes place, in which those who are cruel continue to take advantage of the weak in a series of escalating moves. Cruelty, anger and revenge can come to dominate families and or nations. After the holocaust we are left thinking, how could this happen, and game theory offers one theoretical explanation.
Game Theory, as it relates to Nazi Germany, considers that escalation is possible because those who utilized a selfish strategy were able to trample on the weak. One iteration of game theory, the prisoner’s dilemma, shows how cooperation can be a successful winning strategy. In the case of building resistance against the Nazi’s, eventually people were able to form thoughts counter to the mainstream, thoughts that differed from the rhetoric of the Nazi party (the selfish ones). Those outside thinkers were able to band together, forming a resistance and eventually winning the day
Game Theory and the prisoner’s dilemma models helps us understand how either selfish or cooperation behavior can spread through a system, depending on which stream of thought is fed. The the story of Aranka Siegal illustrates the details of how individuals in the city and then in the prison defect from participating passively in cruelty and begin to cooperate, eventually producing a survival strategy for the group.
Some people survived this cruelty, with their compassion intact, and they come to tell us their stories of courage and resiliency. Interwoven throughout Aranka Siegal’s book are descriptions of how the pressures of war transformed people. Some became numb, cold and heartless clogs in the system, while others tried to figure out how to survive, and most amazingly, despite horrible conditions, there were still those who were willing and able to care for others.
The hope for humanity is that “even during the Holocaust” a few people were able to move beyond tribalism – the us against them worldview – towards more cooperation and even compassionate behavior. Hopefully by highlighting and learning from those who survived inhumanity and terror we may become more aware of the early signs of this regression which leads into a groupthink mentality, which can create systems that allow humans to be treated inhumanly.
The initial polarization of people sets the stage for intense negative emotions towards others who are identified as the “outgroup”. They are focused on as wrong and the problem. It is here that people can be manipulated to turn cruelly against others.
For a few there was an awareness of the progression of groupthink that leads to cruelty against a group. Those who can avoid becoming part of the groupthink can find strategies to cope with the situation. For example, Aranka’ mother was able to exhibit a small but powerful act of bravery by creating a private space for her family with torn sheets while in the camps. She told the others the Germans were trying to dehumanize them and the best way to resist was to keep yourself clean so they could not regard you as an animal.
Those who are able to describe and survive this process leave a trail of hope for others who are better able to see and deal with groupthink and polarization. People like Aranka Siegal, who many years later still radiates courage and compassion, can influence us to look at just how the better side of human nature can rise up against cruelty.
For those interested in research on survivors check out this article: http://www.nytimes.com/…/holocaust-survivors-had-skills-to-…. The researchers may not be system thinkers. They focus on the individuals rather than on family patterns and values, even though they know many families were instrumental to the survival of many people.
Most of us find it challenging to see beyond the individual to the surrounding social system and to deeply appreciate that there are many primitive ways of manipulating our emotions, that play into the group dynamic of system. Going along with the group requires no thought, just a fear response.
“It was not luck that they did well afterwards. The more successful survivors are distinguished by specific traits which, far more than the degree of trauma they endured, seem to be the keys to their recovery.” Tenacity and Adaptability among these, Dr. Helmreich found, are ready adaptation to changing circumstances, a readiness to take the initiative, a stubborn tenacity and “street smarts.” “I found a widespread ability to think quickly, size up a situation, break down its complex elements and make an intelligent decision,” he said.
Clearly individual skills or traits are needed when trouble comes knocking at your door. A systems view allows us to see how families influence individuals who make up the system. Aranka’s book explores her family’s values and the effort needed to cooperate and to survive. She describes her mother’s and grandmother’s behavior as they each tried to adapt to the threats in society.
The family is an ancient organism with an emotional system operating both in the family and in society. Either one can reinforce values which continue to play out throughout life for better of worse. One automatic behavior that leads to problems is to go along with authority. This may work out in the small family unit and be a problem in society. For example obedience to the leader can make people susceptible to going along with the direction of the group. As we saw in Hitler’s Germany and in various dictatorships thorough out the world where people can be unduly pressured to go along with the group.
Bowen theory allows us to conceptualize how the appeal of togetherness can dominate and diminish the voices of the individual. Systems theory describes a counterbalancing force between individuality (and the ability to define self to the system) and togetherness,(the push to be with the group or even give up self for the group). Knowledge promotes the individual’s ability to see the system and to separate from the emotional pressure within the group. Even in the darkest situations in which automatically selfishness and cruelty leads to regression we have seen a few humans resist the push and are able to find ways to cooperate and to then take action to deal with the regression.
The four points in my book, Your Mindful Compass: Breakthrough Strategies For Navigating Life/Work Relationships In Any Social Jungle, remind us that after we have found reasons to define a self to the social group, we must be ready for the possibility of standing alone without love and approval when defining one’s self.
A system’s view encourages people to be mindful of emotional processes and slightly more separate from the social pressures around us. What a gift and what a challenge.
The Murray Bowen Archives Project
Another way of promoting a system’s view of human behavior is by collecting interviews for the Murray Bowen Archives Project. (MBAP) http://murraybowenarchives.org/support/
Bowen’s professional life began at Menninger and then he moved on to National Institute of Mental Health were he began research on the family as an emotional unit. He then went on to teach at Georgetown University from 1960-1990. The oral history project has promoted the interviewing of over 60 people who had contact with Dr. Bowen. They describe how this professional relationship motivated them to study social systems and to alter their automatic part in his or her family system.
Their stories demonstrate how various individuals figure out how to define a more distinct self in the midst of both upheaval and seeming calm. After all troubled people can pretend to be calm. But for those willing to accept the subtly and complexities of life and who are willing to integrate difficult feelings with deeper values and principles in their close up family relationships, many can describe how they found a more mature way to live and to die.
The interviews also demonstrate the many ways Bowen stepped outside the norm of conventional psychotherapy learning from his research efforts. People report how in his teaching he would interrupt ordinary trains of thought, challenging people to think for self in the middle of an ocean of emotional pressures to conform.
One promise of Bowen Theory is by understanding the ancient ways the family as a unit organizes, we are able to see how it disrupts and redirects runaway anxiety. There are many examples from surviving the holocaust to the stories from those who are learning system theory. Each of us is trying to manage family life and to be an individual or a leader in our various social systems. Any leader can draw a negative focus from the group as they are different. Leaders can become scapegoats as they become the focus of attention. There are reasons, as we saw in the story of Aranka Siegal, for the sacrifice of comfort. The leader takes action on the possibility that the emotional system will reorganize at a higher level of maturity. And of course there are no guarantees.
Three days before he died Bowen presented at American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Conference 1990 and summed up the basic principle of being your best self in an emotional field. “When you think you know the right way just do it.” M. Bowen, MD,
Seeing the system as an impersonal organism has been the most interesting gift perhaps leading to another new book on some version of scapegoating: 101 Ways to Lead While Escaping Being Focused On, or The Top Ten Reasons to be a Scapegoat or Why Defining a Self is NOT Popular.
May you have an interesting New Year 2016
Andrea Maloney Schara
 The prisoner’s dilemma is a standard example of a game analyzed in game theory that shows why two completely “rational” individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so. It was originally framed by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher working at RAND in 1950. The prisoner’s dilemma game can be used as a model for many real world situations involving cooperative behaviour. In casual usage, the label “prisoner’s dilemma” may be applied to situations not strictly matching the formal criteria of the classic or iterative games: for instance, those in which two entities could gain important benefits from cooperating or suffer from the failure to do so, but find it merely difficult or expensive, not necessarily impossible, to coordinate their activities to achieve cooperation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner%27s_dilemma
Murray Bowen in 1987 with an unnamed Gorilla at the Georgetown University Family Center Symposium
Happy New Year – 2016 – Andrea Maloney Schara