A friend of mine posted a picture of a snake on a tree. The caption read, “Find the snake.” I looked and looked, but never could find it, because the snake was so well camouflaged I couldn’t see where the tree ended and the snake began. It was probably just as well since I hate snakes. The only snake worse than the snake you see is the snake you don’t see, the ones that fall out of trees and bite you and wrap themselves around and squeeze you until you’re dead, then swallows you whole, which includes every snake that ever existed, which is why I hate them.
There was this kid I knew growing up who we called Snaky Sam, not because he was treacherous, but because he blended in no matter who he was with. If you liked the Cincinnati Reds, he liked the Cincinnati Reds. If your family was Republican, he was a Republican. If you used racist language, he used racist language. He became the mirror image of whoever he was with. When we had speech class and had to participate in a debate, everyone wanted him on their team because he could argue either side of an issue with equal passion whether he believed it or not. He was like a snake on a tree, you couldn’t see where the tree stopped and where Snaky Sam began. He blended right in to his surroundings. When his surroundings changed, he changed with it.
It goes without saying that while this feature is useful for snakes, it causes problems when humans possess this chameleon quality. We’ve been talking about the characteristics of grown-up people. This morning, I want us to consider another quality, and that is the quality of self-differentiation. Let me explain what that is. There was a psychiatrist named Murray Bowen, who was one of the pioneers in family therapy, and developed a model of treatment called the “family systems” theory. Bowen believed we’re products of the families in which we were raised and the role we played in that family. There were eight principles in his theory, but for the purposes of our conversation today, I want to emphasize one quality in particular that I believe is essential to being grown-up, and this is the quality of self-differentiation, which Bowen defined as “the ability to be in emotional contact with others yet still autonomous in one’s own emotional functioning.”
In simpler term, it means you are able to be in relationship with and enjoy other people, without sacrificing your own personhood. I’ll give an example. I can be married to Joan and enjoy a positive and enriching relationship with her, without having to stop being who I am to be with her. And she doesn’t have to stop being who she is to be with me. Another example is the relationship we share. You don’t have to share my theology or worldview in order to belong to the Fairfield community. We can enjoy a healthy and positive relationship without either one of us sacrificing who and what we are.
An historic example of self-differentiation was when Martin Luther was hauled into court, accused of owning books judged by the Catholic church to be heretical. When ordered to disavow the books, he said, “If I now recant these, I would be doing nothing but strengthening tyranny.” He was reported to have said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” That is self-differentiation—the ability to be in emotional contact with others while still being autonomous in one’s own emotional functioning. Here I stand, I can do no other.
I’m sure you know self-differentiation is most important, most crucial, when it is most difficult. It is most necessary when others have given into tyranny and insist we do the same. In this sense, self-differentiation acts as the circuit breaker when an excessive current of injustice is running unchecked. It is the stiffened spine when others have bowed to tyranny. Here I stand, I can do no other.
But because we can only effect and influence what we are a part of, it is essential to remain connected while also remaining autonomous. But we do not surrender our own morality, our own personhood, to appease the group. We are not chameleons. We do not blend in, and when others demand we do, we instead resolve to stand out and speak up. This is self-differentiation, and it is a trait of those who are morally, spiritually, and ethically grown-up. Here I stand, I can do no other.
Self-differentiation is Jesus saying, “You do not take my life, I give it.” It is Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refusing to bow before the king. It was millions of women and wives being told their place was in the home, but persisting and parading and persevering for the vote. It was John Lewis marching across the Edmund Pettis Bridge, felled like a tree by the swinging strokes of police batons, but rising to his feet and standing once more. Here we stand, we can do no other.
Of course, self-differentiation is easy when those asking us to violate our conscience are people we don’t admire. The real challenge is how to be self-differentiated when our family and friends expect us to get along and go along. Our tendency then is to do one of two things: to quietly submit, sacrificing our personhood in order to keep the peace. Or we sever ties, breaking and leaving relationships that once meant a great deal to us. Neither response is healthy, helpful, nor mature. And this is the genius of self-differentiation, it allows us to remain connected to those we love, while remaining autonomous. It defines clearly what we will and will not do, while granting others the space to do what they are called to do. Just as it does not comply with tyranny, neither does it act tyrannically.
This week we honored the life and witness of John Lewis, a man with steadfast devotion to our nation and its betterment. That devotion was first repaid with violence and injustice. Yet, still he stood, still he marched, still he spoke, defining not only himself, but defining America, what we can and should be. If anyone had the right to leave, to disconnect, to flee to a better, more hospitable nation, it was John Lewis. Yet, still he stayed, still he remained, still he persisted. Just as he did not comply with tyranny, neither did he act tyrannically. Our nation owes such grown-up people a great debt. They are beams of light who illumine our darkest days. May you and I be numbered among them.