EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR’S NOTE: Roberta Gilbert, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice and author of Connecting with Our Children: Guiding Principles for Parents in a Troubled World (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999. 231 pages).
>>WILSON: Many Americans believe we are in a cultural crisis related to families. You have written, “We are in a regressive period where people are more anxious than usual, less responsible and less principled.” What do you mean by the phrase “societal regression?”
GILBERT: Societal regression simply states that society functions better and less well at different times in history, depending upon the amount of anxiety present.
At times of regression, which Bowen saw us entering in the 60’s, there is more anxiety, less responsible behavior, and people act less on principle and more from a mob mentality or “what others think” or just pass the buck and refuse to act or take a stand altogether.
At this time in America’s history, the family itself seems to be breaking down. Many mainline churches are shrinking. Many of the agencies of government don’t work very well.
>>WILSON: What is triggering this regression? Why is anxiety spiking at this time in our culture?
GILBERT: The triggers and the spikes for anxiety [are] the same. Many roots for the regression have been suggested. Some of these include the shrinking land area available for habitation, anxiety over annihilation by various forms of warfare, and loss of moral and ethical principles.
The trigger I have been most interested in studying involves my own profession. The therapy profession has paved the way for the regression, I believe, by rewriting America’s principles. Where it used to be man’s chief aim to “glorify God and love Him forever,” it became the pleasure principle of Freud. If it doesn’t feel good, it isn’t right for you. If your mate doesn’t make you happy go find one that will. This, I believe, gave us the sexual revolution with its attendant mayhem. Instead of sex in marriage, the norm of our culture became “Have sex with as many people as much of the time as you can.”
Another example of how the “helping” profession helped create the societal regression, I believe, has to do with child rearing. Perhaps it was an overreaction to authoritarianism, but I think we went too far with permissiveness in rearing children. We did not want to harm anyone’s psyche, so we permitted almost anything and everything. In some homes, the kids were/are totally out of control as a result. Parents abrogated their leadership role in response to the therapists’ critical attitude toward them. They became afraid to be parents.
This is from my view of my own profession. I must add that the health profession is not alone in contributing to the regression. As we look on society, be it education, the legal system, entertainment or politics, we see repetitions and other contributing tendencies; such as the promotion of moral relativity, attacks on all authority, promoting and excusing anti-social behavior, be it in school, business, or in prisons. Especially noticeable has been our loss of contact with the concept of original sin, especially evident in the notion of evil. This has become a politically incorrect topic for discussion.
Thus, while I am especially concerned about the contribution of my own profession, with which I am most familiar, I also see similar ideas in other professions and organizations that are also propelling us down this path of regression.
>>WILSON: What are the different types of anxiety?
GILBERT: Acute anxiety results from the many stresses of life that are perceived as threats in some way. Chronic anxiety is that repetitive tension that circulates in the generations of the family, affecting the individuals in various ways, including sometimes physical or other symptoms.
>>WILSON: Societal regression creates anxiety. Anxiety causes more social chaos. Social problems create more anxiety. What do we do to break this vicious cycle?
GILBERT: We would probably become overwhelmed if any one of us thought we had to change the world. If all Christians [would] take responsibility for their own anxiety …processing it, calming self before taking action or [before] speaking, and [define] in an appropriate way the principles that guide them, would the world be a better place? I believe it would.
>>WILSON: How could pastors, as emotionally mature leaders, have an impact on addressing societal regression?
GILBERT: Pastors are the most influential sector in our society. I think that too many pastors are not clear on what they really believe. So, they cannot define that to others. Others tell people what to believe–an overfunctioning position–instead of simply defining self.
To me, societal regression seems so serious at this time that nothing short of a “Great Awakening” from God would turn it around. I don’t know how many pastors see themselves as in an instrumental position for such a happening, but they are. We all are as Christian leaders.
Too many pastors are preaching ethics, psychology, or even Bowen theory from the pulpit. Surveys show that the reason people attend church overwhelmingly is to find God. And we wonder why churches are shrinking.
I am simple enough to think that God could make a difference in our society today just as he has in history many times.
>>WILSON: Tell our readers a little about your faith journey.
GILBERT: I was brought up in a Christian home. My father was a Baptist pastor and both my parents loved and love the Lord. They are 90. I went to Christian high school and college.
When I began my psychiatric training, I lost my faith. It was thought to be a “dependent” position–not politically correct. So for many years I tried atheism, then agnosticism, then the New Age, which is really a very old age teaching. At any rate, my life wasn’t doing very well.
When I met my husband, he had become interested in the study of evil, for reasons of his own. My first reaction to hearing the word “evil” was incredulous. But I began to explore with him. We read books, discussed long and hard. We decided that yes, there really was such a thing as evil. We read more books from the Christian bookstore. They led me right back where I began as a child.
At our wedding two years ago, we recommitted our lives to Christ. He was baptized for the first time, and I for the second because of [uncertainty] about the first one when I was a small child. We have had many answers to prayer. We continue to pray to be totally used of God in the years to come.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC) housed at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.