The current debate about the Occupy Wall Street movement and its foibles—its vague demands, “communist” leanings or “rag tag” participants—reminds me eerily of family dynamics that I have seen play out in my child psychiatry practice.
If one were to describe the populace of the United States as a family, who would be the children, and who would be the parents? I would argue that the occupiers, as representatives of the 99%, would be the “children”, and that the parents would be a self-serving Wall Street and a sluggishly responsive government.
To therapists, calling someone a “child” is the opposite of an insult. It’s often the children who are the most thoughtful, insightful, caring and aware. The body politic—in this instance a metaphor for a family--is one in which the people in charge are not taking care of the family system as a whole, despite their hold on the power of the system.
The occupiers have been criticized for rambling complaints and temper tantrums, but the problem itself is as complex as the emotional turmoil that characterizes families in trouble. It is as though father demands his child’s paper route money to get drunk and buy a new car, and then cries “poverty” when it’s time to buy books for school.
Children have a uniquely keen radar for messages that reward bad behavior and punish cooperation. Yet that’s the state of our economy right now.
Groups of any size will organize themselves into the only relational structures we really know: the family. We might think that our corporate, governmental and civic systems are arranged differently, but there are only so many versions of social architecture that can occur.
Disavowing the heartfelt pleas of a family member is a doomed trajectory. It sends disturbing signals to a child who already has no control over its environment, leading to feelings of neglect or even abuse by the adults in charge. The child becomes almost compelled to “act out” inorder to shake the family unit from its slumber.
These systems—be it a family or a nation—function best when a sense of interconnectedness is fundamental, when the family’s individual members and its strength as a unit are nurtured and protected.
Depriving vast swaths of the population of access to clean water, clean air, fresh food, health care, education, housing and safety is not a wise economic plan. You get what you pay for. Many participants in the Occupy Movement are just aching to work, to be of service, and to usher the United States into a new era of prosperity and environmental repair.
So we should listen early and often. While you still have a chance, go to the Occupy movement site or event closest to where you are. Walk in, smile at the first person you see, and start a conversation. Be aware that that person might not be talking in what you might call “adult” terms.
But listening to language that might not be familiar is part of being a member of a healthy national family.
Madeleine Lansky, M.D. is a child psychiatrist who teaches and practices in the San Francisco Bay Area. A former environmental educator, Lansky is the founder and executive director of Profound Sustainability, an educational and consulting service that works on projects at the intersection of mental health and environmental sustainability. She teaches Composting Anger workshops at Occupy SF.