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  • Reverend James Squire

Feel Or Do Or Both

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

When doing graduate work in psychology and family systems, I was able to see the psychological issues that were involved in my family dynamics. When counseling people, I sometimes think of two different systems that operate in most families or couples. One system is referred to as emotionalism and the other as functionalism.

Emotionalism is when parents or a partner emphasize emotion in their roles. When you return from school they would first want to know how your day went and how you were feeling. This system emphasizes empathy and the importance of empowering relationships in life. Nurturing would be at the head of the list of important characteristics to have. As a gender issue, we usually think of this as a mother’s or female spouse's role.

Functionalism, on the other hand, focuses on the question “What did you do in school today?” It focuses attention on various roles parents or partners play, such as breadwinner, homemaker, or someone who is task oriented..

Today many families try to have the parents or partners share roles so that earning the income isn’t left to one while homemaking is the sole domain of the other.

In my case, I had confusion since my father was based in both functionalism and emotionalism. He earned the paycheck but also was emotionally available to my brother and me.

My mother, on the other hand, focused on functionalism. Her focus was on accomplishing the household duties with emotionalism playing almost no role in her parenting. For example, if I became injured playing a sport or boxing next door at the fight club, she would more likely ask, “Did you win?” not “How are you?”

There is nothing wrong with any of these arrangements, but it was important for me to figure it out. I wish I had been aware of these insights when I was growing up. Perhaps these insights will be helpful to you, the reader. The ideal would be to have some understanding of the balance of emotionalism and functionalism in the family or in your significant relationships that would lead to clear understanding of roles. All families have overt rules, a situation that leads to the family members or partners having a clear idea of what can be done or said. All families and significant relationships also have covert rules that are not formalized resulting in a tacit understanding of what can or cannot be said or done.

Below is a reflection/meditation on the death of my mother that shows her emphasis on functionalism.

Epilogue: The Death Of My Mother

"I wrote the following meditation after my mother’s death. My words demonstrate my mother’s emphasis on functionalism:

'My mother died on June 14, 1976. I learned much about life, about the Christian message, and about myself on June 13, the day before she died. There are occasions in life that demand that I stop and take stock of where I am. This represents one of them. I was called to a nearby Roman Catholic hospital. The caller beckoned me with simply with the words: “Come quickly. Your mother is critically ill.” I waited in the critical care waiting room. Hanging on the wall opposite my chair and slouched body hung a crucifix, a well done wood cut with the broken body of Christ nailed on. Beyond the wall was a person with whom I had struggled as a child, adolescent, and adult.

Mothers have important meaning to all of us. A friend wrote me a note composed on a plane shortly after she became aware of my loss. Part of what she said is, “I was in my early 50(s) when my mother died, but even now I think about her every day. I just recently said it was my mother’s birthday today. She was 105 years old. So mothers are special people in many ways.” My friend closed by saying, “My mother was very funny and did her own thing and wore slacks long before fashion indicated.”

On the day before my mother died, I walked into the room to see her. She didn’t say, “Hello! Glad to see you!” or anything that most of us would interpret as a standard greeting. She looked up at the clock before her, noticed the noon hour, and asked, “Have you had your lunch yet?” I was furious. You don’t ask someone as independent as I am if they have had their lunch.

I informed her that I hadn’t, but that there was a nice coffee shop downstairs. I said that I would get a bite there very soon. She started to say something, but it began to sound like an apology that she couldn’t get lunch for me or that she hadn’t had the foresight to have something prepared for me in the Special Care Unit. I cut this exchange off and shifted things back to her. I can think of nothing as terrifying as experiencing that awful emptiness of wondering where, how, and in what form your next breath would come. Her lungs were failing. She was slowly drowning. That was her world.

When I left I got the number of the doctor’s service to talk with him directly. This was out of a concern for my mother’s life as well as for my own need to show the world once again how tough, take charge, and in control I really am.

I went back to the waiting room, back to that Christ on the cross hanging on the wall. Alone. The cross was not a sign, a symbol, or even an instrument of peace for me. It was a challenge. This time I purposely sat across from the hanging form. Since I was raised in the streets of a mill town, the feeling was a familiar one, like squaring off with an opponent just before we lashed out at each other, no holds barred until a bloody end.

The cross of Christ didn’t want to fight. I felt silly. What a contrast. Me sitting on the edge of my seat ready to take on anything and anyone who came along feeling angry, lost, and alone. Across from me was a broken man hanging in wood, palms turned toward me, saying, “Come, I’m not going to hurt you.”

I knew the struggle, only I was used to being on the other side. I was used to being priest and helper, and not one who easily asks for help. I was playing the game that had been played on me so many times. O. Hobart Mowrer describes this game best when he described my work with others who are struggling

“He said it is as though the patient and the therapist have sat down to play a game of cards. The hands are dealt out. The patient holds his cards close to his vest, inspecting them carefully. After some deliberation, he selects a card for his first play. He watches the therapist carefully for a response to this first attempt at strategy to find out if he has made the right play. Now it is the therapist’s turn to play. Much to the patient’s amazement, the therapist begins by laying his cards on the table face up, ready to encounter the patient transparently and without guile. It often takes a long while before the patient is willing to do the same.” (Kopp 1972)

There was that wooden Christ…palms out…cards on the table, face up. There I was …tough, close to my vest, the bruises and the pain of that part of me that is an urchin…that is alone.

The cross began to speak within me. I thought of my wife and my children.

I thought of people who I had spent the week before with…battered, broken, and bruised.

I thought of a friend who signed a letter…’thank you good person’…which lit a spark that I had snuffed out in my own moments of self-destruction.

I prayed to be open to that Spirit that hung before me and began to recall phrases shared by one who came to me when I was in the more familiar position of helper and not one in need.

The phrases came back. First they were just snatches and forms. I was amazed at how much I could remember from a once memorized verse.

Between the Christ on the wall and the street urchin were Alice walker’s words from her poem, ‘School’ Circle 1950’

‘Who made you was always

The question

The answer was always God.

Well, there we stood

Three feet high

Heads bowed

Leaning into


Now I no longer recall the catechisms

Or brood on the genesis of life.


I ponder the exchange itself

And Salvage mostly the leaning.’

I ponder the exchange itself and salvage mostly the leaning. (Walker 1973)

I look up through the hanging cross to the person who lay helpless behind the wall.

Who made you?

Have you had your lunch yet?

Her last words to me.

No, I can take care of myself.

My eyes came back to the cross…at first blurred…as if they had tried to see too much…out of focus at crossing too much time…too much death…the cross…the broken person…the outstretched palms…the ultimate vulnerability…the words…

“Come I am not going to hurt you.”

I ponder this exchange itself and now salvage mostly my learning."

The ideal is when you are aware of these two distinctions, to be and to do, to make them work for you and perhaps to strike the right balance in the important relationships in families and with your significant others.

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