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  • Writer's pictureGrace Episcopal Church

Deferred Dreams and Symptom Bearers

By Rev. Caroline Osborne

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

-Langston Hughes

Every counselor works with a theory or theories that help them understand their clients and know how to help. My specialty was in a family of theories called Systems Theory. One of the key ideas in Systems Theory is the concept of the “symptom bearer.” The idea is that many mental and behavioral health problems are not a problem within the individual seeking treatment, called the symptom bearer, but the expression of a different problem within the system of relationships that the individual is in, ranging from systems as small as marriages to as large as cultures and countries.

Most often, the symptom bearer situation is seen in families. For example, a mother might become severely depressed not because she is naturally melancholy but because her husband and teenage son fight constantly. The mother is powerless to stop her loved ones’ conflicts, but, when she is depressed, it distracts her husband and son from fighting because then they have to focus on her. To be clear, this is not the mother’s intentional choice, but a response to the broken relationships in the system.

When I heard about the riots in Minneapolis (and later throughout the country), I thought about symptom bearers. Now, this metaphor has limits: I am not making this comparison because the riots are trying to distract people from real problems, but because they are the actions of those who are powerless in the system. And, to be clear, I am not condoning acts of violence and destruction; what I am saying is acts of violence and destruction are symptoms of problems in a system, rather than just individuals. The truth is, the brokenness and hurtfulness of systems find expression in the actions of the powerless.

The United States has long boasted about the American Dream. What happens when that dream of economic advancement hinges on education, but the public education system is funded through local taxes so that schools in poor areas are chronically underfunded? What happens when that dream of democracy is undercut by functional disenfranchisement due to discriminatory voter registration laws? What happens when that dream of justice is betrayed as a lie by a system that takes over two months to arrest two men caught on video shooting another man? What happens to such fundamental dreams deferred?

The idea of a symptom bearer should not be a surprise to us as Christians. We know that humans are made in the image of God, who is, in his very being as the Trinity, relational. Of course relationships affect us! But what this means for us, as Christians, is that we have a responsibility, out of love for our neighbors, to seek to understand how the systems that we are part of affect others, especially the least powerful among us. When we hear about events like the riots, if we really want to see an end to the destruction, we cannot focus only on the symptom bearers. We have to address the broken and hurtful systems. We must take as our model the one who chose to bear all our symptoms, Jesus, who self-sacrificially suffered on our behalf to provide, not just a balm, but a cure for the brokenness of our world.

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