Through the Telescope and Microscope

Through the Telescope and Microscope

By Eric C. Holmstrom

A sermon title long in search of a sermon came back to me as I read Lewis Thomas’ words about deep mysteries, profound paradoxes, and imponderable puzzles in Howard Clinebell’s reflection on The Role of Mystery and Wonder in Teaching.1 His words put me in touch with my thoughts about what the world looks like when you see it through the telescope or microscope. Either way you look, inward or outward, the world opens in mystery and wonder. The longer you look the more you see.

I say this while wearing three hats. For I am a binocular astronomer, a student of Bowen Theory, and a clinical pastoral education resident. In each case, the longer I look, the more I see. When looking at the Andromeda galaxy with 10×50 binoculars, you see a fuzzy patch of light that covers about three degrees of sky. In other words, it fills most of the five-degree field shown in my binocular’s field of view. Nice, but nothing too impressive; that is, until you develop what one astronomer calls “object appreciation.”2

Object appreciation is more than just looking longer at an object. It also involves learning more about it. Things change when you know an object’s true size and distance when you view it. Then even a binocular view becomes truly wondrous.

At first glance the Andromeda galaxy reveals little. But when you stay at the binoculars you begin to tease out clues to its shape and structure. Under the right sky conditions you might even see a bright compact hub, surrounded by a huge ill-defined disk. Add to this some appreciation, the fact that it is 2.2 million light-years from us. This means that the light that you see has been journeying toward us for that many years. Look again and capture more detail, remembering that it contains a trillion suns and probably an equal number of planets. There is no doubt that the longer and more deeply you look the more you see.

Yet the Andromeda galaxy pales beside what one writer called “The Three Pound Universe,” the human brain.3 Complexities almost beyond knowing confront us here as well. Today we know more about this “universe” than ever before. Yet what answers we have are incomplete, especially when we look to the mystery of the self or ponder consciousness, however defined.

The Individual Psychology of Albert Adler, was an important way point in my early attempts to understand others and myself. Yet it did not provide the same connection with the world and cosmos that Bowen Theory does. For when I broadened my concern from my own self to the family as an emotional unit it led me to a whole new world.

I first studied and experienced Bowen Theory in a Graduate Seminar in Family Process led by Ed Friedman in the year prior to his death.4 Looking for a magic bullet to help me survive in my family of origin, nuclear, and congregational families, I soon found that the theory went well beyond a proximate focus of that kind to universals. “Bowen theory,” Friedman said, “is not fundamentally about families, but about life … the wider focus that Bowen has tended to refer to as “the human phenomenon…” that wider focus [that] extends beyond the human dimension to all of protoplasm, if not all creation.” Therefore, Friedman says, “what we observe in families today—the opposing forces for togetherness and self, the perpetual reactivity that undulates through any emotional system, the chronic anxiety that is transmitted from generation to generation, as well as the myriad of symptomatic labels that the social sciences have proliferated to describe these phenomena—are all a kind of background radiation that goes back to the ‘biological big bang.”

“It is not really possible,” Friedman suggested, “to comprehend the thrust of the Bowen approach to human families without also considering the nature of our entire species and its relationship to all existing life, and indeed to all previous life (and other natural systems) on this planet, if not throughout the cosmos.”5

Seeking to be a well differentiated and “unanxious presence,” I came to the theory looking for particulars, to help me survive. To my surprise I was taken from protoplasm to cosmology to the “dance of life” in one breathtaking leap. Bowen Theory started me on a quest to understand the “fields” and forces which underlie my behavior and it encouraged me to develop a new way of “seeing” in which I see the field and not just its parts. Here, too, the longer I look, the more I see.

In Clinical Pastoral Education it soon became apparent that what Winston Churchill said of Stalin, could be said of me. I, too, am a mystery wrapped in an enigma. All the complexity of chronic anxiety and emotional reactivity find expression in my relationships. That complexity spirals inward when I seek to name what one writer calls the “presence of the past.” It spirals outward as I seek to connect the influence of three families, my family of origin, nuclear family, and institutional family, to my attempts to define my position and self while staying in touch with others. The longer I look, the more I see.

Lewis Thomas wanted teachers in the sciences to “let it be known, as clearly as possible, that there are some things going on in the universe that lie beyond comprehension… .”6 Howard Clinebell took those words and applied them to what we don’t know and do know about human sickness and health. Together, both writers encouraged me to ponder the role mystery and wondering in my learning, whether through binocular stargazing, Bowen Theory, or the Clinical Pastoral Education process.

Telescope or microscope, genogram or verbatim, clinical seminar or supervision, it does not matter. The longer you look, the more you see. That’s the truth of that old sermon title, a title that even now, is still in search of a sermon.

Originally published in The Journal of Pastoral Care, Vol. 53, Winter 1999, pp. 477-479. Eric C. Holmstrom participated in the Leadership in Ministry Workshops for several years. This article was republished in the LIM newsletter.

1. Howard Clinebell, “The Role of Mystery and Wonder in Teaching”, The Journal of Pastoral Care, Fall 1998, Vol. 52, No. 3, pp. 303-304.

2. John T. Kozack, Deep-Sky Objects for Binoculars, Sky Publishing Co: Cambridge, MA, 1988, pp. 44-45.

3. Judith Hooper and Dick Tersei, The 3-Pound Universe: Revolutionary Discoveries about the Brain – From the Chemistry of the Mind to the New Frontier of the Soul, G. P. Putnam’s Sons: New York, NY, 1985.

4. The beginnings of my study of Bowen Theory came through an encounter with Edwin H. Friedman’s book, Genereation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, The Guilford Press: New York, NY, 1985.

5. Edwin H. Friedman, “Bowen Theory and Therapy”, in Handbook of Family Therapy, Vol. II, p.135.

6. Thomas in Clinebell, “Role of Mystery and Wonder”, p.303.


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