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Systems Theory| Family Reunions part 2

This is Part 2 of a 3 part series:

Going to the family reunion, or not? Part 2: The Circles of Life

See Part 1: Going to the family reunion, or not?

See Part 3: Going to the family reunion? Shave your armpits.

The Circles of Life

We’ve all heard the quote about how the most important thing on our tombstone is NOT the date of our birth or the date of our death. The most important thing is the dash—what we did between the two dates. Our birth to death time-line is not just linear.

Our World View is Unique

We live in complex interrelated systems which give us a unique lens to view the world:

*the individual,
*our nuclear family, our extended family and friends
*our local community professionals (bus drivers, barber, doctor…)
*our organizations (churches, clubs, schools…)
*our beliefs, culture, government, and our world

Uncle Ed

My Uncle Ed was one of the most inspiring people I ever met. In our Archdiocese, he served as a priest in several of the poorer parishes. One Sunday he was actually robbed and shot for the money in the collection plate—definitely not the best neighborhood. When he could have retired, he became a missionary in Grenada where he built a school, a nursing home, and two churches. He loved everyone including those marginalized by society: people who were sick, poor, had disabilities, the young, elderly, prisoners… everyone. Always, he modeled commitment and used his special gifts of humor and basketball to spread the word of God. Another thing Uncle Ed did was lead the songfest at each family reunion.

In part one of “Going to the family reunion, or not?” I talked about preparing BEFORE going to the family reunion. Today, I want to talk about systems theory. I thought about going straight to chaos theory because if your family is anything like mine, chaos rules the day… but systems theory actually helped me make sense of the circles of life.

Bronfenbrenner’s System Theory

In a systems theory perspective each individual is in a dynamic and interconnected relationship with other people and environments.

Resource: Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Picture nested Russian dolls where one fits inside the others. In Bronfenbrenner’s social system theory the smallest system is an individual person. But everything is connected; what influences one circle influences all the others. The circle of our family’s culture, traditions, likes, dislikes all influence who we are and what is valued. It is as important as the common blood or DNA.

The Micro System

Each aunt, uncle, cousin, grandchild in my family has their own experiences and beliefs about people who are different. Based on their ages and backgrounds they could have few or many inclusive experiences. Fortunately, Aaron is a part of the family, because of his blood, he belongs. They try to see the good things in Aaron, my son who has the label of autism. When we get together for family gatherings, they each try to fit Aaron into the environments and accommodate his needs.

Some of my cousins are teachers, counselors, business owners, nurses… Some work with people with disabilities in a professional capacity while others have had personal experiences with people in their communities. My sister recently had some hip surgery and applied for a Handicapped Parking permit–as we are all aging, we are all starting to understand the ramifications of being “temporarily able bodied.” Each individual and each family member shares those common experiences, but just as I am learning about growing older from my seniors and elderly relatives, many are learning about inclusion from Aaron.

Macro System

Considering people with severe disabilities have suffered abuse, neglect, and been ostracized from their family (tribe) being given the opportunity to participate with the family is a gift. I am thankful. I also hope we give positive modeling of what to do, how to act, how to accept others who are different.

Most of my relatives go out of their way to try and help Aaron in the swimming pool, bring him a drink, and help wipe up a mess if he spills something–instead of blaming him. I think some of this was learned from my Uncle Ed.

Uncle Ed always “Got it.” He was a pioneer for inclusion before inclusion was a word. At our family reunions Uncle Ed always brought people from the neighborhoods where he was pastor. There would be kids of all different religions, races and cultures. He was teaching about diversity as we all got in line for the potato salad and hot-dogs, as sure as he was teaching about God and God’s children. When Uncle Ed led the traditional singing, we didn’t sing special religious songs only our family would know, we sang camp songs where everyone could join in: “The bear comes over the mountain” or “The food in the army, they say is mighty fine” and school fight songs.

Uncle Ed was teaching about inclusion, about belonging and the power of a face to face connection. And he lead the way to change attitudes through his embedded social systems.

The last song before the picnic ended was always, “He’s got the whole world in His hands.” Uncle Ed never offered to lay his hands on Aaron and ask for God’s cure. He never tried to “counsel” our family about accepting God’s will. He never gave a sermon on how Jesus cured the blind man. Never once did he tell me I was chosen.

But like Tom, Tommy and I were trying to model, Uncle Ed just accepted Aaron the way he is, saw his beauty and gifts. Didn’t try to change him or us. In the many choruses of “He’s got the whole world” we joined hands and sang about how “He’s got the mothers and the fathers, the sisters and the brothers…He’s got the little bitty children… and He’s got Aar-on in His hands, He’s got the whole world in His hands.”

I know sharing pictures and snapshots of family reunions is boring as can be, but I hope this story shows why our family and extended family are such an important part of who we are. I am so thankful Uncle Ed was a part of my family, a part of my social system. I am hoping my family will also say the same about Aaron.

What about your Circles?

Does systems theory make sense to you? Who are the people/groups/clubs in your circles? How do these impact your life?
Tell us about your social systems, how is your family changing?

Keep climbing, onward and upward.

All the best,


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24 Responses to “Systems Theory| Family Reunions part 2”

  • Katherine Schmittou says:

    I had never really thought about inclusion of family members before reading this post. I have a cousin, Ashley, who has disabilities and I had never really thought about how my family interacts with her.

    Ashley, my aunt, uncle, and cousin live in another state so we don’t see them often (usually only on major holidays) but now that I think about, my family could do much more in order to include Ashley in holiday activities.

    My family does treat her very well, but I think most people just don’t really know how to interact with her (including myself) since we hardly ever spend time with her. We all try to help her and make her feel comfortable, but I feel like she is never given the same attention that everyone else gives each other.

    After realizing this, I think it’s time that we take the time to more inclusive towards Ashley.

    • Mary says:

      Katie, you continue to amaze me with your sensitivity and excellent problem solving. Let me know how it goes with Ashley. 🙂

  • las artes says:

    Each aunt, uncle, cousin, grandchild in my family has their own experiences and beliefs about people who are different. Based on their ages and backgrounds they could have few or many inclusive experiences. Fortunately, Aaron is a part of the family, because of his blood, he belongs. They try to see the good things in Aaron, my son who has the label of autism. When we get together for family gatherings, they each try to fit Aaron into the environments and accommodate his needs.
    las artes recently posted..No last blog posts to return.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      HI, Thanks for adding your ideas. So, your son is also named Aaron–must be a great kid:)
      It’s neat that your family is so accepting and includes Aaron. It takes some effort, but you are right, it is worth it.

      For some families it is as simple as including Grandma, or Aunt Lizzie who needs help. Or, little Emma or Baby Samuel. They just understand that accommodations and modifications are made with love. That is always a magic time.

      Best wishes and keep us informed of things that work. Thanks.

  • As my parent age, I find myself more and more questioning whether I should move my family to the UK to be closer to them, to support them better, improve their quality of life (which I can do just by giving them a lift to the grocery store) and also to be there in the latter stages of their life when they become dependent. Most people are trying to dissuade me from this move – they say it is my life and my children’s lives that take priority BUT the problem is, I am not seeing that the wider community step in with services and support, meanwhile, my parent’s lives get smaller and smaller and they become more and more vulnerable…I love systems theory and do believe changes in one area create a ripple effect outwards and actions cause changes that are seemingly unrelated but this one’s a difficult issue and one I’m struggling with.
    Alison Golden recently posted..5 Inspiring and Unconventional Personal Development Blogs You Should Read

    • Mary says:

      Oh Alison, you are really caught in a pickle and no win situation. If you didn’t care–the solution would be easy.

      There is a growing movement toward in-home support. Is there a neighbor, friend, someone who could look after your parents and you could pay them? There are more organizations and companies that are now in this business. And the number will grow with the boomers aging.

      One of the good things about “disability world” is that we have experienced much of this early in our children’s lives. So we know what we want the support to look like–like an extended family.

      Let me know what I can do? Sending love.
      Mary recently posted..Systems Theory| The Circles of Life

  • Mary E. Ulrich says:

    Thanks Jayne. I like to think he is looking over us from Heaven. God knows we need an advocate.:)

  • Jayne Nagy says:

    This is truly inspiring. Your Uncle Ed sounds like a great person. I love reading so keep posting 🙂

  • Mary says:

    Most of the information is from my studies in Special Education and my experiences with our family.
    Mary recently posted..A New Year of Learning

  • This is the best blog, i’ve ever seen, bookmarked

  • Gary Jordon says:

    truly amazing. What church was Fr.Ed a part of? There are not too many churches these days with an historic Episcopate.

    To both you Mary and Laura. It is true that unless you have to deal with an impairment either your own or someone you love you just don’t know. I think part if the problem is human ego. We try so hard to be better than mythical Jones that we avoid the possibility that we might have to face any and all deviation from the storybook world of tv.

    I just remembered reading how some scientist think that Neanderthals actually cared for disabled members of their band.
    Sorry for the long comment but this whole business of actually having anything like an inclusive tribe is truly amazing to me. It reminds me of the saying “that it takes a village to raise a child.

    • Mary says:

      Thanks for your comment Gary, you are right–it does take a village to raise a child. And with a family with a person with a severe disability–it might take a couple villages.

      I’ve got this theory called “Levels of Awareness” that I’ve been working on. More on that later.

  • I think that most people are just unaware until they actually have to deal with the special needs of someone close to them who is less able than they are.

    As my Dad progressed through his disease I learned so much about what he needed–from how to handle his swallowing difficulties to facing his communication challenges. Sadly, I was incredibly unprepared until these issues affected someone that I loved.

    • Mary says:

      You are right. We don’t know until we have first hand experience. Plus, each person’s needs are individual. Did any organization help you? or was it just trial and error?

      Hopefully, your dad and Aaron and all the others are teaching us so we will be more knowledgeable.

  • Hi Mary!

    Your Uncle Ed sounds amazing.

    How wonderful that he included everyone. Family is so important–but doubly so to those who are disabled.

    My dad wasn’t disabled for most of his life–but he developed Alzheimer’s disease in his late 70s and I became responsible for overseeing his care. I can certainly relate to some of the stories you tell here.

    • Mary says:

      Great to see you here Laura.

      Yes, 15 years after Uncle Ed died, we still have an annual dinner-fundraiser to continue his work in Grenada.

      I’m so glad you could relate to the story. I think we have so much to learn and share from our experiences with both people with disabilities and the elderly (not sure that is even the best word to use.) It really is all about learning to be inclusive and use universal design–only most of it is being created person by person, one at a time.

      If you have any ideas on how to pull this together, I’d love your thoughts. Mary

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