Elders and Interdependency
To understand human nature, it’s useful to think in terms of evolution. Why would a species need elders or have an interdependency with them? For example, what is the benefit to a species of having the females live a long time after being able to have children? Or for males to live a long time after their peak fitness levels? Fitness in nature is a tradeoff between costs and benefits. Maybe fitness isn’t just about physical fitness, but also about non-physical fitness.
Elephant matriarchs – elders make a difference.
More than once, while growing up, I heard the phrase “respect your elders.” As a child, I thought of this as “do as you are told.” But the real value of interdependence between elders and their group is clear in elephant herds. Elephants have remarkable memories. For example, they remember faces for decades. This allows the herd to recognize individuals that might have been troublemakers in years past. Herds with matriarchs over 38 years old have done better in periods of drought because they remember the location of alternate watering holes. Interdependency with elders and the group is a natural trait not specific to humans.
Humans have evolved to live in small groups of extended families. Many cultures have had some aspect of “respect your elders” as part of proper behaviour. The value of parents is they keep their offspring alive. The value of elders is the experience and knowledge they can transmit to the next generation. This type of transmission can preserve the knowledge of events that happen once every 500 years. As we have seen recently, these types of events could wipe out the group.
The fitness value of elders and interdependency
Evolution selects those features that enable a species to survive and thrive. If elders didn’t add value to the survival of humans, our average age would be much, much less. This is the case in other species where there is no learning to pass on (in general). The transmission of learning and experience, cultural values, and how the group thinks and reacts to various situations are all part of what makes a human being. This supports and nurtures the physical and non-physical self. Dr. Bowen captured this idea in the concept of the Multigenerational Transmission Process.
Elders, interdependency, and functioning
The multi-generational transmission process is the process through which one learns how to function appropriately in one’s family. This is the transmission of emotional functioning from one generation to the next. Because we are interdependent, children automatically learn how to be or how to function in their family of origin. Concepts of right and wrong, morals, beliefs, ethics, what emotions to display or not, and how to think about “self” are all transmitted. Bowen posited that the level of differentiation of the parents is transmitted as well. He wrote that “parents transmit varying levels of their immaturity to their children.” (p.167) There is some variation in the level of differentiation across each child because of the life circumstances of the family being different for each child.
Elders make us who we are. Blame nature, not your parents.
Through this transmission process, our primary caregivers played an enormous part in making us who we are emotionally and setting our level of differentiation. They have a generation, or more, of experience to share about what shaped one’s development. They are an available resource to help one understand the environment that one developed in. The transmission of the level of differentiation is non-conscious and automatic. These processes evolved because they helped the group survive. By default, that is, by evolution, our parents always did the best, or at least all they could, given their situation. I believe this is an important concept because it helps individuals stop blaming their parents and take more responsibility for themselves. One can blame Mother Nature, but she’d probably say, “stop complaining and take advantage of being a human.” She once told me, “you think you humans have it bad. Name one other species you’d rather be.” She makes a good point.
Our elders are our best source of emotional growth.
Elders support individuals’ physical growth by providing food, shelter, and safety. This is a secure environment from which individuals can mature and become responsible for their own food, shelter, and safety. It allows one to become functionally and financially independent. This also occurs on an emotional level as we learn to be more responsible for our emotional selves. Our most significant emotional relationships are with our principal caregivers (our parents). Learning to be differentiated in these relationships is very valuable for one’s own growth in the ability to be differentiated in any relationship. This growth makes us better partners and parents. Respecting my elders doesn’t mean that I blindly agree with everything they say. In fact, respect and differentiation support the development of each other. The beauty of working on differentiation is that it is my work. It doesn’t actually depend on how differentiated another person is. It appears that nature has provided a way for each generation to get better by allowing each generation to work on improving their level of differentiation.
Interdependency and Differentiation
Differentiation is about being emotionally separate while staying connected. As a social species, separate does not mean alone or isolated. It means being fully responsible for self while recognizing our mutual interdependence. As a social species, we evolved to depend on our elders for their memories, experience, and help. And those younger in the group, over time, supported the elders. Each was better off because of the other. I think that’s a useful way to think about interdependence – each party is better off because of the other party.
Elders and interdependency are based on evolution.
The value of emotionally depending on our caregivers is that we would be more likely to listen to their experiences and learn from them. It also means we would be more likely to support our elders in order to preserve that knowledge. The fact that humans evolved to be like this is evidence that it was of value to the species. What Bowen Theory reveals is that evolution also provided a way to allow individuals to develop their level of differentiation in any generation. After all, if you don’t get some level of differentiation developed, how would you put up with your kids for such a long time? Or how would they put up with you? So if you want to work on your level of differentiation, your elders are a great place to start. Respect them for that.
To read more about elephants, see https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/elephants-never-forget/.
Dr. Bowen writes about the multigenerational process on p 167 of Family Therapy in Clinical Practice.
You can read more about this here: https://www.thebowencenter.org/core-concepts-diagrams.
You can learn more about Bowen Theory here: https://livingsystems.ca/bowen-theory/.