There is a way of interacting which is called the ‘drama triangle’. As the name suggests there are three roles that the people in this play: victim, persecutor and rescuer. Far from being the weak member of the three, the victim actually holds the power. He or she does not need to change at all but has other people running around trying to deal with his or her problems. In the story of Jesus with the invalid at Bethsaida we hear a typical victim’s lament when the man is asked if he wants to be healed. Jesus acts as neither persecutor nor the normal kind of rescuer, but as healer and liberator.
Read my reflection from the 3pm SLT Tuesday service below. The readings were Psalm 46:1-8, Ezekiel 47:1-9, 12, John 5:1-16.
Three adult students had just received their essays back and were discussing the results:
Stuart: Well I passed. Wish I’d done better but it’s ok.
Maggie: I failed. I knew I would. I never do any good on essays. I never will.
Stuart: Oh, Maggie, that’s such a shame. You’re really very good you know. You gave some great answers in the lectures.
Maggie: No I’m not, I’m useless at academic things.
Anne: So why did you sign up for the course if you knew you couldn’t do it?
Stuart: Anne, why did you say that? Of course Maggie can do it. It was just bad luck with the essay.
Maggie: I just can’t get my ideas down on paper. I always get things wrong.
Anne: Why didn’t you ask the lecturer for some help?
Maggie: She wouldn’t have wanted to spend time on me. No one ever wants to help me.
Stuart: I’ll help you, Maggie. You can resubmit the essay. I’ll work with you.
Anne: You should do your own work, Maggie, rather than rely on Stuart to help you.
Stuart: Anne, there’s nothing wrong with getting some help. Why are you being so unpleasant to Maggie? Can’t you see how hard this is for her?
Maggie: Studying’s always hard for me, Stuart. I don’t think my brain works like other people’s somehow. No matter how hard I try I get nowhere. There are always people who are unhelpful, who blame me for doing it all wrong. How am I ever supposed to do any good when I have to put up with that?
Anne: I’m not saying you are doing it all wrong, Maggie. I’m pointing out what you should do to do better. You should talk to the lecturer, get the help from her and then go and try again yourself.
Stuart: Some people are shy, Anne. Surely you can understand that. It’s hard for them to go and ask for help.
Maggie: The lecturer has got more important things to do than talk to me.
Anne: What do you think she’s paid for then? It’s her job to help you. If you don’t ask how can you know if she will help?
Maggie: She won’t help, no one will.
Stuart: I’ll help you, don’t worry Maggie and don’t listen to Anne. Next essay, we’ll work together on it. I know it’s too much to ask you to talk to the lecturer.
Anne: Talk about pathetic! And you’re just making things worse, Stuart. While you’ll help out Maggie will never learn to help herself.
Stuart: I’ve had enough of listening to you today, Anne! Come on Maggie. Let’s go for a coffee. Don’t cry. It’s ok. Anne’s just being grumpy and unreasonable.
Maggie: People are always so mean to me. Not sure what I do to deserve it.
What you’ve just witnessed is the ‘drama triangle’ being played out in the relationship between Stuart, Maggie and Anne. It’s a well known way that people interact. Maggie is the ‘victim’: everything always goes wrong for her, the world is against her. Stuart is the ‘rescuer’: he is trying to fix things for Maggie and to protect her. Anne is the ‘persecutor’: she is apparently attacking Maggie and being nasty to her though is actually giving good suggestions.
Once you are aware of this way of interacting you may see it going on in lots of places. We are all pretty good at this game. That was proven to me on a counselling day where we were asked to act the drama triangle out. Three people started, each taking one of the roles, and others of us could tap one of the people on the shoulder, sit in their chair and take up their role, letting the conversation carry on. It was amazingly easy to play each of the roles, showing that we have absorbed the rules of this game very well indeed.
As a conversation goes on, it can happen that the persecutor actually becomes a victim because of the way they are perceived, with both victim and rescuer ganging up against them. Even if that doesn’t happen, what always tends to happen is that the persecutor and rescuer expend a great deal of energy and effort to solve the problem that the victim has while the victim stays pretty much as they are, making no effort at all to change. They have decided that life is against them, that there is nothing they can do, and there they stay.
In the gospel story, Jesus approaches a man who has been an invalid for 38 years. That is a very long time indeed. Jesus set off to help the man but first he asks if he wants to be healed. An odd question you might think. Who wouldn’t want to be healed? But actually, being healed brings with it responsibilities that are not required of the sick. It is just possible that remaining sick might be more comfortable in some ways.
The invalid didn’t answer Jesus’ question. He replied in typical ‘victim’ mode: ‘I can’t get healed. No one will help me. Someone else always gets there before me.’ Now, after 38 years of being an invalid I think I too would be thoroughly in victim mode. That is a very long time to wait and have hopes dashed. It would be very easy to think that good things only happen to other people and not to oneself. The evidence certainly points that way. I wonder how many people that man had seen get healed and head on home to pick up their lives. Every time he saw it, that must have been a terrible disappointment to him.
Jesus didn’t accept the man’s hopeless assessment of the situation, even though he didn’t get a proper answer. He gave the man a chance to prove that, despite 38 years of evidence to the contrary, he could get healed. At this point I think we really have to admire the invalid. We are told later in the story that, when questioned, he was not able to say who it was who had healed him. He had no idea that this was the famous miracle worker that so many people were talking about. He could so easily responded to this stranger by remaining as a victim: ‘What do you mean, stand up? Don’t you know I’ve been here 38 years? 38 years I tell you. Others have been healed but it won’t work for me. No point trying to get up off this mat. I’m an invalid. Don’t you understand? My legs won’t hold me up.’ To the man’s credit, he took Jesus at his word, got up as instructed and walked off to a new life.
I’ve listened to people who have said, ‘Others can find a life partner, marry, have kids, nice home, good job, but it won’t happen to me. Things always go wrong for me. Just when I get my hopes up they are dashed again.’ Or, ‘I pray to God, I try to follow what he says, but he doesn’t listen to me. I guess I get it wrong. There must be something else I should have done. Maybe I was born under an unlucky star. Maybe God has more important things to do. Why would he want to help me?’ Or, ‘This faith stuff is all right for other people. They hear the message, come to faith and live a wonderful life of prayer and have peace. I just can’t get my head round it. Yes, I want faith but it doesn’t work for me. It never will. I’m obviously the wrong kind of person. I’ll just have to soldier on without faith.’
Each of these people, like the invalid in the story, has had good reason to say what they have said. The evidence would certainly suggest that things don’t tend to work out for them, that they are victims of the unfairness of life. But, like the invalid, they still have choices. They can choose to believe that, despite the evidence of the past, things really can be different. God is not restricted by what has happened in the past. He can bring about a new start whenever he wants to do so but often he is waiting for us to respond.
God loves each of us equally. Each of us is a precious child of his. Maybe the way he will help us might not be as we expect. The invalid expected it would be the stirred water that would help him but he didn’t even get a toe wet. Like that man, we need to take God at his word, stand up, throw off the constraints we are living under and believe that we can walk into a new life.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor