We’ll do anything to appear normal

homeostasis-300x209It’s called homeostasis and describes the process of living organisms to balance their physical and chemical environments to maintain life. It is homeostasis that maintains the hydration of the cells in our bodies, our blood pressure and even the rate at which we perspire.

The concept was described by French physiologist Claude Bernard in 1865 and the word was coined by Walter Bradford Cannon in 1926. Despite originating from the study of human organisms the term homeostasis has expanded to physical control systems like thermostats and even to social systems in psychology and sociology.

What these studies have revealed is that dysfunctional or diseased systems may continue to function with an imbalance through adjusting to disease as if it were a normal state. This happens in the case of smokers and substance abusers where body chemistry adapts to the foreign chemicals ingested allowing the system to function despite the presence of life threatening toxins.

Similarly in family and social systems homeostasis is achieved by the dysfunctional family adjusting to destructive behaviour as if that were the norm. This adjustment is referred to as “equilibration”. Just as we calibrate the instruments of an aircraft to reflect the actual altitude, level and speed that a plane is travelling, so a dysfunctional family will equilibrate to addiction or violent behaviours and assume that is normal life. Imagine an aircraft that has been flying with its wings tilted at forty five degrees for so long that the pilot has adjusted the instruments to define that angle as level. That’s equilibration. The naming of what is abnormal as normal. The problem arises when the plane does eventually fly level and all the instruments start screaming that it is in trouble!

It is because of equilibration that rehabilitation programmes seldom succeed. The “sick” person is removed from the distorted system and “cured” only to be reintroduced to the off balance family where homeostasis demands that the person return to their previous behaviour so that everyone can feel normal again. As bizarre as it may seem this eqilibrating behaviour can be seen all around us.

This past week saw the ANC’s national executive committee equilibrate to the dysfunction of its maverick and unmanageable president, by adjusting for the deviance and pretending that everything is normal within the party. The party that has been losing credibility and contact with its constituency for years decided this week to adjust all its instruments to say that this is the new normal for South Africa. “The fact that we have not forced a president of the ANC to step aside means that we have affirmed him as president of the ANC and the Republic.” Secretary Gwebe Mantashe said in a press statement on Tuesday, after a marathon NEC session where Zuma’s recall was suggested.

Such denial is symptomatic of a diseased system. It’s what stops couples coming for marriage counselling, families of addicts from kicking them out, and what keeps recalcitrant presidents in power. Fasten your seat belts!