You Are What You Project

APA much-employed, psychological coping mechanism we all use from time to time is called, “projection.” We project onto others what is going on within ourselves. For example, if I have deep, simmering anger I might subconsciously project that emotion on to those around me – rather than face it for myself – and thus perceive others as angry.

Bullies might project their fears and insecurities onto those considered weaker, attempting to bolster their own inadequacies. Parents can sometimes project their failed aspirations onto their children resulting in impossible, shame-driven expectations. I might bring home a day’s worth of irritation and if I’m not treated as kindly as I think I should be, my reaction might be a sanctimonious, “What’s wrong with you?” when the problem is me.

Rather than seeking to solve our own problems – or at least face them – it’s easier to direct our dysfunction toward others. At least that’s the safest way for most of us to cope: The prospect of looking within is not only difficult, it can be so debilitating as not to even begin.

Now, by training I’m not a psychiatrist or therapist. I’m a cleric. A minister, sometimes maybe a theologian: I think, talk, write, speak, and wonder about God and the relationship people have with the God of their understanding. And most of us are projectionists even on this point. We hurl all of our human shortcomings, errors, and defects at God, relieving us of personal responsibility.

Our violence, our insatiable desire for revenge, our fears, our need to punish someone for what has gone wrong: We can’t turn and face these in ourselves, so it’s easier to construct a religion with these characteristics. Doesn’t this explain how religion can go so wrong? Our worst attitudes and actions are made holy as we aim them at God, they reflect back to us, and we institutionalize them as writs of consecration.

God is so clearly threatening, outraged, impatient, and petulant in much of religion because many of religion’s adherents possess these characteristics. As crisply noted by Anne Lamott: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates the same people you do.”

Perhaps another quote is in order, a word from one of the English language’s literary giants, Alexander Pope. He wrote, an acclaimed line to be sure, that “To err is human, but to forgive, divine.” Expanding, one could say that to kill is human. Violence is human. Hate is human. To corrupt what is holy, innocent, and beautiful is human. But to forgive, is divine. To grant mercy is divine. To offer compassion is divine.

So maybe Alexander Pope arrived at true religion’s singularity: God is not the source of evil, but evil’s remedy, for when we “imitate God in all we do, we will live lives filled with love.” And as humans, love is what we need most. Projecting a little more of it would surely make the world a better place.

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