Self-examination in Lent

Clergy are constantly covered in glue.

Maybe that should be part of our ordination vows.

“Will you be covered in glue or another sticky substance so to allow those with whom your encounter to affix their projections onto you?”

Humans project emotional sludge onto each other. It’s a part of our spiritual make-up. Clergy, however, experience projections at a higher rate than others, I think. Probably at the same level as therapists, but without the 50-minute hour sessions boundary therapists have.

Psychological projection is basically a way we humans cope with qualities and emotions in ourselves we can’t or don’t want to deal with by attributing them to others. Essentially we off-load the emotional baggage we don’t want to acknowledge onto others, which often gives us permission to behave in ways that are unhelpful. Projection allows us to make everyone else responsible for our misery, gives us a way to continue self-shame by shaming others, and gives legitimacy for our behavior.

All humans do this, so psychological projection isn’t a matter of character strength or weakness. It’s a way our souls have developed to cope with emotions with which we might not be ready to address.

Add God into the mix, and a relationship that is often an hour on Sunday, and you begin to understand why clergy are perfect targets for projection. A few of the projections that stick onto clergy: if my pastor loves me, then God loves me or if I do things for my pastor, I’m really doing things for God (and God will love me). We take the place of adult children with whom parents have broken relationships, spouses and partners who aren’t “perfect,” and any number of human relationships. Too often, because clergy get all this positive gunk projected onto us, we are not fully engaged with our negative selves and souls…but that’s another post.

Reading the Gospels with an eye to projection and we see it’s everywhere. Jesus is constantly a target of projection. The Pharisees project their own insecurity about faith onto the tax collectors and sinners. The tax collectors and sinners project their stuff onto each other. Projection allows us to read all the women of the Bible as sexually suspect, when textually that’s not supported (and says a great deal about how the church has projected its fear of human sexuality onto women). Projection allows us to see Jesus as a super-nice guy who never offended anyone (he wasn't) and the Pharisees and Sadducees as the evil villains (they weren't). Projection often does that - paint people in broad strokes of the most awesome person ever or s/he who must not be named. Spiritual projection rarely allows for nuanced awareness. 

Jesus, however, doesn’t let people’s projections stick to him. He remembers the key rule about projection - it’s not about you. He sometimes gently, sometimes with a holy toughness, holds up that proverbial mirror to those he encounters and to us to invite us to see the aspects of ourselves for which we’d rather not take responsibility. He tells them parables. He confronts them, and at the end of it all, reminds us that we and all our off-loaded baggage are loved by God.

Lent is a time of self-examination, a time to gather the baggage we’ve off-loaded onto others and unpack it for ourselves. Some questions to explore with God’s help to reclaim our orphaned emotions and parts of ourselves include:

  • What might we be seeing in others that we don’t see in ourselves? Is there a person/group of people that are the subjects of sentences like, “She hates me,” or similar? What might happen if we acknowledged our dislike of another person? What qualities does that person seem to embody that challenge us the most?
  • Are you blaming others of behaviors for which there might not evidence? Projection is the vehicle by which someone who repeatedly lies can accuse another of lying with little clear evidence to support the claim. What of your behaviors are you seeking "evidence" to legitimize?
  • Which of your sentences start with You? A spiritual director once suggested that when I start emotionally charged sentences with you, it was a good indicator I was projecting. Reflect on the times we've all said, "You always (fill in the blank with a certain behavior)!" Then what happens if we take some time and reflect on how we engage in that certain behavior. 
  • What qualities do we readily see in others that we need to see in ourselves? Projection plays out broadly in negative qualities about others we don’t want to accept in ourselves - think about the number of male elected officials who espoused anti-gay policies who themselves were gay, but it can also be a reveal to the positive qualities we are unwilling to acknowledge in ourselves. For example, we can see a person and marvel at his spiritual qualities while ignoring those same qualities in ourselves. What are these qualities? What might happen if we realized God loves us fully with these qualities? 
  • What emotions are we fearful of confronting? Fear of feeling the weight of grief is the main projection I experience in others and in myself. Sadness and loss are the great wisdom-keepers of emotion, but claiming them in our lives is formidable. So projection is an easy out. Sadness and grief often allow us to act in ways that distance ourselves from people, then blame them for abandoning us. Projection is masterful at creating self-fulfilling prophecies to continue abandonment, loss, and grief.

Projections are all too often a way we form walls between others that allow us to continue to not love ourselves or our neighbors. Working with a spiritual director, therapist, or in a small group setting are excellent ways to become aware of our projections, and make no mistake, its hard work. God trusts us with hard work. 

Lent is a time to, with God’s help, to engage in the hard work of disintegrate these walls. Forty days of prayer and fasting, of self-examination and of study. Forty days to know ourselves and God better.


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