In the Sermon on the Mount in the Christian New Testament–specifically, the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 7–Jesus says: “Judge not that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce, so will you also be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”
I’ve been aware of this profound insight for as long as I can remember, but have, over the years, changed my thinking with respect to how I now interpret it.
I used to think that this statement was, primarily, a prohibition: something we should not do.
And I still think it is.
But I now see it as even more of an observation; if you will, a description. It’s what a modern-day psychologist would call “projection.”
Think about it. As they sometimes say in sports, “a good offense is a good defense.” So is it, too often I’m afraid, that the easiest way to try to “defend ourselves”–even from ourselves, when it comes to something we may find threatening or uncomfortable, even unacceptable about ourselves–it is to “find something wrong” in or about someone else.
It’s called “projection.”
Just as so often what we may find most unacceptable or unattractive or unseemly or whatever in someone else, how it has a strange way of being not unlike too much of the same thing in ourselves.
Again, that’s “projection.”
In fact, “projection” can involve the “process” of interpersonal relations as much as the “content.” For example, if I can shift my “anxiety” (about whatever, and in whatever way I may express it) to you, and therefore somehow manage to get you to “be anxious for (even with) me”–that’s another form of “projection.” This time, involving the “process” even more than the “content” (whatever it is I may be so “anxious” about).
In other words, in managing to get someone to “be anxious for or with me,” not only am I not learning how to “manage my own anxiety” in reasonably constructive ways, the “someone else” isn’t learning how to “manage her/his anxiety” either, because s/he’s too involved trying to “manage mine.”
What I’m describing applies to any relationship or multiplicity of relationships in any setting. Not the least of which involves family life. Or as I often explain: in healthier families, those involved do a better job taking care of (managing) their own emotional business; whereas in less healthy families, too many people are trying to take care of someone else’s emotional business and therefore not doing a very good job taking care of their own.
And sometimes, in families or workplaces or churches or wherever, the kind of “projecting” I am here describing (involving the “process” even more than the “content”): it gets focused primarily on a particular person (or persons). In which case, the most “anxious” person/s in (what is called) the “system” end/s up controlling the entire “system.”
Let me illustrate. More than in any previous experience, I began to re-interpret Jesus’ “Judge not that you be not judged” and “Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but not the log in your own?”–I began to re-frame this remarkable insight when I accepted a call, in my mid-life, to pastor a fairly small church.
This particular congregation represented at least a century’s worth of notable “family
dysfunction.” As in, for example, the fact that some 35 ministers had served the church across its checkered history, an average pastoral tenure of roughly three years. Thus, the value of a minister, in such a setting, it was not unlike asking Elizabeth Taylor the value of a “husband.” Or for that matter, asking a teenager the value of (yet another) “father” when his mother happens to be on her fifth marriage.
Indeed, in such “dysfunctional systems” the primary “conflict management” strategy, on the part of the “most anxious,” it gets reduced to such extremes as either “fight” or “flight,” either “get rid of,” or “get away from.”
So I accepted that call as both a challenge and an experiment. I’d been counseling ministers and their families for years. Now it was my turn. How well could I “define” myself in such a context? Believing, as I do, that this is always the most important task in life–defining ourselves adequately in whatever our circumstances, lest we allow our circumstances to define us.
This is particularly true in church life–at least among most Protestant varieties–where however large or small the congregation, that’s how many “bosses” the typical pastor gets to “answer to.” That’s a lot of people telling you “what to do” and “how to do it.” And if you’re not adequately “self-defined” (especially in relation to God), you’re apt to “go crazy” (in some way or other) sooner or later. As in, for example, the ultimate “crazymaker”: that of having “responsibility” without “authority.”
In fact, there’s an abundance of research that suggests that such dysfunctional “organizational dynamics” as I’ve just described account for too many incidents of ministerial malfeasance. What gets “acted out” on the part of this or that minister who gets “too caught up in” the drama characteristic of most churches.
The fact that I “lasted” 16 years (more than five times the average pastoral tenure) in serving a church where no minister could ever be “good enough”–without any scandal–suggests that I managed to “prove my theory”: the importance of adequate “self-definition” in circumstances meant for me (or anyone else in such a role) to “lose oneself” somewhere in the midst of such distracting, disruptive interpersonal drama.
And what was most characteristic–as I came to understand–it was how such “projecting” had become so normative in the culture of that particular church.
This not only involved those in the congregation who “projected” whatever may have been so stressful or threatening or unfulfilling in their lives onto me, it also involved the “most anxious people” shifting (“projecting”) their discomfort (their “anxiety”) onto others in the congregation; at least those who were available, however unwittingly or complicit, in allowing it to happen.
The net result of which was a fairly dysfunctional “system” (as it were, a “family”; indeed, one that had developed across more than a century) in which the most “anxious” people were allowed to “control the system,” most often in the form of who got the most “upset” about whatever, who was the most “threatened” about whatever (in particular, “change” of some kind or other), even whomever it may have been who most easily “got her/his feelings hurt” over this or that perceived slight or disappointment.
Not that “judging”–making important decisions and assessments (hopefully in a reliable and discerning way)–isn’t different (and just as important and necessary) from merely “condemning” in a reactive, “projective” way.
Nor that legitimate “criticism” (of you or me or anyone else) isn’t comparably necessary and important. “Criticism” being, in fact, the hardest thing in life to accept, and the second-hardest thing to give–at least constructively.
There’s a difference, however, between “constructive criticism” and mere “projecting.” The discerning of that difference being surely one of life’s most important and difficult tasks; with anyone’s success at doing so having more to do with being adequately “self-defined” than anything else.