I have never been very fond of worms. My first up-close encounter with the little, wriggling, invertebrate monsters was on a fishing trip with my High School bestie and his grandpa. We had two bait options: salmon roe and live worms. Without question the worms were vastly more attractive to the fish in our particular lake. I DIDN’T CARE! There was no way I was going to pick up a live worm with my bare hands and feel it’s mushy, squirming slitheriness on my fingers for the rest of the day. NO THANK YOU!
I have lived almost twenty years since that squeamish afternoon on a lake and I am thankful to say that I have matured a bit. I can now appreciate that worms do me a valuable service in my garden and I do not squeal or jerk violently away when one is unearthed by my digging. All the same, I am still not eager to touch them. I think it is the way they move – so snake-like. I can’t help feeling like their blind bobbing heads are searching for a way to wriggle up my sleeve to send shudders of revulsion down my spine.
The Gigglemonster also squeals when he sees worms…. but for a totally different reason. He is delighted by the icky little things! During recent spring weekends spent in intimate contact with the dirt of our flower beds the Gigglemonster has gotten giggly with excitement every time I unearth a new specimen for his inspection. He eagerly scoops them up with bare fingers, exclaiming over the way they undulate across his palms, and even crooning to them in his softest, most nurturing voice (the one he uses with babies and puppies).
The delight I cannot explain – unless by an allusion to the old nursery rhyme about what little boys are made of, and I try to make a point of resisting such gender stereotypes. The crooning, however, has a clear reason. He wants to reassure them. In his mysterious little four-year-old brain this comfort is clearly necessary because the worms are scared. After all, my violent spade work has just turned them out of their homes. What is more – apparently – they miss their Mommies. This is the reason he does not cherish any of his new “buddies” for an extended friendship. He has to put them back in the dirt so that they can find their Mommies again, “because little boys don’t like to be away from their Mommies.” (By the way, worms are all boys, according to my son, because they have no hair and girls have long hair. We haven’t gotten into the question of what the mommy worms look like. I don’t think my worm aversion could deal with the visual).
I share all of this with you not because my child is unbearably cute and the world needs to have evidence of that fact, but rather because his adorable anthropomorphic assumptions have me thinking.
It is easy to laugh indulgently about the silly ways that little boys ascribe human feelings and motivations to very non-human beings like worms, but perhaps there are parallels in adult life that are not nearly so silly. The particular inspiration for that conjecture is the Gigglemonster’s comments about little boy (worms) missing their mommies. It does not take a very long mental jump to interpret the reason for that belief. The Gigglemonster has been reacting a bit to my recent return to the workforce. Nothing too extreme, but he is clearly feeling the stress and needing even more reassurance and comfort than is normal for my already clinging youngest child. “Missing his Mommy” is how he feels, and he projects this feeling onto a very dissimilar being with only the thinnest veneer of justification for doing so. This is the pattern that suddenly struck me while simultaneously cringing and grinning at his one-way conversation with his worm friends.
It is just so easy to convince ourselves of the external reality of projections. So easy to believe that the attitudes or motivations we perceive are accurate. So easy to see another person – one much more similar to ourselves than a worm – and to honestly believe that we know where they are coming from. But, these beliefs are not necessarily any more accurate than my son’s deduction about the gender of hairless worms.
I am thinking particularly of the areas of human interaction that can exist in the absence of strong personal relationships, because relationships require some level of intimacy. When we know another person as an individual we have some awareness of their differences from ourselves. We experience them a separate. But our shrinking, digitized world is increasingly providing us with opportunities for interaction that lack this interpersonal, relational element. When those interactions also have the capacity to elicit strong emotional reactions we have a recipe for projections run wild.
I am thinking particularly of politics and religion.
Politics and religion. They have always been somewhat taboo subjects for polite conversation, of course, because of their tendency to engender strong emotions. In the age of online comment feeds, however, the taboo has been lifted. Why worry about being offensive when you are screened by the anonymity of a computer screen? And why consider the humanity of your adversary in a vitriolic word battle when those words are typed at arm’s length from your keyboard, or your smart phone screen?
Of course, it is not always apparent to us that we have stopped seeing other people as actual people – people with different thoughts and feelings than ourselves. In fact, on the surface it seems abundantly clear that we see nothing but their differences. But this is exactly the impression that the Gigglemonster’s worm-friendships helped me to recognize as a fallacy.
“Projection” is the term psychoanalysts use to refer to unconscious interpretations of another’s feelings or beliefs that arise not from that other person but rather from the person doing the interpreting. So, when we are engaged in a twitter battle with some faceless representative of the opposite side, and we are certain that we can precisely pin down their nefarious motivations for holding such an untenable position, the situation begs the question of exactly how we can be so sure. When our argument is not with a personal we actually know – someone with whom we have shared the kinds of interpersonal interactions that allow us to recognize them as a separate person who thinks and feels differently than we do, on what is this assurance based? Chances are, that sense of certainty is actually derived from projections.
In making these projections we have a least two possible paths to take.
The first is to imagine what feelings or attitudes we would be experiencing if we were exhibiting the behaviors we observe. In a sense, this is what I am doing when I squirm away from the wriggling residents of my garden. I see frantic-seeming motion and I subconsciously believe that I am interacting with a being under the influence of fight or flight instincts. My own heart beat elevates; I feel the sympathetic rush of adrenaline that tells me to lash out to protect myself; and I know that I want nothing to do with a creature acting under those kinds of stress. I am tapping into my less charitable tendencies and therefore ascribing antagonistic motivations.
In the case of garden worms, this does no real harm, of course. With people… it is not always so innocuous. I observe someone arguing for a position that I could not hold with moral integrity because of my belief system, and I assume they must lack moral integrity. I read arguments that from my lips (or typing fingers) would be ignorant, or arrogant, because they misrepresent the reality that I have observed, and I assume that willful ignorance or arrogance are character traits that define my opponent. I do not recognize the personal, individual humanity of the person with whom I am arguing and so I do not see that their position might come from a position of integrity within their own experience. And I know I am not alone. I have only to read one of the various open letters to some straw man archetype (“The mom on her iPhone” or “the gay supporting Christian”) to see evidence of this kind of projection. It is so much easier to win an argument with someone who does not really exist.
Of course, there is another way that projections can operate – one that is a bit more charitable. When my son projects his feelings onto garden worms he does so in an empathetic way. He looks for information about the situation they find themselves in and he projects onto that situation the way he would feel. This is a projection that elicits sympathy and efforts at understanding, however misplaced. In the end, he is probably no more successful at actually understanding the worms than I am, but his reaction to them is nurturing rather than antagonistic. He projects not his darkest side, but his most vulnerable, and therefore he reacts with compassion.
I don’t know that there is really much hope for genuine human dialogue in the realm of cyber communication. We are not conditioned to get to know one another before we challenge the comment we read after a news article. That takes too much time and actual human contact. All the same, if we are really going to be dealing with our own projections rather than the actual person on the other end of the comment thread, perhaps we could all take a tip from the Gigglemonster. Rather than projecting our hypothetical motivations for the words we read, let’s try projecting our empathy for the kinds of experiences that could produce such different beliefs.
I, for one, want to try…. at least with humans. I still don’t like worms.
May 21, 2014 at 6:26 pm
Lovely post that struck a chord with me. And for the record, when I was in fifth grade, I used to dig up worms from the playground dirt and chase the boys with them. I don’t know who that girl was, as I’m squeamish about seeing them in my garden now. Thanks for the trip down memory lane, and more important, the challenge to choose empathy.
May 22, 2014 at 2:05 am
Thank you. I think there is just something about childhood that exposes the raw bones of life and allows us to see the structure that everything else is hung upon. It is one of the great gifts of parenting for me that watching my children gets me back in touch with that simple understanding. Even if it means having to handle worms 😉