Faith, Family, & Focaccia

A faith and culture Mommy blog, because real life gets all mixed together like that.


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Anthropomorphizing Worms: On Politics, Religion, and Projections

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.

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What I Do Believe: Day 19 of the April Poetry Challenge

I am an advocate. For many years this was my profession (and in a few short weeks it will be again), but regardless of whether or not I have been paid to vehemently defend my opinions to anyone who would listen, fighting for justice has always been my inclination.

That being said, I have made an effort to avoid most political debates on this blog for at least two reasons.

First, there are enough political blogs out there –  at least 417,000 more political blogs than are probably useful or helpful to the debate on any given issue. My opinions, no matter how brilliantly expressed, will be just one more drop in the fetid, polluted bucket of pundit-strewn waste water that is the political blogosphere.

For another reason, I’ve been undergoing a bit of personal growth over the last few years around the whole issue of “being right.” I really like to be right. My sense of self-worth is actually a little bit tied up in my ability to “win the argument.” Being on the right side of a debate is not a bad goal in and of itself, but there are other things that actually matter more in many cases – as I have realized from trying to teach this to my children. Things like kindness, and respectful listening, and openness to the possibility that there is more for me to learn about the topic at hand. Social justice is no less important to me now than it has ever been, but I am a bit suspicious of my ability to enter the debate in a way that will be both helpful and non-corrupting to my own soul.

Today, however, I am breaking my unwritten rule. I am doing so because I feel like I have to. I listened in on a conference call on Thursday that outlined the federal budget bill recently passed my the House of Representatives (ridiculously called the “path to prosperity”), and I can’t stay silent. I just can’t. It would cause me intense physical pain.

So, today’s poem is my effort to process my frustration. I don’t know that it will add anything terribly constructive to a debate in which the opposing sides barely recognize each other as human beings, but here’s hoping…


 

What I Do Believe

(a.k.a. My – admittedly feisty – response to a budget plan that has no chance to actually become law, but which is still both offensive and dangerous in its message and therefore demands a response.)

 

Do you want me to believe

that this “path” leads to my prosperity?

that you have constructed a ladder,

with no lower rungs,

that our economy can climb?

that rhetoric and messaging which make NO SENSE

are not paternalistic,

condescending,

a pat on the head for us silly people who believe in “equal opportunity”?

Do you want me to believe

that just because my family does not use “assistance” programs,

I’ll be better off if they are cut?

that my health will improve with 40 million more uninsured?

that my workplace will be more innovative if fewer students can afford college?

that my children will learn more if fewer classmates attend quality preschool?

that my food will be cheaper, or taste better, if more of my neighbors are hungry?

that my security will be ensured if the safety net is cut enough for “those people” to fall through?

Do you want me to believe

that personal responsibility is the only kind that is important?

that there is no community or societal version?

that demands for individual performance are fair

regardless of a cliff-strewn playing field?

and that you are NOT responsible to own the specifics of this plan

the programs,

and the people,

that would be starved by your unspecified “discretionary cuts.”

Do you really want me to believe

that nothing is more important

than deficit reduction?

not food?

not education?

not new jobs?

not even human life?

Not anything, in fact,

except Defense spending,

and, of course, $200,000 more for every millionaire.

I’m afraid I can’t believe all that. But I’ll tell you what I DO believe.

 

I do believe

that a strong society requires strong commitments,

from individuals and industries, yes,

and also from our government.

that rhetoric is meaningless

and messaging is often pretty lies.

and that you can best judge a path

by the steps it leads you down.

I do believe

that when a program helps my neighbor meet a genuine need,

it helps me!

A neighbor that gets preventative care

makes my health spending more efficient.

A diverse population with Pell Grants for college

gives me co-workers who will know things I do not.

HeadStart preschool for poor children

makes my children’s schools more effective at teaching.

Food stamps that go where there is need,

bring more dollars to my local grocery store.

And a strong safety net offers more security

than the proverbial rising tide,

if I ever find myself drowning.

I do believe

that personal responsibility works best

in a society that understands its own obligations.

that inequality exists

and batters down so many who could give so much

if we could give them a hand up.

that numbers on a page translate to lives,

to faces,

to opportunities

that disappear from view

if sweeping cuts deny society’s role

in individuals’ success.

And I do believe I know the two most important things.

My love of God, that is for me

I will not judge your faith, that’s not my place.

But loving neighbor as yourself, that’s for us all,

a golden rule that stands the test of time,

and culture,

and political persuasion.

And these two most important things convince me

that it DOES NOT MATTER

if any of the programs you would cut

are good for ME.

If they can help

the “least of these”

they are worth paying for.