When I am on the receivin…

When I am on the receiving end of having to admit something that I have done, I find it easier if the person giving the difficult feedback says ‘I love you. You know that. I appreciate you a great deal and here is something I would like to say…’

I saw a documentary once that opened my eyes. It depicted the function of the colosseum in Rome. First, the documentary showed in blue the civilisation in Rome, and the empire that surrounded the Mediterranean. In red, surrounding the empire, was depicted all the dangers that threatened it: wild tribes, wild animals, conquered and rebellious peoples and slaves.

So the scene switches to the colosseum. Now, all that is threatening to the empire (in red) is placed in the centre, and the Romans are encircling them in blue. Of course the threats are defeated and the power of Rome is established, at least on a holiday afternoon in the arena. This is the liturgy (ritual) of Roman religion: our team wins, we are safe. (Sound familiar?) Every Western movie is a replay of this ‘containing on the screen’ the drama of what threatens the ‘good’ cowboys: the Indians and the outlaws. Even in Shakespeare the chorus in Henry V invites the audience to consider that ‘…this O’ (the globe theatre) could contain the ‘vasty fields of France’, so that the English can see Henry’s victory against the threatening French and feel safe against the present Spaniard threat.

Psychologically this process is known as ‘projection’ and it works every day to protect us from the pain of too much reality. We say ‘We are the good ones.’ ‘They’ are the baddies.’ Even children do it in their games. Remember they rhyme ‘I’m the king of the castle and you’re the dirty rascal?’

In order to avoid the painful truth that I, or parts of me, might be a dirty rascal I have to send all that onto some one else or somewhere else.
But here comes a complication. The aim of the game is to be able to own the truth of ‘dirty rascal’ parts of myself. Karl Jung asked ‘How would it be if the ‘enemy’ I am asked to love is me?’ This is not easy, and requires another kind of very safe environment, like the colosseum, only gentler, in order for us to find the strength to admit the truths of life that have been projected onto others.  

The other thing is that my self esteem is so weakened, that the process of owning my projections is hindered because I need to project the truth in order to feel any good at all. You know the way the sentence goes: ‘So I am like X, Y, and Z am I? That’s right, I am, and I am nothing!’ Here is another children’s game ‘No body loves me, everybody hates me, I’m gonna eat some worms!’

This is not true. There is no necessary connection between being fundamentally ‘ok’ and always being right. Just as there is no fundamental connection between sometimes expressing our dark side or projecting it onto others, and being ‘totally wrong.’ But the fundamental ‘ok-ness’ of ourselves has to be established first, before we have the strength to admit other, more uncomfortable truths into our lives.

When I am on the receiving end of having to admit something that I have done, I find it easier if the person giving the difficult feedback says ‘I love you. You know that. I appreciate you a great deal and here is something I would like to say…’

In any difficult circumstance what needs to be established first is the affirmation of a person’s ‘ok-ness’ before anything else happens. This is a step that is often left out in common language.
Person A has a problem which they express. Person B goes straight to a solution. ‘Don’t feel like that’ ‘Why don’t you try A. B, or C?’. What is missing is the first step of establishing the ‘ok-ness’ of the person with the difficulty.

In the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatious of Loyola, the first week of a month long retreat is spent in experiencing this first and most important truth: that before any ‘work’ is done to own our projections, or to change our lives, the foundation of knowing ourselves loved by God is laid.

Projection is not all bad however. I love  drawing pictures. I do not mean artwork that looks beautiful, but pictures that enable me to do what the Romans did: to project onto a screen something of my life so that I can put it ‘out there’.

 Often it feels as though ‘my life has got me’ rather than I have ‘got my life’. One way of recovering my sense of being ‘ok’ and to a degree in control is to make a decision that the things that cause me pain are not untouchable. They are not inexpressible. This takes a bit of courage in the first place, because what makes fears ‘inexpressible’ is the belief that ‘If you knew who I really am, you would hate me’. But the Scripture says ‘perfect love casts out fear’. A loving environment which is based on the foundation of God’s love for us, and then is replicated by a loving Church community can be the place where something that needs to be ‘projected’ can be expressed.

That is where the pictures come in. Drawing pictures in a playful environment is one way of getting a look at what causes pain in a way that is safe. After that it is possible to ask ‘So what does the Scripture say about this situation? What does the wisdom of the ages say about this situation? What do my friends say ‘about this situation’ (and not necessarily ‘to me’).

So the Romans had the first two steps in the process correct. They were confident enough not to blame themselves and then to go off and commit suicide. They had the capacity to project their fears into the arena. What they did not go on to do was to reflect critically on their lives. The same is true of the ‘Westerns’. Nothing was going  to stop the westward push, at the cost of the First Peoples of America, of white civilisation. The same is true in Australia. Nothing was going to stop the killing of Aborigines and the taking of their land. What makes the Australian situation so much more difficult is that we have not often had the strength even to ‘project’ our history  into movies. We are still unconsciously conflicted by all ‘arrivals by boat’ on Australian shores.

But the spiritual disciplines of the Church give us the opportunity to be free of those ‘fears and phantoms of the night’ which make us believe other than that we are unconditionally loved by God, and that in the context of that love, we are given the strength both to ‘project’ our lives onto a screen to ‘get a look at them’ and then to take them back, or go into ‘problem solving’ mode about them.

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About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell isnow a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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