The ordained are no strangers to projection.
A colleague once commented that the reason Episcopal clergy wear white albs is to provide clearer screens for our projection-happy parishioners.
There are classes and groups in seminary where serious-looking professors and guides talk to you about how projection works, why it happens, and most importantly, how you can avoid buying into it. “Don’t become everything they see in you,” these well-meaning sages urge. “That way lies madness.”
It is good advice. If you want a quick trip to an identity crisis, try to buy into every single word someone says about you, after you’ve spoken publicly. In my experience, roughly 80% of what is said (being conservative here) isn’t about you at all. It’s whatever they associate with you, or what you said, or the shoes you wore, or a sound they heard, or how they woke up feeling that day.
In recent weeks, I’ve been listening with great attention to what has been said about ‘young people these days’ both inside and outside of the church. Now, as I am a youngish person myself, I have always heard a lot of this sort of talk. (I’m unclear as to why. Maybe people think we have a club? That I can carry the good word back and reason with the rest of my people?)
I’ve kept a bit of a list in my head, through the years of the ways we are defined by others–right now, there’s been an uptick in ‘young people’ talk, both inside and outside of the church. Tons more things have gone on that list. Church officials have amped up the effort to explain who these young people are, and pretty much everyone in society wants to explain why these young people are currently out in the streets of every major city in the country/world, and seem disinclined to leave.
Don’t be shocked, but that list in my head is overwhelmingly negative. Young people don’t like religion, and have no faith; we are inept at social relationships–bad at community and responsibility, but addicted to the internet and social media at alarming rates. We’re uneducated, yet drowning in debt, (because we’re bad with money!) We’re lazy, selfish, and immature, choosing to stay in a perpetual state of adolescence rather than get careers and move out/leave grad school/Americorps/Teach for America. We’re perpetually trapped in a web of media, consumption, and shallowness from which we shall never escape, because we are too blissed out on cell phones and privilege to know any better.
See? Negative list! (Also, somewhat contradictory. But no matter.)
I should point out that with the exception of some truly enraging articles in the Washington Post and Slate.com, the people who have made off-handed remarks along these lines to me, know me. And they like me. (The gentleman who told me that people under 35 only understood retributive justice and physical violence, because our brains hadn’t fully developed, also made a point every week to tell me how inspiring he found my sermons.) These aren’t thoughtless or mean people by any stretch.
It’s not that they look at me and think, “My God, there stands the most spoiled narcissist ever conceived on this planet, and someone should immediately deprive her of all technology post-haste, lest the problem get worse. WHY IS SHE SPEAKING?!”
(At least, I sincerely hope not. Otherwise, I’m going to get a serious complex.) For almost everyone I’ve interacted with, after a few minutes of talking, their images of ‘Young Person’ soon give way to the reality…partially.
Problematically, though, many people also hold onto their image of this mythical ‘Young Person” who dwells out in the ether. So, despite the fact that they can know, standing in front of them! many awesome, hard-working, intelligent, (and broke, and jobless, and overeducated-for-today’s-economy) young people, this perception remains. And it’s not helpful.
Driving back from diocesan convention a few weeks ago, I asked my students to make a list of their own. I asked the them to make a list of songs that would define their generation for themselves. To explain to someone else, in your own way, what you care about. Define yourself. We’ve been trading songs on Spotify ever since. The results are fascinating. (If y’all want, I can ask them for permission to post a list.)
The #occupy movement is giving rise to a lot of things: a serious widespread conversation about our economic structure, a reconsideration about the unchecked power of our financial sector, and a lot of people learning how to be megaphones.
But I hope that something else that it’s enabling is a way for our generation to define itself, for us to start that process of putting aside others’ projections of us and voicing our own definitions.
Baby Boomers, ya’ll had Vietnam and Civil Rights for this. The Greatest Generation (and I remain unconvinced that you didn’t give yourselves that name, btw), had World War II. In each case, there was a transition between events happening to you, and events you actively caused and defined. (Full disclosure: I’m not sure where Generation X’s event was. Want to jump in on this one? Or did you have your own, and I’m unclear on it?)
While we participated and lived through Columbine, 9/11, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, those were events defined, and triggered by others.
That was someone else’s list we got handed.
Here’s hoping we’re now building our own list.