You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird
The current flap over whether our National Cathedral Choir should sing at the Inauguration is the present arena in which a lot of passions are flowing at cross-purposes. People are in very different places. For the record, I fully support what Bishop Mariann Budde and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry have said in defense of the choir singing, but my heart is stirred by the pain of those who feel betrayed.
I am still trying to understand the feelings that have been unleashed, manipulated, and magnified not just in the recent election but in the American public square since roughly 1990. This is not an attempt to say anything definitive, just to notice a piece of the puzzle.
There are very concrete fears and resentments stirring for people threatened with the
loss of health insurance, people on the verge of retirement when Social Security and Medicare are in jeopardy, people whose families may be divided by deportation, people who may have to publicly register their religion at a time when their religion makes them a target of abuse and violence. Others are afraid of terrorism, the financial hardship to support those who cannot fully support themselves, the loss of jobs and changes in culture caused by immigration.
But, perhaps because I am deep into Eric Fromm’s classic, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, I cannot stop seeing the deeper processes at work in people, the surging of so many painful dynamics. We can’t ignore the psychological dynamics at play, in individuals and in the collective.
For whatever reason, the President-elect stirs our responses to experiences with narcissistic sado-masochistic behavior. Anyone who has ever been bullied, sexually abused, victimized by a domestic violence, harassed for any reason, mocked, belittled, or ostracized is subject to having old feelings brought up.
How that plays out is not simple. There can be PTSD flashback experiences, narcissistic abuse syndrome with feelings of fear, confusion, inner turmoil, and all that goes with co-dependency; identification with one’s status as victim claiming a kind of moral authority and exemption for Jesus’s “love ethic” born of innocent suffering; or – and here’s where it gets really complicated – variations on Stockholm Syndrome in which the victim identifies with the abuser. That means – now ponder this – two victims of the same kind of abuse may respond to a narcissistic personality (or someone perceived to be a narcissistic personality) with opposite reactions. One will fear and loathe him. The other will cling to him like a beloved parent or even savior. The two people may be at each other’s throats, not despite but because they have suffered the same or similar wounds.
Add to that tangled web a dynamic Fromm calls “group narcissism.” To begin with narcissism isn’t just arrogance. It is an inflated view of one’s own importance, being consumed by a deep need for the admiration of others, and an incapacity for empathy. But the arrogance is all on the surface. The Mayo clinic definition says, “Behind this façade of self-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that is vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”
Not a happy way to be in the world. So, what is “group narcissism?” Fromm says, when individuals are belittled and scorned, they want to belong to a group that is great, strong, powerful, commanding respect and instilling fear.
So, where does this leave us as the Church? I don’t know. It definitely would not help to go about pathologizing the political convictions of others. But we might benefit from a touch of humility, curiosity, and compassion. Psychology does not answer the question. But it is one of the voices – along with theology, Scripture, and traditional social justice teachings – that informs our answer.
One thing I do get from this psychology piece is that a lot of people are hurting and our judgments of them will not help or heal. I am sometimes taken aback by the emphatic repudiation of Christian norms, derived from Scripture and enshrined in the Baptismal Covenant (e.g., to seek and serve Christ in all people, to respect the dignity of every human being) by people who are ostensibly Christians. I am mystified by hate-filled rants against Mexico (not undocumented workers but the whole nation). This list goes on. We are dividing up and fighting in ways that are hard to comprehend. Most days I feel buffeted from the left and the right alike in ways that seem utterly beyond the bounds of civil discourse.
One thing I know: there are stories behind these impassioned statements. Stories I have not heard. There are people with something at stake. That something may be very tangible and clear at least in their imaginations. But in most cases, there is a lot stirring of which even the person with the forceful opinions is not aware. How can I know his or her experience? How can I know what that person has at stake?
I can ask! I can inquire! I can ‘hold space’ for a human being to tell the story lying behind the passions and the behavior. Daryl Davis, whose story is told in the documentary, Accidental Courtesy, is a stellar example. A black man, he has converted 200 members of the KKK – not by arguing with them, not by calling them names, but by listening to them. http://accidentalcourtesy.com
It is a cardinal virtue to know the situation, to plug into the reality at hand. If I am to have any hope of acting wisely and lovingly, I need to stop and breathe long enough to realize I don’t know what I’m dealing with and perhaps to ask a few questions that might help both of us find out.