I remember, very distinctly, a conversation from quite a few years ago in which the person speaking with me characterized another person with whom we were both familiar as among the two or three most arrogant people s/he had ever known. I got a huge kick out of this remark because, had I myself been constructing such a list, my conversation partner would also have been on it, along with that other person.
We’ve all, I suppose, met the avaricious person who is convinced that everybody is motivated by greed, the lustful person who imagines that all people are driven solely or largely by the same urge, the ambitious or power-hungry person who attributes her driving desire to everybody around her, the unbeliever who is certain that nobody sincerely believes, the dishonest person who regards everybody else as a thief like himself, and so forth.
This is, I suppose, something of what Sigmund Freud meant by “projection.”
I just came across a couple of paragraphs that strike me as offering an extraordinarily, even painfully, obvious example of such “projection”:
“Over the years, I have developed an extreme and visceral aversion to [name of relatively little known Mormon writer deleted] and what he represents. His boundless narcissism and namedropping, as well as his openly expressed disdain for anyone who disagrees with him or does not appear to worship him now and then, have only served to deepen this aversion. . . .
“This would not be an issue if [the Mormon writer in question] did not continue to shamelessly promote himself and his particular brand of Mormon beliefs as if they were somehow sacrosanct or beyond the purview or right of others to question, but I guess he just can’t help himself.”
The irony here is that these paragraphs were written by, in my judgment, one of the most narcissistic, self-congratulatory, haughtily disdainful, and dogmatic message board posters I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter. And name-dropping? His principal argument in support of his personal atheism is the fact that a large majority of the roughly 2200 members of the elite National Academy of Sciences aren’t theists.
The irony of his comment, above, was too transparently obvious to miss.
Projection is a debilitating error. It interferes with our ability to accurately perceive our social environment. It’s not far distant from solipsism. And, while it can sometimes be done positively and rather naïvely, as when innocent people imagine that those around them are as guileless as they themselves are, it’s most commonly done negatively and with hostility, and it can trap people in a prison of cynicism and suspicion that they have freely created for themselves.
We should continually pray — and I emphatically include myself in this admonition — for clarity of vision, which, among other things, includes the capacity to see others for themselves and not to read our own desires, incapacities, weaknesses, temptations, and quirks into them.