I had a couple of grumpy days last week and was reminded how easy it is to be a prickly pear when I’m not in a cheerful mood. On those days it’s easy to blame my poor behavior/attitude on particulars. For example: It’s because I’m feeling ill, or because I’m bogged down with mundane chores; worn out from childcare; sad and depressed; or disappointed with this and that. I then follow up those rationalities with this: If I wasn’t feeling this way, I’d be kinder, more loving, gentle, patient, forgiving, or playful.
But thanks to C.S. Lewis, I’ve learned (reluctantly) to be more objective. A person could go their whole life thinking they were patient and kind only because their unique circumstances spared them from ever being tested. They thinks they’re kind, of their own virtue, only because they’ve never been provoked.
Here is what C.S. Lewis says in, Mere Christianity:
“We begin to notice, besides our particular sinful acts, our sinfulness; begin to be alarmed not only about what we do, but about what we are. This may sound rather difficult, so I will try to make it clear from my own case. When I come to my evening prayers and try to reckon up the sins of the day, nine times out of ten the most obvious one is some sin against charity; I have sulked or snapped or sneered or snubbed or stormed. And the excuse that immediately springs to my mind is that the provocation was so sudden and unexpected: I was caught off my guard, I had not time to collect myself. Now there may be an extenuating circumstance as regards those particular acts: they would obviously be worse if they had been deliberate and premeditated.
On the other hand, surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding. In the same way the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man: it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am. The rats are always there in the cellar, but if you go in shouting and noisily they will have taken cover before you switch on the light.”
Realizing rats are hiding in our cellar shouldn’t discourage us, however, it should ground us.
A rat trap (honest introspection) won’t catch all the rats at once. The goal isn’t to see the rats and think we can have them all gone within a single day; rather, we acknowledge them as they appear, knowing that our Pilgrim’s Progress is a lifelong journey. “[B]eing confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 1:16)” We can’t expect to conquer our problems by turning a blind eye: we must face them. And when we face them, we must be careful to avoid the false solution of projection.
Projection is when we split off a part of ourselves we don’t like (read: are ashamed of) and project it onto someone else. We do this by finding someone (usually a friend, family member, or perfect stranger) who is worse behaved than we are in some particular sin, and then we project our same sin onto them so we can feel purified of it. Their excess sin absorbs our lesser sin, creating an illusion that it doesn’t exist.
For example, someone who regularly overspends will look for an egregious person who is extremely materialistic or a reality-show hoarder, make the comparison, and conclude they don’t spend too much after all. Now take “spends too much” and fill in the blank with any issue you can think of, and you get the picture. Another word for projection is scapegoating.
We do this very thing with the rats in our cellar. Most of the time we’re blind to them, but every once in a while, when caught off guard, we’re forced to acknowledge their existence. Now, we can either grab those rats and toss them into other people’s dirtier cellars (meanwhile, they just come running home through the gaps in the walls, nestling back into their warm little corners while we mount the creaking steps, switch off the light, and leave the room), or we can start taking ownership and deal with them responsibly.
Some may think this is a negative way of looking at things, like nit-picking. But it’s not about self-deprecation and striving for perfection (which is impossible). It’s simply choosing to be honest and humble; taking responsibility for shortcomings instead of always blame-shifting (which we’re so wont to do). They say “whatever you feed will grow,” so, let’s make a conscious effort to stop feeding the rats.
“If a sudden jar can cause me to speak an impatient, unloving word, then I know nothing of Calvary love. For a cup brimful of sweet water cannot spill even one drop of bitter water, however suddenly jolted.” ~Amy Carmichael