The Project of Identifying Yourself

My CPE unit is wrapping up with the residents and final evaluations always bring up some discussion around our relational or interpersonal dynamics. We talk about each other. They talk about me and what I do with them. I talk about them and what they do with me.

We broach subjects like the one I was talking about with Eddie, a friend and therapist. Me and Eddie have our own rhythm for discussing the world’s issues, so the conversation is one we’ve had in pieces before, even though that conversation wasn’t part of final evaluations in the fall unit of CPE.

Essentially, the conversation was about projective identification, a psychodynamic concept that has to do with another concept called projection. I’m not a specialist in psychodynamic theory so my views are imprecise. Nonetheless, projection is an unconscious process where a person extends, casts, or projects an unwanted image away from the self and upon another. The casted “image” can be a trait, quality, or part of the self and not only an image per se. I use image in my work because it connects with my pulls from Relational-Cultural Theory and relational images. Think of the projected thing as thrown, casted, and rejected.

The projected image, feelings, and traits are operative in the relational dynamics with the one projected upon. Projections are sent things. They indicate aspects of ourselves that we don’t accept for whatever reason. They may not be good parts. They may be socially unacceptable, contradictory to some ethic or value we hold. They are aspects of the self that are, on their faces, not acceptable. They must be sent away.

Projections are normal, frequent, and probably always happening in humans. Again, they are unconscious, which means they’re generally out of awareness. We know projections occur but we don’t know when ours are operating. They are, in a word, unavailable. They are unseen by us. They usually emerge in, through, or as part of conflict. Strong reactions are almost always indicators of projections.

I never read that verse of scripture because it feels offensive! Or, every time I meet with him, I feel exhausted. Or, we keep going over the same issue in my workgroup. Or, those two argue every time they talk. Or, he always finds a way back to such and such. Strong reactions.

The related concept of projective identification is where the other person receives and cooperates with the projection. The projections are evoked or created in the other. Think of the projection as a judgment, trait, belief, or image that’s sent and think of the identification as an acceptance of what’s sent. It’s identified with, accepted, enacted, and taken to be true. This, too, is an unconscious process.

A person doesn’t consciously agree to accept the meanings, opinions, and views sent over, but it happens as part of relating. And many of these dynamics make relationships between people shine. You think your clinical pastoral supervisor cares, and that thought impacts your willingness to open to him in a unit of clinical pastoral education. Projecting upon him, qualities of compassion and aptitude may enable you to trust that supervisor as you consider the difficulties of patient care in a hospital. That supervisor may take up that projection, embody care and concern for you as a chaplain. The relationship grows from the projection and the identification.

In the negative, how do you know these are working? One key is conflict. When an expectation is unmet. Every unmet expectation doesn’t eventuate into a conflict but those that do indicate these dynamics. When you’re experiencing the same interior, relational, or professional conflicts; when those conflicts emerge repetitively, these two dynamics are at work. They may not be the sole dynamics or even the primary ones, but they lurk and matter. Again, they are normal, common, even natural. Humans being humans means humans projecting upon and identifying with other humans.

It may be worth it to get consultation. In chaplaincy education, we consult with other educators in communities of practice. Those communities are professional circles of trust where we discuss our work with students and how those relationships are going. We get feedback. Sometimes the feedback leads to additional steps for reflection. Sometimes we finalize issues in a few pointed minutes of paying attention together.

All of this leads me to say that the project of identifying yourself is long. The work and service you bring to the world, when you’re at your best, is in locating who you are and committing to that person. Who you bring to the world has to be who you are and not who I’ve made you to be, thought you to be, crafted you to be.

As a pastoral theologian, I’d call that projective stuff a potential idolatry. It is potentially re-making a person who is already made. It is potentially requiring a person made by God to be re-made by me. So becoming aware of the dynamics is important. I don’t want to re-make people.

I’d rather help liberate people when they’ve been remade by people in their backgrounds. I’d rather cooperate with God and with God’s long work of making you and me back into who we were. Isn’t it God’s work to make us who we were, to return us to who we were when others have revised us?

I’m a certified educator and I work, in a biased way, toward the liberation of my students. I want them to come increasingly closer to themselves as they practice ministry so that what they offer in ministry is a beautiful expression of integrity. They offer themselves. They offer who they are rather than the person they are told – through projections or what not – to offer.

I want students in CPE to get along in the project of understanding who they are. I want them to get along in the work of giving and receiving sustaining grace while they’re in the process of understanding themselves. I want students to give who they are as part of their deep commitment to personal, social, cultural, and communal liberation.

I’m tossing images like anybody. Hopefully most of my projections are biased toward liberation and wholeness. That’s my hope. But when I do what we all do, one of y’all can bring me to better awareness or send me to my community of practice, point me to my pastor, direct me to my therapist or to my prayer room.

Or all of em.

Trauma, Suffering, Pain

The word trauma is a fashionable way of talking about suffering, and I find discussing trauma to be accurate and meaningful at many points. At the same time, I think that the word conjures defenses that make it hard to see suffering and pain, two words I prefer using when I’m trying to nuance the various ways people hurt.

Trauma should probably be diagnosed. It should be investigated in the body and the background with care, attentiveness, and skill. To assign something as traumatic brings an entire mechanism of treatment. As it should.

However, the skill and patience required to accurately say something is a trauma isn’t always necessary to call something painful. Sometimes addressing pain is a quicker focus. Plus, pain (or suffering) is always a part of trauma.

Whenever you talk of these three–trauma, suffering, or pain–there’s pain. So, querying your pain is a way to be healed even as trying to diagnose whether you’ve been traumatized. Where you hurt is an indication of where you need healing. You can call it trauma if that’s discerned. Or you can say you’re suffering or struggling or in pain.

I find this a help to me as I pray about my own pain. I know where I hurt and I try to survey that with God. God knows where I’ve been traumatized and God surveys that with me. I’m more skilled with what I know hurts, and God is more skilled (and patient and attentive) to the other things I don’t always yet know.


I read a reflection by Rabbi Brant Rosen who was discussing a number of things related to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I read once that Rosh Hashanah begins the “days of awe,” which made me smile. The high, celebratory holiday is followed in a few days by Yom Kippur, the Jewish time of atonement.

Rabbi Rosen wrote that, from last year to this one, many things have happened worth remembering, worth pausing. He narrated how significant it is that many of us have been grieving over the year. Grieving who was lost, particularly the more than four million who have died to Covid-19. Grieving unemployment. Grieving disorientation. Grieving an irretrievable life that won’t return.

His suggestion was to use the series of holy days to pause and to reflect. He suggested that we pause over the griefs, using a relevant Jewish custom to spend a year of mourning and praying the Kaddish, but also to pause over the wins, achievements, and triumphs. He noted that it is a scientific victory to, in the same year, locate a virus and a vaccine.

Even with the liturgical moment, in life routines, of reminding oneself that life and death come to us all, there is beauty in pausing, anchoring into what is good, worthy, honorable. Pausing to appreciate the undeniable blessings even while appreciating the undeniable losses. There’s an honesty there, no?

Rabbi Rosen had me considering another time of pause. In my hospital work, I’ve participated in moments of pause when a patient dies. Surrounded by medical staff, many of whom have worked to save the deceased person’s life, we pause in silence, to reflect upon the work and effort, to honor the dead, to acknowledge the loss.

“The Pause” as it’s called in medical literature doesn’t happen all the time, at every death, or after every code, but it is one of those liturgical acts worth using in hospital settings. A team, and anyone on the unit or service line who participated in caring can participate, gathers, pauses in intentional silence, and leaves. A chaplain can lead the moment but anyone else can too.

The pause allows for a gathering together, a joining with others when medical technologies have failed or when it was time for death to arrive. Everyone pauses. Pauses to think of the losses and the gains. Pauses to think of what dreadful things happened. Pauses to think of what great things happened.

All of it will leave us disoriented just enough but, somehow, also oriented toward a consideration of life and humility and death.

“You Already Know Enough…”

I was texting with Sister Reverend Gina and Brother Reverend Eddie, rehashing details of an upcoming meal we’d have. In my calendar, these sacred and eucharistic occasions pop us as the Black Brilliance Gathering.

We got off that subject and into a query I posed to them about qualifying examinations, the exams I’m preparing to take around May and through August. I have four of them: psychology, psychology of religion, theology, and pastoral theology. Incidentally, if you think of any of those words, any combinations of those phrases between now and August, whisper words of prayerful intent for me!

Gina and Eddie, partners of mine in these doctoral streets, took their exams at the end of the summer. Their wisdom, as in all prior moments, was worth having. They were taking me to text school, answering my stated questions and answering the other ones that were abiding in my spirit. 

They were affirming me, teaching me, calming me. Somewhere after Gina had broken down the most concise truth about the exams, Eddie wrote, “You already know enough to pass.” 

After I experienced an immediate critique from all the ways and directions graduate school had trained into us at to that point, I breathed over his comment. It was what I needed even if I hadn’t asked. 

Now, I still was studying–and still am until May or June according to my timeline and plan. I am attending to a list of nearly 200 sources of books, articles, and chapters in all the times I’m not working my good job, exercising, fathering, and dating. I always have a book or two. Actually, I’m reading during some of that dating at this point in my great relationship.

I always have an document on my laptop collecting my collections from all these materials. I’m in preparation mode. And yet, Eddie’s words pull me into a depth with what I know, with what I have, with what I’m prepared with as I am. 

Now, he was addressing me and qualifying exams. But can’t you take his comment in your own directions? You already know enough to pass. You already know enough to…   

Trauma, Disparities, & the Exercise of Needed Distrust

I’m thinking about Dr. Susan Moore, a Black physician who recently died after battling for her own quality medical care and against Covid 19. And I’m thinking about a mother named Mary from a long time ago who was unmarried and who spoke sonnets about her experience of getting impregnated and carrying a baby whose existence was misunderstood from mystical beginnings.

Trauma, a word coming out of an early surgical model for discussing injury, has come to encompass a full set of pains. Trauma is an injury, a bewildering injury or set of injuries.

A trauma can occur to a person or a people. A lot of people from many disciplines are talking about trauma these days, how it happens, what it means to be trauma-informed, etc. From anthropologists to neuro-scientists, chaplains and therapists, and social workers and teachers, lots of folk are discussing and working to respond to traumas in people.

There is language in these discourses about how a trauma is a discrete event in many cases. It happens; it ends. There is a healthy discussion on when and if that’s always true. Some traumas do end. Some are protracted and are, in a real sense, unending. I won’t get so much into that but I want to write a little about the way trauma can return.

After occurring and “ending,” it/they can revisit persons in seen and unseen ways, through known and recognized forms, as well as through insidious and unacknowledged means. Sometimes we see the re-visitation coming. We anticipate it. When we do, we can prepare and draw upon resources to help through the revisited pains. When we don’t see them coming, we are likely more reactive, doing anything in response to the unexpected-but-somehow-still-known.

Disparities in healthcare and medical treatment can be a means of trauma recurrence. Unfairness and mistreatment become a mechanism whereby trauma returns. Now, you’d have to accept a cultural transmission of trauma to appreciate this reality where earlier experiences are translated and handed over to subsequent persons related to those who have experienced trauma. In other words, what happened in prior times affects these times. There is another post somewhere in this direction that combines cultural trauma (at least that type of trauma) with attachment theory to explain this transmission and the patterns and connections making this possible.

Still, interacting with a disparity in the emotional neighborhood of a prior trauma is an uneasy psychological experience. I’m thinking about healthcare but this is true in other places. Whenever a person meets the reminders of prior pain, the body recalls and sends all its resources to preserve life. Emotional life. Spiritual life. Physical life. You don’t want to be hurt. You never do. So if you’ve been hurt, if your people have been hurt, you consciously or unconsciously respond to the disparity, the trauma, at least because of deep memory.

This is evidence of what, in The Inward Journey, Howard Thurman called a “strange quality of renewal.” The response to the disparity is to, in some way, resist it as a means of death. Resistance is a sign, a strange one perhaps, of life. Thurman says, “this is the way of life.” When you’ve experienced traumas and bruising pains, and when those are revisited among you, your reactions are little signs that life is present.

The exercise of distrust by Black people, then, is a needed one. It is needed because that distrust is evidentiary of a different trust, a trust in life. I call it everlasting life. Black distrust of the traumatic opens the world to the actual agitating presence of the God of life, the Source of life. Distrust of one system illuminates abiding trust in another. Distrust of medical science or research practices, say, points toward the life bonds elsewhere. Isn’t the question, “how do I find the life here?” Or “What does trust look like then?”

Take it from there. Look for the next sign of life. But name that life force. Relish the presence of Spirit. Moving against the brokenness and the flagrant disregard of life is a spiritual resistance that itself is being visited in the world through your own act of resistance.

Listen to the Spirit. Act with the Spirit to preserve life, to vanquish non-life. Do what will counter the forces of death and what will make right – or righter – what was wrong the first place.

Pedestrian Crossings

Illinois law requires drivers to stop at pedestrian crossings, sometimes hardly noticed lines in the street that are designated as safe places to cross. These crossings aren’t marked by stop signs. There is no stop light. There’s only a set of lines. In more resourced neighborhoods, those lines are accompanied by stand out posts with a kind of stick figure. Words are printed that tell you something about the law, words that are, if you’re unfamiliar with them, a distraction or an annoyance.

The truth is, these crossings aren’t always safe places. For drivers or pedestrians. It takes patience for a pedestrian – perhaps one on the phone – who is standing near a crossing to wait. It takes effort to gesture that you’re waiting to cross and not being ambiguous about your intent. These crossings are sometimes located near actual stops or lights, and since pedestrians may not be ready to cross, interpretation takes work. Designated places can be dangerous places.

Pedestrians dart out or jog out or walk in dark clothing at night, expecting drivers to yield. Drivers are distracted, have slower reaction time, or under the best circumstances, sometimes fail to notice and stop. The crossings themselves aren’t always clear since lines can be hard to see, covered in sand or snow. They can be so neglected by municipal services that they are invisible from wear, from walking, from untending.

These crossings are there. They invite us, or require us, to slow down, a whole related issue. Why walk or drive in a manner that you can’t slow down to stop? What are we doing that we can’t notice the speed of the other? Why are we so unempathic? What makes us assume that the other will pace for us when we won’t pace for them?

These crossings are there and they bring questions, queries for the head, heart, and hands. One of my theologian teachers, Nancy Bedford, said once that people drive for themselves, that they don’t drive for others. She said this in a way that she’s said much of her theological brilliance, when speaking about embodied matters. It was an “offhand” comment, inasmuch as Dr. Bedford makes those. She wasn’t talking about Christology (necessarily) but she was. She is, in a way, always talking Christologically.

Those crossings are there, worth seeing, worth responding to, worth thinking about. The pedestrians and drivers are there. All things worth noticing. 

Roots of Nonconformity

Photo Thanks to Julia Caesar

Photo Thanks to Julia Caesar

James Loder wrote that “we all have a root of nonconformity, an urge to break away from the common practice of our everyday world.” James Loder was brilliant in his summary of the developmental stage he was writing about.

We all want to break away from the common. We don’t necessarily want to reject the known. We aren’t necessarily exhausted by the everyday world. But we have a root in us to extend beyond it.

I think that’s true for a lot of life. We’re made for the paradox. We’re here for the commitment, the comfortable, and the common. And we’re here for the edge.

I hope that you have the room to appreciate the common and to push against it. I’m not the best at giving you that room, but I know you need it. I know you need that constructive, creative space to water those roots of nonconformity.

It’s hard to raise you in a world that wants to wipe those roots out. It’s hard to know you need to conform enough to be safe; to conform enough to have options for freedom. It’s hard to know that balance. Of course, it’s a part of my walk of faith. I’m called to believe in the balance or in the paradox and the beauty beneath all those roots.

A Pope’s Parade, A Teenager’s Funeral

Photo Thanks to Krzysztof Puszczynski

Photo Thanks to Krzysztof Puszczynski

Last weekend the pope visited the United States, and I’m glad that he came. He surprised and taught people by his unsettling edging toward the unseen even while speaking with politicians and other leaders.

Among my other reasons for gladness was the post-papal reflective moment I had when I read something about our propensity for godmaking. The article said we are compulsive in our godmaking. And I thought that we are also compulsive in our ability to leave the least mentioned and the unfairly mentioned least and unfairly mentioned.

A compulsion is a behavior that a person repeats without considering that behavior. It’s a repetitive unconscious gesture. We are compulsive in our godmaking, where we raise people and things to ultimate status. And we are, on the other hand, compulsive in our predilection for maintaining disinherited people at bottoms and edges of society.

There is a strange juxtaposition between the constant coverage of the pontiff and the unending stream of violence in Chicago. When I read that article, I thought just for a moment about how my friend and pastoral colleague was attending a funeral of a 14-year-old boy in the neighborhood while the pope was parading down East Coast streets. I thought about the terrible sounds of tears muffling used to be joy for a mother and a father whose child was dead before he understood how to open his high school locker with speed or how to drive or how to kiss his girlfriend or how to write a poem with that precise phrase.

TyJuan will never attend a college class, publish a memoir, see the pride on his mother’s face when he introduces her to his spouse or to his firstborn. And there will be no parades when he visits a city, no pictures when he meets a head of state, no tears shed when he blesses. Those tears at his funeral weren’t his mother’s last tears, but neither will nations get to weep because of splendid gifts he offers to the world. His brightness is dimmed.