Despite the risk of doing to you the very thing I dislike, I will nonetheless take the risk of making a few generalizations and predictions about you and me and others.
There are few things that people can say to make me instantly angry than, “You’re just saying that because…” I think I’m not alone in reacting that way, and the response, I think, is because people are assuming things about you. Have you noticed how poorly we respond to generalizations, even when we know that generalizations are just that – they’re not an attempt to say something about an individual. And yet we are often angered by them.
Why is that? We like the power to name, to self-describe, and have the authority to speak for ourselves. Someone making an assumption is taking the power to speak for you, that they know your innermost thoughts, and the implication is often that they know this better than you do yourself.
I remember in religious studies in middle school in Norway, my peers would make fun of beliefs from places where a person’s nails and hair are buried in secret places lest someone find them, and believing they give power over that person, cast a spell to harm them. My classmates’ laughter made me angry, but I didn’t have any knowledge or wisdom with which to refute it then. It was of course the assumption on my classmates’ part that they were better, more rational, superior that grated on me. Now, of course, I would probably ask them if they had a locket containing a loved one’s hair, or a possession from another person that held special meaning for them, and raise a quizzical eyebrow.
I’m not sure our anger when someone says “you’re only saying that because…” is any more rational than the belief that a lock of someone’s hair makes that person more present. But it does cause a reaction.
If making assumptions about others is so likely to cause anger, why do we still do it? Perhaps we think it does give us power over that person? Or that it makes us feel clever? Since we really can’t know another’s thoughts and feelings, let alone our own, it makes even less rational sense. So why do we do it? And have we always done it?
I know that Freud’s ideas, published around 1900, about a subconscious mind that influences our thoughts and actions must be one part of it. Freud’s big idea was that freely talking about our subconscious desires would heal us from neuroses. It seems to me that being able to talk without shame about ones’ feelings had an impact on people’s ability to understand and imagine what other persons think and feel. My speculation is that that contributed towards Western Europeans and North Americans’ (WENA) growing ability to accept the independence movements of former colonies, finally being able to identify with a bit with those countries’ drive to autonomy. The move progressed past accepting the dissolution of colonial and national powers, and on to the individual level of rejecting external authority and hierarchy, too, and expanded to include additional new groups – children and adults with ever widening realms of experience.
I’m sure a similar case could be made that the philosophical concept of autonomy and reasoned, scientific discoveries also were a driving force. The development of the role of the subconscious and the philosophical developments are probably related. And as always, my point is not to make an either or point about philosophy versus emotional developmentsbut to stimulate the imagination and open our minds and hearts to new possibilities that make us more whole. In that spirit, I have a number of questions:
From the well-intended healing purpose of understanding our inner motivations, have we gone too far when we say, “You’re only saying that because… (insert unhealthy subconscious desire)”? How do pre-Freudian authors make their points and stir our emotions and thinking? How different would our conversations be, especially those that engender “you’re just saying that because…”, if we didn’t think we had insight into a person’s sub-conscious? And perhaps, for me, the biggest red flag of them all, as a Christian: what would our pastoral care and oversight conversations look like if we didn’t think we had insight to pastors’ and parishioners’ subconscious?
Please do join in in the comments with your imaginings!