If you are of a certain age, you know Flat Stanley. The book by Jeff Brown (no relation) was first published almost 60 years ago. Since then, Stanley has been around the world zillions of times.
The story is about Stanley Lambchop, who is flattened by a bulletin board as he sleeps one night. Being only half an inch thick has its advantages - Stanley gets to be a kite, rolled up, and best of all, mailed. It is the mailing thing that really got teachers excited. Stanley can now be used to coax reluctant early readers to read a book as well as to teach geography lessons, writing lessons, and lessons about "community helpers," such as postal workers.
When Julia was in first grade, she had a project to color and cut out a Stanley paper doll and then have a parent help her (of course) send him to a relative or friend who lived in a different place. Julia's Stanley went to visit her Aunt Sue, who was living in New York City and attending law school. Stanley rode the subway, went to coffee shops, attended law school classes, and I think rode the Staten Island Ferry. Aunt Sue sent Stanley back, as she was supposed to, with a photo album of Stanley's adventures.
When Julia was in fourth grade, I think it was, she had another Flat Stanley project. This time she had become acquainted with her 2nd cousin, Jackie, who lived in Seattle. Stanley went to visit Jackie and was treated to a Seahawks game, taken to a salmon festival, and came home with photos, a totem pole, postcards - I can't remember all the souvenirs he brought home.
As the Stanleys returned to school the kids got to share their Stanley's adventures (public speaking!), and thumbtacks went into maps to show all the places Stanley had visited (geography!). When Stanley was traveling I couldn't keep Flat Stanley books on the library shelves.
I've been thinking of Flat Stanley today, as I reflect on the last week, when four police officers testified before Congress about their experiences during the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and Simone Biles withdrew from most (so far) of her Olympic competitions.
What do these brave people have to do with Flat Stanley?
I'm so glad you asked!
Every Sunday morning I get the Assertive Spirituality newsletter from D.S. Leiter. The link to this morning's post is here. D.S. Leiter holds a PhD and teaches and researches stress, trauma, and conflict communication. I really recommend her blog, Assertive Spirituality.
This morning Dr. Leiter spoke about positive and negative projection as they relate to the four officers and Simone Biles. I was thinking about her post as I was out doing alpaca chores and thought of Flat Stanley, who I haven't thought of in years.
Positive projection, as I understand it, is when one person believes in someone else. This is good if positive reinforcement and encouragement is all it takes to get somebody to try something new, or to advance in a skill that he or she is passionate about. We all get discouraged sometimes, and, "I believe in you," might be all it takes to convince us to keep going. But sometimes someone is so confident of another's skills, talents, personhood, or whatever, that the person becomes "perfect," or in today's lingo, a "GOAT." I really don't like the term, but since the Olympics are going on I seem to hear it everywhere. We'll hear it again once Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers start playing. The problem is that once we begin to believe that someone is perfect or a GOAT, they lose their humanity. They become one dimensional - FLAT, if you will.
Negative projection is when negative emotions or attributes are ascribed to a person or group. This can be healthy as in not asking Tom Brady to compete as on the uneven parallel bars in the Olympics or Simone Biles to play quarterback for the Bucs, because he is too big to be a gymnast and she - well there are multiple reasons why she wouldn't be invited to be a quarterback, not all of them related to the fact that she probably never played more than touch football, if that, in her life. The bottom line, though, is neither would be safe trying to be the other, so this negative projection is good and healthy. It becomes unhealthy when we ascribe negative things to a whole group of people, or make assumptions about someone because of one aspect of who that person is. Tom Brady, for example, doesn't fit the mold of a "dumb jock," whether you are a Brady fan or not. Calling him, or any athlete, a dumb jock is demeaning and dehumanizing. Sure, some kids just want to play football and so don't study or whatever, but some, like Mr. Brady and Ms. Biles work really really hard and have to be smart to excel.
I've recently experienced negative projection - I've been reduced to a bubbling toxic stew of anger, bitterness, and resentment by people who should know me better. Yes, I got angry and lost my temper a few times, but I was also kind, generous, and gracious many times. Yet these people are using negative projection to protect themselves from reflecting on the mistreatment I suffered at their hands. If I am just a caricature of someone who is angry and bitter, then everything that happened is my fault. There is no more to me because it is comfortable for them to forget all the other facets of who I am - they have flattened me. Maybe that is why this post resonated with me so much.
The thing is, did anybody ask Stanley where he wanted to go, and what he wanted to do once he got there? Maybe Stanley prefers the ballet to football. Maybe he hates salmon. Maybe he liked the waters around Seattle more than the bustle of New York City. Maybe he loved the Salmon Festival, or maybe he was so fascinated by the law school conversations he decided he'd like to be a lawyer, too. No one asked because it was more interesting to project what we wanted for him than what he wanted. Also, Stanley is made of paper.
But I suggest that we flatten people and groups around us all the time.
As I reflected on Dr. Leiter's newsletter this morning, I thought about how much we project these days. We project so much we don't even realize we do it.
We idolize athletes, movie stars, singers - even people who are only famous because they are famous, or rich. We think we know them, but we don't, really. We don't see them just out of bed, or throwing up, or when they are afraid. We don't know what else they do really well - tickle their kids, read bedtime stories, remember their mom's birthdays, vacuum - all those mundane things that surely they can't all outsource. We don't imagine them swearing when the lawn mower won't start, or taking a wrong turn - even driving for that matter. So we think they put their pants on two legs at a time, and never have panty lines, never say the wrong thing, and their bathrooms are always pleasant-smelling.
This is all positive projection, and it isn't healthy, for them or for us. It puts enormous pressure on the object of our idolization to be perfect, to be super human, to never mess up. When they make a mistake we all hear about it - up to and including mug shots, if they are warranted. We pick them apart and focus on why and what the mistake was. When it gets to be too much we expect them to suck it up and carry on - and when they refuse we are furious with them.
It isn't healthy for us because we are aspiring to be something that doesn't exist. I'm not talking about the young girls that are inspired to try gymnastics because of Simone Biles, and the young women who are talking about being victims of sexual abuse because of Simone Biles, or the black girls and women who see Simone Biles breaking into a traditionally white arena and think they can break into their arena, too. I'm talking about the people who think that the "something bigger than themselves" is more important than their health. The ones who won't take a day off, or try beyond their capability because [insert famous person's name here] makes it look easy and she/he is always happy. The people who are always dieting to try to achieve the airbrushed figure they see in magazines. The person obsessed with new cars because to be successful and happy we need the newest thing on TV. The people who think their laundry isn't clean enough. their teeth aren't white enough, their houses aren't big enough, and their coffee should be ready when they wake up after the sun is streaming in their windows.
Excessive negative projection is just as easy. How often do we pretend to know what [insert a group you distrust] think? How often do we dehumanize people different from ourselves? Next time you hear yourself saying, "they," or, "those people," ask yourself if you really KNOW what you are talking about. Did "they" tell you that? Or did someone not affiliated with "them" tell you that? How do you KNOW what you are saying is correct? And if what you said or were about to say is an assumption, don't say it. You know what goes on in your head and in your household, and you know less and less as the perimeter expands.
Simone Biles reminded us last week that our heroes are human by recognizing that her mental health is important and deserves to be respected. Suppose she had tried to power through and fallen. She could easily have broken her neck, which would have garnered plenty of thoughts and prayers and video views, but she would still have been paralyzed and then forgotten. In my mind, she has un-flattened herself even more - she is now more than a gymnast, sexual abuse survivor, and GOAT. She is a woman who will set boundaries and demand that they be respected.
The police officers Aquilino Gonell, Michael Fanone, Harry Dunn, and Daniel Hodges demanded the respect they deserve as officers of the law and protectors of our elected officials. They reminded us that behind the "Blue Lives Matter" movement are real human beings with bones that break, hearts that fail, and courage to stand up and do their jobs. It is tragic that because what an insurrectionist mob saw as their failure to be on the "right" side of the law has caused them, and continues to cause them, untold suffering. Their testimony un-flattened them - it made their stories real. It made them human. And it should have broken our hearts, unless we are flat, too.
The All Lives Matter response to Black Lives Matter is a negative projection onto our black community members. Many in the white community believe we know what "they" do - or don't do - and so we refuse to look at systems of racism that exist in this country. We have positively projected onto the white community - we are right, work hard, and are entitled because we have earned every advantage we have - and that refusal to reflect and look critically at ourselves is demeaning to people of color. It isn't healthy. We are flattening "them" - whoever "they" may be, and in doing so we have flattened ourselves because it is demeaning to white people, too. We should be brave enough to look at ourselves and smart and compassionate enough to correct injustice and oppression where we see it.
We have flattened Jesus, too (again, I come at this from a Christian perspective). We insist we know what Jesus was saying, but Jesus quite clearly chose not to be clear in his directives - he told stories, called parables, that refuse flattening. To understand what Jesus wanted us to understand we have to think about the parables. We have to imagine ourselves as part of the story. We have to ask for wisdom and guidance, and in my experience, each time I do this with the exact same parable I hear something new. When we insist on who Jesus was, according to today's definitions of religious leaders, masculinity, Christianity, Judaism, Middle Eastern-ism, and so on, we flatten the real Jesus. But Jesus is the anti-Flat Stanley.
Jesus was divine, I believe, but he was also human. This was by intent - Jesus couldn't have been who he was by denying either. Jesus, in the Bible I've been reading, refers to himself as the Son of Man. He refuses to affirm or deny his divinity - when Pilate asked Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "You say so." (Luke 23:3). To deny Jesus' divinity as the son of God, or to deny Jesus' humanity, is to make him the Flat Stanley of the Bible.
This week I am going to practice seeing people in the fullness of their humanity. I will see what they choose to show me, and know that there is much more to them than I see. They are both weaker and stronger, lazier and busier, angry and forgiving, mean and kind, selfish and generous, funny and humorless, happy and sad, richer and poorer, sicker and healthier than I will ever know. I will try to un-flatten my impressions of some in Congress who insist on flattening others. I will try to have compassion for their lack of insight into their lies at the same time that I refuse to succumb to them. I will try, again, to see the good, bad and ugly within myself before I try to find it someone else. I will try to use positive projection to build others up, but not to make them think I need or want them to be perfect. I will use negative projection to help others accept themselves for who they are, not who they think they should be, and to call out behaviors that are harmful. At the same time I will try to recognize stereotypes that I have internalized, and root them out.
Flat Stanley is great as a book character and a teacher's lesson tool for reading, writing, geography, etc. Flat Stanly is not great as a human being because he is, well, flat. Real people are not flat - we are multi-dimensional, and it is time we start treating ourselves and others as the humans we are.
Brown, Jeff. Flat Stanley. Harper Collins. 1964.
Flat Stanley. Flat Stanley Books. Home - Flat Stanley Books Flat Stanley Books. Accessed August 1, 2021.
Leiter, D. S. "Simone Biles: Speaking Truth to the GOP's Unhealthy Positive Projections - Assertive Spirituality" August 1, 2021. Assertive Spirituality. https://assertivespirituality.com. Accessed August 1, 2021.