My husband Dave and I arrive late for a poetry reading—open mic, read your own work or somebody else’s—and watch the Midwestern version of Captain America approach the podium: trim well-formed body clad in blue jeans and a cardinal-red dress shirt, top button opened to reveal a white undershirt. Black cowboy boots match a thick black leather belt with shining silver buckle. Bright blue eyes, unapologetic nose, strong stubbled chin. Dark brown hair close-cropped up the sides, growing out of a crew cut on top his head. Captivating smile, a mixture of confidence and self-consciousness with a dash of eager-to-please stirred in. His introduction is promising: “I really like this poem and I love the man it’s about.”
He launches into the reading and my ardor cools. Flip-flops into foreboding, actually. Captain America narrates with pietistic fervor a piece of religious propaganda about the life of Christ. What starts as a sexy male daring to read a poem about the man he loves turns into a quasi-militaristic call to sacrifice lives for God and country.
I find myself thinking, Don’t trust this man. He will hurt you. This man hates you and your kind. He doesn’t believe you’re human. He thinks you deserve everything you get. A man like him fatally stabbed your friend Carl. Remember Andy and his partner? Clubbed to death by a man like this. And Dick’s suicide? Brought on by people with this sort of religious fervor. Their thoughts, words, theology and way of life willed his death. No, this man is not safe. Keep your distance.
I plan to. Eying Captain America, I now see him as a red, white and blue coral snake. Beautiful, but deadly. He symbolizes the irrational knee-jerk prejudice and homophobia I fear most. I’ll be careful not to out myself with him around. I wouldn’t want to meet him alone on the sidewalk afterwards or have him drive slowly by our house fingering his shotgun.
He reaches the final line at last, slithers back to his seat. I do not join the general applause.
Later that day, at another venue, Captain America takes to the podium again. He reads his own work this time, a revealing look at his childhood. Abusive home, alcoholic father, raised in squalor, often scrounging for food and affection. His words are heartfelt and moving. Life has not been easy for him. It’s a wonder he’s standing before us, looking as sane and sensational as he does. I clap as loudly as anyone.
Why must life be so complicated? I want to go back to hating him in peace. Instead, I must do the hard work of reconciling this conflicting information, the paradox that most human beings are, the mix of good and evil, of positive and not so nice. But really, the work to be done is in myself. Deep inside.
It’s not Captain America whom I fear and mistrust, so much as it is that part of me that still is quick to judge others, that believes I’m right, that divides the world into us and them. I’m right to mistrust this energy, but it’s this energy in me I need to be aware of and wary of first of all. Psychologists call this a negative projection, not recognizing an annoying quality in myself and attacking another person for it. A positive projection can be something I admire in another person (Captain America’s beauty) but unconsciously devalue in my own life (my own degree of handsomeness). Whenever I refuse to accept something as a part of myself I project that something onto others.
It takes energy to shoot out these projection missiles, but it takes work to withdraw them, too. It takes me waking up to the idea that I can’t blame others for my own failings, nor look to them as superheroes who may save me from myself.
The adage rings true, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Time to don my mask, take up my shield, get ready to roll.