“Before you remove the speck in your brother’s eye, first remove the timber from your own.” — Jesus Christ

As do all medical students, I spent time studying psychiatry. One big concept I learned about was a phenomenon known as projection. Essentially, when things are wrong in our lives, our world, projection makes us blame the problem on someone else. It might be another person or political party. No matter what, the process is the same, our problem, whatever it may be is not seen as something about us, it is about an external “them.” This is a tendency that is highly tempting to each and every one of us at some times in our lives. It just seems natural and easier than looking at ourselves first.

Carl Jung, famed psychiatrist, describes this as dealing with our shadow self. In not accepting our hidden vulnerabilities, fears, and weaknesses, we may become evil ourselves. In blaming others, maybe even the world in general, we can end up as nihilistic as Leo Tolstoy questioning the value of existence. How about the Columbine shooters? Not finding any value in their own lives, their own vision of the world, they become a menace to themselves and others.

On the other hand, Alexander Solzhenitsyn pored over the details of his life and reflected on how he might improve while imprisoned in a Soviet gulag. Rather than focusing on the injustice and being embittered against his tormentors, he created a book that had to be smuggled out of Russia. The Gulag Archipelago is a literary masterpiece and contributed to the demise of the cruel Soviet system. Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, similarly imprisoned by the Nazis, denied his captors a victory over his spirit. He instead used his time to develop perspectives that created logotherapy and his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which have helped so many.

Rule No. 6 in Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” closely examines such phenomena. He explores the serious consequences of religious and political extremism and the unexamined life. He suggests that we start small by cleaning up our own lives. “Start to stop doing what you know to be wrong. Start stopping today.”

Don’t blame the radical right or left, your enemies, capitalism, your parents, your circumstances. Take time to discover what your shadow self is hiding and turn a light onto it so that things in your life take a turn for the better.

So, the next time you feel impelled to criticize and reform the world, no matter how well-intentioned you think you are being, be sure your own house is in order first.

I close with the wisdom of Lao Tsu:

“Cultivate Virtue in your self, and Virtue will be real.

Cultivate it in the family, and Virtue will abound.

Cultivate it in the village, and Virtue will grow.

Cultivate it in the nation, and Virtue will be abundant.

Cultivate it in the universe, and Virtue will be everywhere.”

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.

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