Monday, December 28, 2009

The World on Our Own Terms

Night at the MuseumImage via Wikipedia
It's a wonderful example of reaction-formation. Larry Daily (Night at the Museum: The Battle for the Smithsonian) and Brandon the security guard are having it out over whether or not Larry can touch one of the Smithsonian exhibits. In a demonstration of flashlight twirling skill reminiscent of the encounter between the Ringo Kid and Doc Holliday (Tombstone), Larry gains the upper hand. As he walks away, we see Brandon attempting similar moves and muttering to himself, "What a great guy!"

Reaction-formation is a one of the ways we try to eliminate anxiety by replacing unacceptable feelings or behavior with acceptable ones. For example, a parent who unconsciously tends to favor one child over another, will make up for it by being even more attentive to the child they are less inclined to favor. In Brandon's case, he can't allow himself to consciously indulge resentment toward Larry, so he conveniently exchanges anger for admiration.

Despite being in a position of responsibility, Brandon is uncertain about himself and his
uniform and flashlight provide a way of compensating for feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. As long as he's able to assert his authority over those who would feel impressed or intimidated by it, he's fine. Confronted by someone who is intent upon challenging him, his confident facade breaks down.

If you've seen the film, you know the scene between these two characters is intended as comedic and it succeeds very well. I'm drawn to it because I've met Brandon before in the guise of persons who've felt belittled or teased. Instead of finding a way to express themselves uniquely, building self-esteem, and enabling them to transcend their past, they adopt a defensive stance and try to appear invulnerable.

English clergyman and poet, George Herbert, said, "Living well is the best revenge." Living defensively only sets us up for defeat because it ignores our strengths in the attempt to cover up our weaknesses. Living well means acknowledging both and combining them creatively to render us capable of meeting the world on our own terms.

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