My starting point this morning is a verse of poetry, but it has presented me with a dilemma. It is written in a broad Scottish dialect. I fear my attempts to mimic the Scottish lilt are pitiful, so at the risk of deeply offending lovers of the poetry of Robert Burns I use an English translation of the stanza.
O would some Power, the gift to give us,
To see ourselves as others see us!
And would from many a blunder free us,
And, foolish notion:
What airs of dress and bearing would leave us,
And even pridefulness!
You will probably know that the poem’s origin lay in Robert Burn’s wandering mind in church, when, instead of paying attention to the sermon, as the good folk of Hucklow always do, his eye wandered to a fine decorated bonnet on the head of a proud lady. She was blithely unaware that crawling among the finery was a loathsome insect, a louse, thus spoiling the whole effect. Maybe it was a case, as Thomas Grey, an English contemporary of Burns, wrote, “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.”
Self-deception is a comfort zone that many of us enjoy. We have as it were, an imaginary mirror which we glance at from time to time, finding the reflection pleasing. What a fine, grand, intelligent, pleasing person I am, we murmur. Then we catch an unexpected reflection in a real mirror, or see one of those TV screens in a department store showing images that a surveillance camera has picked up, and we hardly recognise our own image. Shamefacedly I show my bus pass with its photograph, expecting to hear mocking laughter from the driver, before he calls the police. Some say the camera doesn’t lie, but that is surely an old wife’s tale. That cannot be me as others see me, surely not.
Achieving unbiased, critical self-examination is one of the most difficult of exercises. We tend to veer to extremes, finding the middle course elusive. At one extreme the faults are over-stated, the defects magnified, the positive features over-looked. Thus depression and a feeling hopelessness is the result. At the other extreme, conceit disguises short-comings. We are self-satisfied. Vanity precludes criticism, over-riding any suggestion that the image is flawed.
But a looking glass, a mirror, is a device which shows the external view, the outer covering which encloses the real person within. And though that external shell can be affected by what lies within, it is not necessarily so. Ill-temper, pain, compassion or other emotions do not invariably mark the surface, even if they frequently do so. The real person requires more than a reflected image to reveal it. To see what we really are, to use a medical illustration, requires an X-ray or a body scan, rather than a simple likeness on a piece of polished glass, or a photographic image.
Self-examination is an attempt to probe beneath the surface, allowing an evaluation of what is there to be discovered. We say of others, when you really get to know him, or her, you see a different picture. Really getting to know ourselves can be more difficult even than knowing someone else.
In his novel, Lord Jim, Conrad had the central character musing,
“I didn’t know what he was playing up to – if he was playing up to anything at all – and I expect he did not know either; for it is my belief no man ever understands quite his own artful dodges to escape from the grim shadow of self-knowledge.”
What a powerful phrase that is; “…the grim shadow of self-knowledge.” We are all aware of those “artful dodges” even if we don’t quite understand them. The special pleadings, the evasions and the excuses are recognised more readily when employed by others, but curiously difficult to acknowledge when used by oneself.
In the Authorised Version of the Bible, there is another powerful phrase in the story of the prodigal son. All money spent, deserted by friends, and with hunger racking his body, the son reflected upon his position. At this point, the story reads, “Then, he came to himself”. What a vivid phrase that is to describe the process of self-examination, with the reflection seen starkly and accurately. “Mirror, mirror on the wall…, show me the person I really am. Show me my true self.”
But why should we want to know ourselves in this sense? Is it merely morbid curiosity? The prodigal son needed to come to himself, because until that happened he was unable to retrieve a life which had fallen into emptiness, misery and futility. But more than that, it was at that stage he could relate his life to others, to see what was good, and begin to understand the “artful dodges” which allow the pretence that a mirror image is actually the real person.
“Who am I? What am I? Where am I? Why am I?” these are questions at the heart of spiritual experience. And naturally we start by looking at ourselves. We travel down what Francis Thompson called, in his poem, The Hound of Heaven,
“….the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind;”
Examining “who I am” is a quest for an identity. But more, it is a search that leads to humility. We can hardly pursue this test without coming to see how small we are in the whole scheme of things. We may fill important positions in small ponds, or even large lakes, but we are dwarfed in the vast oceans. A whale may be a monster in a loch, but is a mere speck in great seas. Surely this is what Jesus meant by becoming as a little child, asking “Who am I?” and deflating the over-stretched ego.
It is impossible to face sincerely the question “who” and remain pompous and self-important, which is an explanation of why the image in the mirror can be unwelcome.
I said a moment ago that “why” is also a search for an identity, which leads me on, for so in a way, is the question “What am I?”
What I am may be determined by my actions and behaviour to others. If I am arrogant and ill-tempered, I am surely tyrannical and dictatorial. If I am weak and indecisive, I will be vacuous and ineffective. If I am covetous, I am greedy and selfish. An analysis of what I am is the start which enables me the better to relate to others, to acquire compassion and understanding, to practice tolerance and forgiveness. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, show me who and what I am.”
Any vehicle driver quickly learns that one of the most important pieces of equipment is the mirror. The mirror reveals where the vehicle and driver are in relationship to the other vehicles, and to the road and surrounding objects. “Where am I?” needs assistance from the mirror if an adequate answer is to be found. Where have I come from, where am I going to, what is this place I have reached? The question “where” is no less important than those of “why” and “what” if we are to live a wholesome and satisfying life.
This does not mean constantly gazing, Narcissus like, upon the mirror image, but looking frequently and appropriately, asking the questions and accepting the answers. The mirror can also reflect surroundings and where we are placed within them. However, the car driver who fixes his eyes permanently upon the mirror to the exclusion of all else will soon meet disaster. He will know where he has come from, but have no idea where he is heading. A crash is inevitable.
I have left to last the question “Why am I?” This is the most difficult and profound question of all, and perhaps incapable of being answered completely. Down the ages philosophers and divines have wrestled with the challenge, providing various theories, but no complete solution. Paul referred to this in that famous letter to the Corinthians, when he wrote of seeing in a glass darkly. The mirror is clouded, we have no sharp image. Some would argue that the question is meaningless. There is no why. Life is accidental, mechanical, without purpose. As Macbeth groaned,
“Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps on this petty pace from day to day.”
All is empty and without meaning. But most Christians and many others would reject that conclusion. The answer may be elusive but the question is valid. By believing that there is an answer, many accept the force of the questions we can answer, at least in part, the “who, what, where”. For the time being, not knowing “why” in full, we get by with at least a partial answer: “That I may love God, and strive to love my neighbour”.
The Wicked Queen in the story of Snow White valued her mirror when it gave agreeable answers. Her wrath was aroused when the answer was truthful but unacceptable. She could not bear the truth.
Used judiciously, mirrors are valuable, nay essential tools in our lives. A reliable mirror will report accurately and truthfully. The extent to which we can accept this is a measure of our maturity. To shrink from seeing ourselves as others see us is, in Conrad’s words, “artful dodges to escape from the grim shadow of self-knowledge”, it marks the failure to live up to our belief.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, tell me who, what, where, and why I am, and I promise to try not to dodge the answer”, might well be our daily prayer.
C.J. Rosling 5th March 2008 (adapted from Mirror)
Hucklow 9 March 2008