Looking Outward

Have you ever looked directly at yourself? I don’t mean in a mirror, or in a photograph; I mean in the flesh. Have you ever looked at your own face the same way that you would look at someone sitting right in front of you?

This thought used to boggle me as a child. I sometimes wondered if other people saw the world the way that I did, or if I was the only person on earth who couldn’t see my own face, save for looking at my reflection in a mirror.

There’s a poetic beauty to be found in the fact that each one of us sees the world this way; we are all walking around viewing the world in first person, capable of fully beholding every living thing except ourselves. The irony of it all is that most of us spend a great portion of our time trying to perfect what we will never fully be able to see.

Think about it. We will never be able to see the reactions on our own faces when people speak with us. We will never know what it’s like to hear ourselves walking around a corner and coming closer. I will never be able to know what my own handshake feels like, though I’ve tried to test it on my opposite hand many times. We can’t even know what we smell like to other people (though there are probably times where we can have a pretty good idea).

There’s a passage of scripture in the book of James that refers to a man looking at himself in the mirror, only to walk away and forget what kind of man he was. And yet, each one of us wakes up in the morning and stands in front of the mirror like the queen from Snow White, silently asking the mirror to convince us that we are worth looking at, as if it is wiser than we are.

The truth of the matter is that a mirror can only provide a reflection, and as Mulan saw (hopefully my last Disney reference) a reflection cannot reveal who we are inside.

But I understand this isn’t news to anyone. What is revealing to me, however, is that we seem to be obsessed with reflections. Think about one of the first things people say when they see a friend’s baby. “He has your nose!” or “She has your eyes!” or “He has his mother’s top lip but his father’s bottom lip!”

I digress.

It strikes me to think about how children learn to carry themselves. They’re incredibly impressionable. Everything they do and say is an imitation of something they’ve seen or heard. But it’s not just children who do this. We all do. Our language is shaped by what we hear. Our behavior is shaped by what we see. Even our perceptions and biases are shaped by outside influences, as much as we’d like to argue otherwise. I’ve written about this before, but it’s incredible how different friends seem to cause us to behave in different ways. C.S. Lewis spoke of how he saw that there was a certain part of him that only one friend could bring out, and the same was true for each of his friends.

The beauty of this comes when we find people worth imitating. I can think of a handful of people right now who have shaped my behavior for the better. As I write this at Thanksgiving, I think of all those who have shaped me and who continue to shape me. 

As Frederick Buechner said of All Saints Day, “it is not just the saints of the church that we should remember in our prayers, but all the foolish ones and wise ones, the shy ones and overbearing ones, the broken ones and whole ones, the despots and tosspots and crackpots of our lives who, one way or another, have been our particular fathers and mothers and saints, and whom we loved without knowing we loved them and by whom we were helped to whatever little we may have, or ever hope to have, of some kind of seedy sainthood of our own.”

My hope is that this day will be a day of looking outward, of seeing those around us, and of giving thanks for their influence on us. Let this be a day that is wasted on others, for as Charles Dickens so eloquently put it, “A day wasted on others is not wasted on one’s self!”