Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Looking in the Mirror

When you look in the bathroom mirror in the morning, what do you see? If you are like me, your first reaction is likely to be displeasure; the human face is not at its most elegant after a night's sleep. Taking a closer survey of your face and noting the flaws—moles, pimples, wrinkles or whatever—you are left even more unsatisfied. Then, after your ablutions are complete, you look in the mirror again. After a thorough cleaning, your face is somewhat improved, but still, despite all your hard word, you are still discontented at the reflection.

Why this unhappiness at the sight of ourselves? The answer, I believe, has two roots. First, our consumer society has convinced us that the human body is a commodity. Properly packaged and sold, our bodies can be used to stroke our own own egos or cause others to desire and envy us. When we look in the mirror, we search for the 'ideal body,' the body that will gain us the most personal power. And when we find a reflection that does not match the ideal, we are unhappy because we believe that our 'packaging' is in some way defective.

Our unhappiness at looking in the mirror has another, deeper source, however. Since the time of Augustine, our Christian-influenced religious culture has taught us that at the root, we are depraved beings. This teaching (whatever its good intentions) leads us to regard ourselves not as human beings, but inhuman beings, fundamentally incapable of goodness. When I look at myself, I am supposed to see a vile sinner doomed to the fires of eternal torment. No wonder I am unhappy; seventeen centuries of western theology have convinced me that I am supposed to feel disgust and loathing, guilt and shame at the sight of myself.

Is there another way to look at ourselves? In contrast to Augustine, the majority of early Christian writers offer a more positive view of the human person. While human beings are enslaved to sin and death, and while we are instinctly inclined towards wrong choices and evil actions, even our most degenerate behaviours cannot eradicate our basic identities as God's precious children. Though we are born into a fallen condition and inevitably adopt a fallen way of life, the lowest depths to which we sink cannot change the fact that God created us in His divine image and likeness, calling us good from the beginning. (see Genesis, chapter 1)

I recall a story about the painting of Dutch master—it may have been Rembrandt. For many years, inspired by his work, art scholars held that muted colours were the true ideal for excellent painting. Then a group undertook a restoration project on one of the masterpieces, and discovered colours more vibrant and bold than they had ever imagined. Centuries of soot and wax from candles had obscured the real brilliance of the work. After that, the scholars did an about face, declaring that actually, brightness has always been the hallmark of truly great art...

When we look in the mirror, it is all too easy to see nothing beyond the layer of dirt—the poor choices and hard living that distort our features, the deepening lines of stress and bitterness and worry, the hardness of expression that reflect a hardening of the heart. Unless we can look past this distorting surface, we inevitably come to the conclusion that we are nothing but commodities with defective packaging and no inherent worth.

Our challenge is to see ourselves as God's own masterpiece, a unique work by the hand of the One whom Orthodox tradition calls the 'Great Artist.' Like the unrestored Rembrandt painting, however, our lives are covered with grime and dust of sin that obscures our true, underlying beauty. In that sense, looking in the mirror should inspire us to undergo a process of restoration. That indeed, is what the spiritual life is all about—a process of cleansing that slowly strips away the distortions of our fallen existence, revealing beneath the genuine and unique vibrancy and brilliance and beauty of our lives as God always intended them to be.

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