Hall of Mirrors

When you were young, did you ever go through a carnival fun house? You know–the place with all the trick mirrors that made your reflection super tall and thin or really short and round, or perhaps give you a tiny body and a huge, warbly head?

I was never much of a fan of those attractions—I preferred tossing the ping pong ball into the fish bowls with the tinted water, trying to win goldfish I could take home. I was successful on many occasions, my mother is sorry to report. But my friends were persistent and so we’d go into the hall of mirrors and stand there looking at each other’s ridiculous reflections, laughing like it was the best thing ever.

But inside, those reflections always unsettled me. It was a bit creepy. I didn’t like the feeling that I could be so easily distorted, that the reality of the “me” I knew could be bent and stretched and flattened by something outside of me. I was always relieved when they were ready to go. “Let’s go back to the fish toss,” I’d say happily. I won a lot of goldfish that way.

It turns out, though, doesn’t it, that there are lots of things in life that make us uncomfortable, and chief among them are those experiences that show us pictures of ourselves we’d rather not see. Psychologists tell us it is normal human behavior to feel this way—in fact, we create defenses to shield us from having to wrestle with less-than-acceptable ideas about ourselves.

hall_of_mirrorsOne of these defenses simply shifts that uncomfortable thing to someone else, so we don’t have to own it. Whatever it is, it’s not quite so distressingly close. This is known as projection, and it’s probably not too big a generalization to say that all human beings do it to greater and lesser degrees. Typically as children before a certain age, we’ll do whatever we can to shift any blame for anything—remember those old Family Circus cartoons with the “Not Me” character? One I remember: When everyone is at dinner, Dad, frowning, says, “Okay, who is kicking the table?” Each of the kids has a thought bubble over his or her head, saying, “Not me!” or “Ida know!” And under the table we see a set of friendly-ghostly looking characters with the names “Not Me” and “Ida Know” written across their chests.

Think about the interaction in the Garden of Eden we heard in our Old Testament reading. It’s possible that Adam and Eve—as the world’s first humans—were as innocent as children, right up until that point, walking and talking in paradise with God. God was their truest mirror; the Creator who loved them and created them in his own image. But following Eve’s interaction with the serpent—and we all know what kind of twisted mirror he offered– comes the shocking moment when Adam, suddenly and unexpectedly faced with an image of himself he didn’t want to own, sidesteps it all by blaming Eve. That’s how he instinctively protected himself from feeling the embarrassment, the fear, and the guilt. He makes her the bad one so he can stay good, and he escapes the worst of it—or so he thinks.

And as a result, our origin story tells us, projection—resulting in blame, shame, and, as we hear here, the belief that we are separate from God—is born in the human psyche.

Most of us, during the regular course of growing up, develop normal and healthy consciences, which give us feedback about our actions, for better and for worse. Children around the age of three or four often begin having nightmares for the first time; child development experts say this is about the time kids get those first needling calls of conscience and they’re working those things out in their sleep. We learn that saying “Not me!” is lying when it’s not true. We also discover, as we grow, that being honest, taking responsibility, caring about others, and doing the right thing feels good, which strengthens our intention to live helpful, moral, compassionate lives.

But projection is more than just the shifting of blame to someone else because we don’t want to get in trouble. It’s actually trickier than that. Often we project on to others things we don’t want to see in ourselves and then get upset with them for having those qualities. A lot of the painful division in our world comes from just this precise thing, our almost instinctive reflex to push others away and reject them because we see in them pieces of ourselves we don’t want to see. In fact, those who hate the hardest, who vilify the loudest, who take the most dramatic steps to dehumanize those who are different from them are warped and imprisoned by their own self-loathing. That is not a fun house mirror. That’s a nightmare.

A few years ago a big research project was undertaken to try to answer some questions about the nature of projection. Researchers found that generally we don’t want to see ourselves as selfish, lazy, mean, obnoxious, rude, uncaring, arrogant, dishonest, grouchy, impatient, stubborn, or egotistical—and those are the characteristics we project onto others most frequently. We want to distance ourselves from them, and say, “That’s not me!” Researchers also wanted to establish that we do this projecting unconsciously—meaning we don’t do it on purpose and don’t even realize we’re doing it—and they had a theory that the reason we see those qualities in others is because we are suppressing them in ourselves. The idea is that the thought we try so hard to put out of our minds is the one we see everywhere in the world. To me, this is a hopeful idea, because it says that as we let God’s light heal us from the inside out, as we get honest with who we are and what we’re afraid of, our outer world will be transformed. There’s the “ocean of Light” idea, peeking through.

Our New Testament reading this week is fascinating because Jesus—as Jesus so often does—teaches not only with his words and presence but also with his command of the unfolding moment. The two back-to-back stories we hear in this passage both convey something important about how clearly Peter is seeing and understanding the truth of the Christ. It begins with Jesus asking, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” and the disciples tell him the crowds believe he is one of the great prophets, maybe even Elijah himself. Then Jesus asks Peter more narrowly, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Jesus blesses him in a big way, telling him that God himself has revealed this knowledge to him and that the entire church will be built on the deep truth of his faith. That church—the true church, revealed in Peter’s inherent recognition of Christ—would stand through anything throughout time that came against it.

But the next exchange with Peter offers something dramatically different. The passage says, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” It goes on to say that at one point, Peter took Jesus aside privately “and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

“And Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

What a crushing comment that must have been for Peter. He thought he was doing something good, speaking from love and concern. You can just see Jesus’ eyes flashing as he whirled and spoke these cutting words. But what Jesus heard clearly in Peter’s words was not an affirmation and acceptance of the divine purpose at work, but rather Peter’s clinging ideas of Jesus as his human friend, who he wanted to protect. Peter had lost touch with the divine knowing he’d had earlier, and without that view, he inadvertently became a stumbling block, tempting Jesus to preserve his life instead of fulfilling the mission before him.

We can see here something powerful about the impact of our witness, the creative power of the mirrors we look into and provide for one another. Had Jesus accepted what Peter was mirroring back to him in that moment—that he should preserve his human life and let go of what he knew to be God’s truth—we might not be here together this morning. It’s that big. But Jesus’ rebuke of Peter tells us that he understood the importance of that moment, and he kept his eyes and heart focused on the shine of God’s mirror within him.

On Thursday evening of this week a few of us gathered here at the meetinghouse to brainstorm ideas on ways we might be of service to our community and help others learn more about Friends faith and tradition. Some beautiful thoughts were shared about Friends approach and how unique it is, how our queries and testimonies invite us to an ever-deepening and honest faith we try to live daily. We talked about what it means to live sacramentally, to do our best to live up to whatever Light we have been given, not just on Sundays when we come to meeting, but every day, in every circumstance, as best we can.

It is this openness to and dependence on the leading of the Light that helps us find our way out of life’s hall of mirrors and dissolve the sins and shortcomings we project onto others. As we let God’s light teach us the truth about ourselves, we find that God always does it lovingly, helping us to see, bit by bit, what we still need to heal. And giving us the grace to heal it.

George Fox, in his pragmatic, beautifully clear way, put it like this:

“Mind the light of God in your consciences,
which will show you all deceit;
dwelling in it, guides out of the many things into one spirit,
which cannot lie, nor deceive.
Those who are guided by it, are one.”

This is our Quaker antidote to the pain and conflict in our world. It is our recipe for peace. It is a roadmap that shows us how to find the truth of our lives, the truth of ourselves—our true and eternal mirror in God. As we let ourselves be guided by the Light, we are led—each of us, all of us—into a realization of our shared and common good, the bounty of God’s blessing, the reality of the true spirit of the real, inward church Jesus promised—still standing, unshaken.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened to Adam and Eve if that day in the garden they had simply told God the truth and said “Sorry!” What if there had been no hiding, no blaming, no projection? Even though they had eaten the apple—even though they’d fallen for the trickery of the serpent—if they didn’t lie and hide and deflect, their relationship with God would have been intact. Yes, they disobeyed. Children do that. But the hiding, the lying, the pulling away, that indicates they believed they were bad, that they no longer were made in the image of God and therefore—by projection—God could no longer be trusted.

In our own lives, we can be open to learning more about ourselves and our triggers by asking God to illumine whatever we still need to see and heal within us. It doesn’t matter how old or young we are, how experienced or inexperienced, we are all still learning and growing. And God’s grace is tender and infinite. Inviting the Light into our lives—to fill our lives, all our lives—becomes one of the most beautiful, hopeful things we can do for ourselves, and our families, and our world.

In closing, I’d like to share a remarkable poem with you that demonstrates how important it is to see ourselves in a way that mirrors who—and whose—we truly are. It’s called, Pretty Ugly, by Abdullah Shoaib. Read from the top down, it says:

I’m very ugly
So don’t try to convince me that
I am a very beautiful person
Because at the end of the day
I hate myself in every single way
And I’m not going to lie to myself by saying
There is beauty inside of me that matters
So rest assured I will remind myself
That I am a worthless, terrible person
And nothing you say will make me believe
I still deserve love
Because no matter what
I am not good enough to be loved
And I am in no position to believe that
Beauty does exist within me
Because whenever I look in the mirror I always think
Am I as ugly as people say?

So many people in the world today believe this about themselves, that they are unloved and unlovable and they somehow deserve the pain and struggle they endure. And there are others, unfortunately, who are invested in that idea as well, ready to let those who are different from them bear that pain so they don’t have to. Doesn’t that just break your heart? If we’re living in touch with the Spirit within us, it does, and it should, and it will.

But here’s what God does. When we look in God’s mirror, we see ourselves the way God sees us–made in the divine image, lovely and lovable. And our whole perspective—our whole life—can change. Here’s how this amazing poem sounds when we read it in God’s mirror, from the bottom up:

Am I as ugly as people say?
Because whenever I look in the mirror I always think
Beauty does exist within me
And I am in no position to believe that
I am not good enough to be loved
Because no matter what
I still deserve love
And nothing you say will make me believe
That I’m a worthless, terrible person
So rest assured I will remind myself
There is beauty inside of me that matters
And I’m not going to lie to myself by saying
I hate myself in every single way
Because at the end of the day
I am a very beautiful person
So don’t try to convince me that
I’m very ugly.

So let’s mind the light, Friends. And stay aware of what we mirror back to those we meet each day. We have the great honor and opportunity to shine back to others the goodness and loveliness of their own divine nature. And in the spirit of kindness reflected in their eyes, we will see our own.

 

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