In the Mirror of God
So the other day I was watching my son eat lunch.
Of course, “eat lunch” sounds much more, well, contained than anything usually accomplished by most 22-month olds. He grabbed big spoonfuls and/or handfuls of his mac & cheese and shoved them, fist and all, into his mouth, depositing most of it, losing a bit, and in the process coating his face, hands, hair, shirt and table in gobs of that inimitable nuclear orange cheese sauce. This was something that did not bother him at all. I found myself wishing I could focus on anything in the world as well as he focused on his mac & cheese. This kiddo really likes to eat.
And he had not a shred of self-consciousness. He did not care how he looked or how messy he was. He simply enjoyed his meal, and with a singularity of innocence and pleasure that makes sappy, sentimental parents like me want to weep. He had no awareness in the world that I was watching him, or indeed of anything else at all. He was entirely immersed in the immediacy of his experience, with no thought to what anyone else thought. I found it both striking and beautiful.
And it got me thinking about this matter of “self-consciousness”. The capacity to lose self-consciousness – to be present and fully immersed in the messiness of one’s bodily existence, and to live (if only briefly) without pride, shame, or false modesty – is a rare quality. What a gulf separates my son’s experience from mine! I can almost never be free from some thought about how I am “seen”, by myself and by others. I can never stop caring what others think of me, no matter how irrelevant their opinion might really be. My son can, for a while at least, lose himself in the moment. I, and almost all adults I know, live in a world of funhouse mirrors of our own making, imagining ourselves reflected and re-reflected in the eyes of everyone around us, even when there isn’t anyone around us.
The ability to take one’s “self” as an object of thought – with all the attendant evaluations, judgments, and assessments, both good and bad – has been an advantage to our species, social creatures that we are. We rely on the cooperation of the group, and thus have a vested interest in predictability and a means of social control. Thus, seeing oneself through the eyes of others is both natural and necessary, an inescapable part of that social nature. But it has a cost.
Most schools of thought within psychology believe that children are not born with an intact “self” – a sense of independent identity, a sense of value and worth, a realistic self-esteem and competence, and a basic trust in the world. These things are learned, not hardwired from birth.
To simplify a lot of child development theory, children become who they are by internalizing their parent’s view of them. If a child’s parents continually tell him and, more importantly, show him that he is good and valuable and worthwhile no matter how he feels about himself at the moment, then over time he will come to see himself that way. He then begins to develop a stable and resilient sense of self-worth and confidence, a calm despite emotional ups and downs, as well as vitality, ambition, and his own internal values. The child’s parents, in essence, hold his mirror, and show him a vision of himself, that will ultimately become his own. What such a child (and all children) desperately needs, therefore, is to look into his parent’s eyes and see a positive reflection of himself.
This understanding of emotional/social development, if correct, has broad implications for many areas of life, such as parenting, psychotherapy, group psychology – and of course religion. It is not hard to see why. The God of the Western monotheisms is both omniscient and immanent, so God sees everything, even our innermost thoughts. And God is often understood to set the standards for human behavior, and show us how well we approach them. God, in other words, is the perfect mirror.
Now, without getting into the question of whether or not God actually exists, it seems fair to ask what function God, as a psychic entity, plays in the emotional life of the believer. Here is one: God can serve to solidify a believer’s sense of self by providing the mirroring functions discussed above. God, like your parents, sees you, and reflects a version of yourself to you. What version you see says a lot about who you are, what you struggle with, and who you may become.
This understanding has been important to me because, years ago, as a Christian fundamentalist, I saw myself in the mirror given me by that theology. I looked to God to teach me who I was, and what I saw in his mirror was deepest sin: ugly and defective, twisted and perverse. C. S. Lewis teaches quite uncompromisingly that we are indeed a “horror” to God, and that our worst sense of self, our deepest shame and guilt, is our truest. The fundamentalist God is an exacting taskmaster, an austere and infinite agent of moral perfection, accepting of us on his terms and his terms alone. What I saw in the eyes of my God was not bedrock human worth, not a realistic awareness of both strengths and weakness, but rather corruption, indeed “Ultimate” corruption.
But it worked for me, after a fashion. It did what I needed it to do; it shored up my fragile sense of self. I was taught my old, sinful self – and all the overwhelming pain, frustration, loss, and shame that existed in my life – died at my conversion, washed away in the blood of Christ. A more potent mechanism for repressing painful emotion has never been devised. I was indeed a new creation, because all the conflicted messiness of my inner life had been denied in the glorious embrace of my God. And – as if it could get any better – this particular mirror showed me my significance, as one of God’s Chosen. I found purpose and meaning in my life, and in all creation, precisely because I mattered to God.
But only because I mattered to God. This was an unseen problem, because it effectively trapped me within the faith. “Mattering” had not been internalized, not broken free of the mirror. I was completely dependent on God and my faith for all sense of importance. Mattering to myself was irrelevant and impossible – and even more, condemned as sin – because the self, in fundamentalism, is so thoroughly devalued. Mattering to God was the only mattering that mattered.
And there were even more painful costs than that. I was saved, all right, but for whatever reason I was never able to entirely repress all of my “bad” emotions. Consequently my God’s mirror caught, reflected and amplified those emotions, those failures, and my constant, losing struggle as sadness and anger became hopelessness and despair. This in turn only sparked ever-greater efforts to purify myself of these sins by forcibly shoving them out of consciousness. For me to have relaxed my vigilance, and let any genuine emotion surface, would have threatened the whole system. As a result – and tragically – there was no “immersion” in life any longer possible for me, because I could not accept my emotional experience for what it was, without evaluating it or judging it, from the fantasized viewpoint of God.
But there is no more fundamental pleasure in being alive than in feeling one’s emotional self, simply and directly. So in effect, by being conscious, all the time, of an imagined Judge that was in turn conscious of me, all the time, I committed myself to living a caricature of my humanity. I purchased my salvation at the cost of the most basic experience of life. In the end, what I lost the most was this childlike ability to do what my son did naturally – savor immediacy, the joy of being in one’s own creaturely skin.
I thought about all of this as my son ate his macaroni. I watched him, while he methodically (and delightedly) streaked cheese sauce on the table (over and over, just to see what would happen), carefully fed occasional bites to the dogs (then resumed use of the spoon for himself), and got pasta bits in his hair. I watched him eat, pure and gorgeous in his ordinary human messiness, and, I hope there is no doubt by now, the mere thought of teaching him corruption was, and is, (can there be any other word?) blasphemous. To me, my son is holy. Fundamentalism is wrong for this reason alone. For all the apologetics I have struggled to answer, this argument is unanswerable by any preacher of sin: a child eating macaroni.
Now…. I confess, I am a bit embarrassed by this language. It is hyperbolic and I am not known to my friends and family as an effusive person. But all parents know that there are few things that show us the meaning, purpose, and seriousness of life more than having children. And in doing so, I have discovered a health and vigor amidst all the rot of my fundamentalist indoctrination. Love, as philosopher Robert Solomon once wrote, sets your priorities right.
So by now in my life it matters much less to me whether there is a God than to what use he is put. An anonymous rabbi once said: humans made God because God needs us. Having children has taught me my own answer to this riddle – we are needed to revere and cherish one another and to repair the world. We are needed to be mirrors to each other, reflecting the best possible version of the Thou that makes each of us unique. We should show one another an image that says: you are good, and you have the power to be better.
So what do I want to show my son? I will celebrate, and exult in, his messy self – like the cheese on his face – and the equally messy, glorious, imperfect humanity that I share with him. I will show him the unconditional love and acceptance of all aspects of the self that is the basis for self-esteem, as well as empathy. I will teach him that through his humanity – his sadness and his loss and his finitude – comes a gut-and-soul appreciation of the preciousness of life. I will show him by example how to treat others with respect and compassion and tenderness. I will show him the image of “God” within him and within all the world.
And I will teach him – or, rather, help him remember – that it’s okay, every once in a while, to forget about the mirror, dig into your dinner with both hands, and even, sometimes, get cheese on your face.