The Christmas season is a time for photographs in our family. With the kids home, and the grandparents around someone inevitably pulls out a camera, or tablet, or phone and snaps pictures that are shared in the plethora of social media platforms that mark our era. I’m not real big on having my picture taken, but I endure it all the same. I’m never really happy with the result. I generally feel like the person looking back at me from a photograph isn’t really me. I think that has a bit to do with mirrors.
I get to know myself via the mirror. In my mind, I know that the image in the mirror is not really mine. It is reversed for one thing, with the hair part on the wrong side and my face’s asymmetry reversed. But I get to know myself – or I think I do – from that image I imbibe day in and day out. And when my eye beholds photographs of me, they always seem wrong. But I don’t think the dissonance should be attributed to the mirror’s reversal alone. There is more to it than meets the eye, as it were.
The self I see in the mirror is ever only a self alone. Rarely, very rarely do I see myself with others in a mirror while the opposite is the case with photographs. I am generally photographed alongside of family and friends, and I appear differently. Could it be the case that I am differently around others? Could it be the case that my countenance actually changes in the presence of others? Could it be that the self I think I know from the mirror – a naked self in abstraction from social settings and relationships – is not really the same self that others know? But no, that is not quite right since it is not only others who know me socially. I know myself socially as well as individually. And each me is really me, but differently. All of this makes me wonder what makes a self.
Some religions imagine that the self really only is in its relationality. I think there is a truth to that, and it shows up in Christianity most fundamentally in the idea that I truly am Allen coram Deo – before God. Before the mirror, and before my family and friends I can pretend to be this person or that, but before God I am stripped bear of any pretense and utterly transparent. The self I project to others and the self I project to Allen are ordered to Allen coram Deo: I am a human being with all the mystery, the flaws, the glory, and the pettiness that defines who I am. This is the Allen that is known to God; the Allen that is welcomed unconditionally in love.
It is good to remember that the Allen I see in the mirror and in photographs are but snippets of the person I am, the people we are. We are made in the image of God and so are a mystery, even to ourselves. And so I am, we are, forever surprising ourselves and others as well. Of course the opposite obtains as well. Others astonish us, and this wonder serves as a apt reminder that to be human is to be more than can be captured by ether mirror or photograph. To be human, above all else, is to be seen by God whose very seeing sees into us what we might not see in ourselves: grace and the gifts fitting for me – poor as I am, yet rich as can be.