O would some Power the gift give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress and gait would leave us,
And even devotion!
— Robert Burns, Scottish poet, “To a Louse,” 1786 (translated into English)
It’s as true today as in the 18th century: to grow spiritually and emotionally, we must come to behold ourselves as we truly are rather than as — in our hubris or self-loathing — we errantly believe we are.
The problem is that few things are harder to do than to look at ourselves honestly.
We spend most of our lives not really seeing our true likeness in the mirror, but some half-fictional character wearing stage makeup, whom we’ve created to protect our egos, or who was created for us by overly doting parents or, on the other hand, overly harsh critics.
We may judge ourselves too highly or too cruelly, but in either case our judgment is flawed. And because we can’t or won’t make accurate assessments, we endlessly repeat the same mistakes.
We cycle through bad relationship after bad relationship. We lose job after job. We fritter away our money. We hop from one church to another, always dissatisfied, always self-righteous.
We become stunted children walking around in adult bodies.
I knew this guy who’d been divorced four times. His fifth marriage was crumbling.
His history distressed him. Yet when he talked about his various marriages, it was his wives who always were at fault. Or God was at fault. Anybody but him.
Maybe he thought he was such a terrific catch that if a woman couldn’t fully appreciate his wonderfulness and remind him of it every day, there was something wrong with her.
Sitting on the outside looking in, it was pretty evident to me that if a guy had failed with five women in a row, there was a big chance the problems didn’t all originate with them (or with the Lord). The odds were better that his main problem was, well, him.
But seemingly he couldn’t face that, or wouldn’t.
I lost touch with him, so I don’t know what happened.
If he never managed to deal with his issues, though, I’d imagine he’s either now battling it out with wife No. 8 or 9 or 10, or else he’s given up on marriage altogether and gotten himself a half-dozen cats and become a lonely, bitter old man yelling at clouds.
That’s why seeing ourselves accurately is important. We want better, happier, more productive lives. We don’t want to trap ourselves in a spiral of failure and despair.
Usually, we have to reach that point where the pain of not changing is worse than the fear of being relentlessly honest.
Still, it’s not enough for us to face ourselves head-on. If that’s all we do, we only end up despising ourselves. It helps nothing and no one for us to stew in a purple funk of self blame.
This isn’t about blame. It’s about soul-searching. It’s about recognizing the areas in which we’re gifted, and about finding ways to improve those areas in which we’re weak.
To improve, we’ve got to develop a plan for changing. We must get help in making those changes, if necessary. And we must stick with our new efforts, maybe for years.
We must be willing to fail at our efforts again and again, only to get back up each time and start afresh. We must be willing to revise the plan as we go along.
All this takes courage. It takes determination. It’s hard.
Yet that’s how we grow, if we’re ever going to grow.
How do we begin looking at ourselves honestly?
One step is mindfulness.
That is, we intentionally become conscious of what we’re doing at a given moment — especially in trouble areas. We look inward instead of lashing out.
Before swearing at our irritating brother, we might ask, “Why does everything he says make me angry? What does that anger reveal about me? Am I really mad about this conversation — or something he said 25 years ago? Or because I think our parents favored him? Why at age 50 do I still care what our parents thought when I was 10?”
Or, “What makes me so eager to buy this expensive car? Is it simply an impulse? Am I trying to impress someone? If so, who? Am I trying to fill some lack in my soul?”
Or, “Why would it hurt my feelings that the choir director claims I was off key? Don’t I want to become a better singer? Does it offend me to think I’m not perfect? What does it say that I find it distressing to be corrected?”
Those are beginning points. They bring us into contact with our inner selves.
We then determinedly follow the answers to such questions where they lead, and over time we know ourselves more accurately.
From that clarity we can figure out what about us is already working fine, and what needs fixing and how it can be fixed — or what can’t be fixed and must be accepted.
And thus we embark on a lifelong process of becoming true adults. Of gaining freedom from all those lies we used to tell ourselves.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.