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Mirror, Mirror: Reflections on Self-Perception

When we look at ourselves in the mirror over the sink, we think we’re seeing the truth, the ‘real deal’ – a moment of complete frankness and accuracy. The mirror is the analogy for self-knowledge. But the truth is we really don’t know ourselves even on the physical plane.

We see ourselves straight-on, looking squarely at our own reflection. We think that’s what others see, but it’s not. For one thing, we see ourselves left-right reversed. A photo will show us that we don’t part our hair on the side that we thought we did.

And unless we’re exactly the same height as another, we’ll almost never see eye to eye, the way we do with our reflection. We see short people from above (a flattering angle for women as it enlarges the eyes and shrinks the chin) and tall from below (the larger nose and chin isn’t a bad look, for a man). I recently read that when Michelangelo created David, he deliberately made the head and hands larger, because viewers of the raised statue would see it from below. If you ever study a photo of someone (especially a head-shot) and then see them in person, you’re struck by how much taller or shorter they are than you imagined.

Continuing this theme, others see all angles of us. They see the side of our head, and the back. We don’t see our own bodies from the side, but we observe others this way all the time and think nothing of it. And we don’t see our own bodies from the back, because God is merciful.

We also don’t observe ourselves talking or eating. We don’t even know how our own voice sounds. To hear ourselves on the answering machine – well – do I really sound like that? Do I really talk like that? It’s so . . . strange! We don’t observe ourselves being emotional either. We don’t know how we look scowling or annoyed. Maybe it’d be good to see that side of ourselves, as penance.

Seeing photos of ourselves is a bit surprising, (though not for those who love to take selfies) but at least we’re more used to it; it’s video that takes the cake for pure shock value. It’s an entirely weird out-of-body experience. Who is that person? We harshly assess our appearance, mannerisms, voice and behavior. Someone please make it stop!

And my analogy is that in the same way that our physical self-perception is so limited, so too is our spiritual self-perception. How grossly we misjudge ourselves! How incomplete and inaccurate is our self-examination! One matter, which we thought important, is a mere trifle; another matter, which we thought insignificant, makes all the difference. Meanwhile, everyone around us can plainly see what we can’t.