Shadows and Mirrors

Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the Earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

Flannery O’Connor
A Prayer Journal

My self-shadow has grown pretty large, lately.

I go through most days like a well-oiled machine (well, okay – some days I’m more like a rusty, broken-down machine). I divide up the hours with unnerving precision, choosing what each one will be dedicated to, trying to stuff as much as I can into each minute. I’m always living on the clock. It’s the rare day when I’m spontaneous – when I let life happen to me. Far too often, I am telling my life what to do. (A hilariously futile endeavor, I know.)

Here’s the kicker: it really doesn’t matter what I decide, because I always end the day feeling like I have failed at something – like I’ve dropped the ball. If I choose one thing, I am inevitably not choosing several other things that are important to me, and so the sense of loss wins out.

When I get in this state, I tend to think of God only in passing. I go to bed suddenly remembering Him and think, with a mild panic: I’ve been doing this all wrong. But then I wake up and the cycle continues. It’s magnetic.

The chronic problem here that needs solving is my subconscious conviction that I am the sum of my actions. In one sense, this is quite true. In another sense, it is toxic. Every day, I put about a dozen hats on my head and wonder why they always topple: I want to be a good person, a good friend, a good spouse, a good daughter, a good sister, a good writer, a savvy reader, fit and healthy… it’s an endless list that I’m always working to support.

My need to be all these things at once turns my “self” – or more accurately, the pursuit of myself – into something suffocating and unwieldy, something that doesn’t resemble who I really am, and what my actual needs are. I’m trying to live up to the standards of my own ruthless inner critic, and critic-Ali has no mercy. She’s like Anton Ego from Ratatouille, and I’m living under her rule, forgetting that I cannot add value to me. I cannot remove value from me. My underhanded goal every day – to preserve my own worth – is a sham.

And so, as Flannery O’Connor laments above, I judge myself by the shadow that is nothing. At some point, I can no longer see the light that gives me life and intrinsic meaning because the shadow I have cast over it is too great. I end the day empty.

So long as your ambition is to stamp your existence upon existence, your nature on nature, then your ambition is corrupt and you are pursuing a ghost.

Christian Wiman
My Bright Abyss

I am the only lens I am given through which I can see and experience God, beauty, joy, and the people that make these things incarnate in my life. If I make my life about my insecurities, ambitions, and menial accomplishments, then why am I surprised when my lens turns dark and inscrutable? These things are nothing but smoke and shadow and noise, and I am left judging myself (and God) by the void I see.

Thomas Merton has some good words on the subject:

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the person that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God—because Truth, Light—knows nothing about [her]. And to be unknown to God is altogether too much privacy.

New Seeds of Contemplation

What a sorry muddle of we’ve made of ourselves, striving for worth and meaning that is already latent, inherent, and infused in everything around us. When I finally stop and recognize that bedrock beneath me, it feels like waking from a sluggish dream to the brisk wind of reality. I’m always somewhat relieved to find reality so sharp, so immediate, compared to the purgatory I’ve made for myself. To find God right in front of me and in me – apparent in every breath – always feels like a fresh revelation, when it should be my starting point every morning.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once put it: “There are things more important than self-knowledge.” And indeed, real knowledge of myself only seems to come when I stop trying to grasp it. Truth is only present in the shape of paradox – and I am only truthfully myself in the absence of all attempts to contrive my own life.

All of my desperate bluster to accomplish something speaks to a very simple truth: I don’t know who I am. I don’t know who I’m meant to be. And I’m desperate to define myself in a world that seems to only respond to blunt confidence.

But I can’t untangle the knot that is me. And in my more clear-sighted moments, this is almost comforting. There is more to me than I will ever be able to fathom, but I am known. These murky waters in me look clear to another. And above all, it is not my job to untangle myself. My job is to live this life I’ve been given with my eyes open, to love God and people (which is the same thing), to take in the world around me unfiltered, and to speak and create from the raw matter of my experience.

My job is to be. Not to define. I am already defined – and it’s probably better that I don’t know the definition.

And so I’m entering this Christmas season with my foot firmly on the brakes. No, the hours are not there for me to run the rat race, to construct a face in the mirror that I can understand. The hours are there for narrative, for story, for symphony. For progress and learning and growth. So one experience can build on the other. So God can make good from bad, time and again, in me and in the world.

It’s a window I need, not a mirror.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part, but then shall I know fully, even as I am fully known.

1 Corinthians 13:12