Three Mirrors: Pride, Vanity, and God’s
“Know thyself” was the ancient maxim that Socrates handed on to Plato. Jesus upped the ante, saying “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
All of that puts a premium on knowing yourself, something we are well equipped to do. Our faith puts a giant mirror in front of ours faces and invites us to look — but too often, we look at other, less honest mirrors.
One mirror we examine ourselves in is our pride.
The “pride” mirror we look at is like that funhouse mirror children love because it makes them look like giants.
When I look at myself with pride, I am the star of the Me Show which is my life. Those things I did yesterday were all segments of the show. There was the Family Hero segment, where I selflessly replaced the butter in the dish that had run out (I ignore that I also neglected to put away my dishes and rushed to get to the shower to stop someone else from going first). There was Interaction With Coworker segment, in which, according to the pride mirror, I said just the right thing in just the right way (though my coworker would disagree).
The pride mirror is uncritically flattering: My exercise yesterday becomes My Great Perseverance while the part of the exercise I skipped becomes My Great Prudence. The cookie I skipped was Self-Discipline; the soda I drank was Self-Care.
In the mirror of pride, I am always “the fairest of them all.”
There is another mirror we look at that makes us grotesque.
In addition to the funhouse mirror that makes you look like a giant, there is the funhouse mirrors that make you look misshapen and monstrous.
I often look at myself in that mirror and get depressed. I remember what I said yesterday and I can’t believe what an idiot I was. Or I remember the mistake I made seven years ago and shame wells up in me with all the sting of a fresh wound.
This kind of thinking is very common nowadays, and is at the root of spiking rates of anxiety and depression, according to some psychologists. We “catastrophize” every mistake and turn every fault into a fatal flaw. One great counter-practice is “cognitive behavioral therapy,” which helps people recognizes common thinking errors to catch them and correct them.
The mirror that makes me look grotesque is the Mirror of Vanity. When I am vain, I believe that others’ opinions of me is all that matters. I am enraged at myself for not being the master of each situation, and my wounded pride tells me that everyone rejects me over my weakness. This mirror distorts my understanding of myself and makes me look twisted and dark.
We should look in the third mirror, the one God gives us.
The third mirror I can look at has no distortion at all. It just shows me, made in the image and likeness of God, who loves me eternally. My virtues are real in this mirror, and so are my vices. If I am willing to look at them clearly, I can fix mistakes that need fixing, and laugh off mistakes that don’t. Alongside Jesus Christ, I see how weak I am in addition to how great I am, to be loved by one such as he.
How great am I? St. John Paul II said: “Compared to the immensity of the universe, man is very small, and yet this very contrast reveals his greatness: ‘You have made him little less than a god, and crown him with glory and honor.’”
Or, “As we look up to our God we are nothing — but as God looks down on us, we are everything,” as a character in Navis Pictures’ movie St. Bernadette of Lourdes put it.
The woman of Canaan knew who she was: She was not the star of her own Me Show. She was a beggar before God, like a dog — but one worthy of the full attention and personal responsiveness of the Second Person of the Trinity.
Where can we find this mirror if we have lost it?
If you have a crucifix, look there. Or look at any of the Stations of the Cross. Remind yourself: “He did this for me” — both because my sins deserved it, and because God himself thought I was worth it.
Or look to the face of Jesus. “Christ reveals man to himself,” St. John Paul was fond of saying as he was preparing the Church for the Great Jubilee celebration of Jesus. Afterwards, he said, “if we ask what is the core of the great legacy the Jubilee leaves us, I would not hesitate to describe it as the contemplation of the face of Christ.”
It’s the mirror I look in every morning to remind me that my life is not the Me Show but his story — and to keep those lying funhouse mirrors away.
This appeared at Aleteia.