Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Man In The Mirror

There is a screen shot of me in the Now post that is about as accurate as portraiture can get. There I am, with my hair uncombed, wearing the reading glasses that hardly anybody ever sees, not because I think that they're unattractive, but because my value system reveres clear vision to the extent that I dislike seeing myself using technology to augment mine. I'm 20/20 or bust, in metaphor and in life. I do eventually have to wear my glasses, or I get a headache, but that it isn't how I present myself. It's private. It's like looking at myself in the mirror.

"Mirror, mirror, on the wall...Who is the fairest of us all??"

Move over, Disney. I have the most interactive mirror in the world.

There's a Bible verse that has followed me all my life, in and out of religion. It's James 1:23, and my intention here is not to start a conversation about the Bible. There are many other places where you can go to have that conversation. Rather, I recognize this verse to function as well in isolation, rendering a simple truth of the human condition. Warning the reader about the difference between "hearing" and "doing," James draws a figure who looks at himself in the mirror, and then walks away and forgets what he has seen. I have a hair trigger response to hypocrisy, as we all do -- ironically, that sensitivity exists only when we're looking outside of ourselves -- and I recognize this figure from a thousand real life interactions. In the personal, the political, and the personal as political, people simply cannot remember what they look like. And the logic follows: if you go to the mirror to cleanse yourself, it is likely that you will end up with some very shiny glass.

At the age of ten, I was a better Bible scholar than I have been since. Ten-year-olds have a way of being sure of things. And, like most ten-year-olds, I didn't understand pop music. I did like it, but I didn't understand it. Who needs nostalgia before you have lived long enough to lose anything? And this -- this particular blend of wisdom and ignorance -- is what led me to to have a disagreement with Michael Jackson.

A Facebook friend linked this youtube video shortly after he died: Michael Jackson at the Grammy's in 1989, bringing the house down -- come on, sing it with me, now --"I'm starting with the man in the mirror. I'm asking him to change his ways." When I watch it now I think, "What an amazing performer he was!" On that giant stage, that whole choir full of passionate voices just disappears behind him. They can't compete. He's terrific.

But in 1989, I had a better idea of my own intelligence. "Michael Jackson, you may be the most extraordinary performer I've ever seen. You may share with Jack White and Chita Rivera the ability to put off your skin, to sing your vocal cords right out of existence so that the audience can see through to the beating heart within. But, Michael Jackson, this will never work. You see, I know this one. You can't change yourself by looking at your reflection."

Eventually I turned eleven. And then I turned twelve, and so on, and I guess I forgot. I certainly didn't have that wisdom when I was fifteen and trying to fit into a certain pair of jeans, by looking at myself in the mirror. I didn't have it as a director, trying to get to be a better artist, by looking at myself in the print reviews. I didn't have it as a parent, trying to raise better kids, judging my parenting by what it might look like to other parents. It will never work, Michael Jackson. It's a genuine, heartfelt, beautiful desire. But it will never work.

I mentioned this last night to my brother Jacob, as we were driving down Mass Ave, taking Beth back to her dorm room with a new-to-her microwave in the back of the car. Jacob is nothing if not thoughtful, and had an intimidating supply of salient points on the subject. "Have you had a chance to look at the research," he asked, "that finds that people are actually more productive when there is a mirror in the room?"

I hadn't.

"It's a function of self-awareness," he said, "and the construction of the exoself." It's a little challenging for me to quote Jacob, because in the hierarchy of intelligence as measured by knowledge, which I dislike and find false, yet also recognize to be observable, Jacob is smarter than I am. But there is one point that didn't escape me at all:

"The image of yourself keeps you motivated, because it allows you to to compare what you are doing with what you should be doing."

We all know a little something about that.

Desiring maximum productivity, Jacob has strategically placed his mirrors. I thought briefly about moving the big mirror from the hallway a little closer to my desk. But then I remembered that my desk is currently wearing a book called Leisure: The Basis of Culture, which I don't have the time to read. Unlike Jacob, I don't have a job. And I don't want to be productive. For this one special, magic year when my kids are still babies and I'm not yet tired of New England, I want to just live.

The growing awareness of the conflict between productivity and life is like a rabbit hole, like Neo's red pill. The more I stop working, the more I realize how much life there is to be led, if I only I could stop working. And the only way to stop working is to stop desiring success, and the only way to break my love affair with success is to try to tear my eyes away -- like Narcissus -- from my own pretty reflection in the pool.

These are not original ideas. Those lilies of the field... They toil not, neither do they spin. Neither do they spend too much time looking in the mirror.

Aside from the issue of personal spirituality -- that loss of open space -- I've been beginning to address the effect of 24/7 media access on the locus of control. I've written a half a dozen posts about how I want my decision-making back. I want to decide how I hold the people I love. I want to decide how to spend and save my money. I want to decide how to be a feminist. But all the while, I keep wanting to know how I look. How does this feminism look on me? Does it make me look fat? How about this Christianity? Does it make me look stupid? How about this quiet of the soul? Does it make me look like a lazy housewife?

I'd better go check the mirror. I'd better check my image in the mirror against this full-scale bitmap of the world.

I don't imagine it to be conspiracy, that keeps us in the thrall of our own reflections. I don't imagine it to be conspiracy, either, that makes us work as hard as we do. We're all too smart for that. We wouldn't fall for it. No, this can only be happening because we want it to happen. But why is that? Are we over-performing for our omnipresent mirrors? Is this nonstop drive to accomplish only another facet of our nonstop, every-second-of-the-day awareness of ourselves from the outside in?

"Mirror, mirror, on the wall..."

I am concerned about the repercussions that our mirror-watching may have on our mental health. I am concerned about the extent to which we already live outside of ourselves. We split our identity from our attributes and work the two against each other.

"I hate my body."
"I am not in control of my anger."
"I don't feel my pain."

Are we trying to live our entire lives in that mirror?

It will never work, Michael Jackson. It makes a great pop song. It's a beautiful, true impulse. But it just won't work. We can't stare our bodies into imagined states of perfection. We can't live our lives without experiencing anger. And even if we hide our faults from everyone -- including ourselves -- they won't just go away.

And this brings me to the edge of it; in these concerns, I am officially out of my league. I probably shouldn't even have brought it up, since even my Year Without Internet is not the training that I need to address that kind of darkness. Maybe I will someday get that kind of training.

In the meantime, I will keep listening to my Michael Jackson, understanding now what nostalgia is, and how that might apply.


Cheryl Brummer Katz said...

I'm not sure I completely agree with you, though I do really like this post.

I didn't get the sense that "Man in the Mirror" was advising people to improve themselves guided by the image they saw in the mirror. I see how you could get the message that you're being told to improve how good a person you are perceived to be.

But ultimately this boils down to a quandary I raised with my rabbi a few months ago, about the observance of mitzvot.

Parenthetically: Mitzvah is often used to mean "general good deed" but what it really means is "commandment" - things that Jews are required to do by the terms set out in the Torah. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Keep linen and wool fibers separate. Etc. ;) Some are more stringently emphasized these days than others.

I noticed that I often pursue mitzvot that align well with my own value system, or that I appreciate will make me a better person, or at least a person more like what I want to be. (I do some of the more arbitrary ones, too, but I don't have the same concerns about those.) I wondered if my mitzvot could be somehow mitigated by the fact that sometimes I do them for partially selfish reasons.

I know that this is a diversion from Christian viewpoints on the purposes and specifications of a "good deed," but his response was that the motivation doesn't matter, since the material change to the world is a net positive. Would it really have more value to give to charity because of arbitrary committment to following rules than because a) one wanted to help someone or b) one wanted to establish the facade of being the type of person who gives to charity?

I think we can all start "with the man in the mirror" to make the world a better place, even if we are doing it to make our mirror image look better to ourselves and to others. Helping other people is the ultimate goal, no matter what motivates us to make the change. Whether a material improvement in the world is altruistic or selfish in nature, I think, hardly matters at the end of the day.

Esther said...

That is, Cheryl, a diversion from Christian viewpoints. And a fascinating one.

"Whether a material improvement in the world is altruistic or selfish in nature" hardly matters at the end of WHOSE day?

It may not matter to the net good in the world, and so -- I hope I'm understanding you here -- it may not give God a bad day.

But what I'm afraid of is that, in the end, it gave Michael Jackson a bad day. Or that, those of us who imitate him are giving ourselves a bad day.

So my eyes are drawn in this to personal psychology instead of global affairs. I don't know if that's better or worse, but I can trace it, I think.

The Christian viewpoint is a psychological one. Salvation is related to a state of mind -- the way you locate yourself in relation to the divine -- and that state of mind can absolutely be affected by your motives. It is your motives. To a Christian, your motives may not matter to the world, but they absolutely do matter to your soul.

In fact, in many expressions of the Christian viewpoint -- and I hope this doesn't alarm you -- helping other people isn't the ultimate goal at all. Serving God is the ultimate goal, and that's a state of being. Good works come with serving God, but they are not, in themselves, what opens the gates of Heaven.

This is an observable difference, and one greatly worth talking about. I'm glad you brought it up.

And thanks for the teachings on mitzvot.

Cheryl Brummer Katz said...

It doesn't alarm me at all that helping other people isn't the central Christian goal. In fact, I once was Christian, and that emphasis on psychological transformation, as you say, that emphasis on salvation was ultimately what drove me away, and led me on the long path upon which I arrived at Judaism. I always believed, and found a home for my belief in Judaism, that living this life in anticipation of a reward or fear of a punishment in the next is a thing to avoid, that this life can and should be meaningful in the present because (at least, this is what MY Jewish perspective is, though obviously I don't speak for every Jew) we don't know what comes later. I can only hope that the choices I make and the things I offer to this world are pleasing to God, but really I have no way to know, or even to know if what I get out of the Torah is really what God intended when it was given to Moses back in the day.

I hope I don't sound antagonistic to Christianity, though I know I run that risk. I simply mean that I fall on the other side of that divergence we were talking about, and this is one of those areas where Jews and Christians often have to agree to disagree for the benefit of civil discourse.

I also shouldn't misrepresent the Jewish viewpoint. There is a long history of discussion in the Talmud and other rabbinic texts (not that I could quote them expertly or anything) about the effects of performing mitzvot. Certainly even in my experience, doing mitzvot/"good deeds" even just to arbitrarily do them changes me a little bit. Change a habit, change yourself - make charity a financial goal, and you just might find yourself caring about the welfare of others at the end of the day.

Of course the primary objective in following the commandments set out in the Torah is to make God happy, ostensibly by improving the world with material works both public and private. Serve God by following the 613 rabbinically-documented arbitrary rules which He Himself set forth! (Maybe that divergence isn't ultimately as wide as we thought - serving God being the ultimate goal.) As far as Torah is concerned, serving God results in a better world, and if we're lucky, better selves as well.

But to bring this back to Michael Jackson - he was specifically lobbying for a better world with fewer starving and freezing children. Hard to fault anyone for making that a goal, really, and while helping people may not get Christians into Heaven, technically... it's kind of a nice thing to do, and it's all Michael Jackson was asking for.

MJ was a little less demanding than God, no matter what religious path one walks. :)

Esther said...

You are absolutely right about Michael Jackson. Thank you.

You know, you see one thing as a kid, and then you see it as an adult and it's different, but really, BOTH versions are incomplete.

In this post I'm seeing that my childish point of view of MJ was a mix of wisdom and ignorance. I was seeing something true. I really do think we have a problem with trying to fix ourselves by looking at ourselves. And I think that does translate into trying to fix the world's problems in a way that is full of a certain kind of self-awareness, but lacking in another. We sometimes just don't remember what WE are doing, when we go around trying to "help" everybody else. That wasn't MJ, in particular. But the odd identity of a celebrity activist contains that contradiction.

Not to introduce a third religious tradition, but my concerns there -- the way that vanity, or self-awareness, can obscure the truth of God -- might also be addressed by the teachings of Buddhism, which I am really not qualified to speak for. :)

But I'm happy to cede that applying all that to Michael Jackson is unfair to his memory. And I'm happiest of all that we each are addressing our moral code, and the source of the moral code, which is what MJ probably would have wanted us to do.