Delivered by Rev. Kowalski, Oct. 2, 2011
How often is it that we have the opportunity to take a really good look at ourselves? Most of us wash our face and inspect the results in front of the mirror every morning, but the mirror shows a reversed image, not what we really look like. We’ve all seen ourselves in photographs, or on videotapes or home movies. To get on an airplane now, you have to show a photo I.D. But not many people I’ve met are really satisfied with the picture on their driver’s license. "It doesn’t look like me," they’ll say. The hair is funny, or there are too many wrinkles, or the eyes seem too squinty or far apart. The photo on my license, for instance, is way too bald and those big brow ridges make me look like a cave man. But the scary thing is that it really does look like me. The teller at the bank doesn’t have any problem recognizing Gary A. Kowalski when I present the proof of my identity in order to cash a check. The camera doesn’t lie. What the camera records just don’t correspond to the idealized self-image I carry around inside my head. The person I think I am is not the same as the person that other people see.
The difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us can be rather large. One inventor recently dramatized how big it can be when he invented what he calls a True Mirror. For most people, seeing themselves as they actually appear for the first time comes as a bit of a shock. In an ordinary mirror, your left eye is where your right should be. Reach your finger toward the surface, and the reflected image comes out to meet you until at last the two fingers touch. Reach your hand toward your reflection in a True Mirror and it comes snaking toward you from the other side. Wink here, and your reflection blinks there. Many people who look into the True Mirror make the surprising discovery that their hair isn’t parted on the side they always thought it was. For me, that wouldn’t be a problem. But it could be disconcerting to find out the boyish smile I’ve practiced so many times in front of the looking glass is really just a goofy grin. Like other new inventions, the True Mirror has a patent and a sales brochure with testimonials from satisfied customers. "It’s like looking at someone who looks familiar, but who I’ve never seen before." "I saw a person I’m not sure I know, but would like to." "Is this really who I am? My entire persona is 180 degrees from my own perception." Not all the customers are so enthusiastic, however. "It’s a wholly new view for many," according to the promotional literature, "and not surprisingly, some don’t like or feel comfortable with the new look."
It would appear that most of us have rather distorted ideas about who we are and how we come across. The person that we think we know best in the world—the one we’ve lived with all our lives—whose thoughts go rattling around inside our heads—may paradoxically be the one we know least. After fifty-seven years of inhabiting my own skin, I think I’m rather familiar with my own personality traits. I know more or less how vain I am, and just how insecure. But if I’m like other people, I must have enormous blind spots as well, things about myself that I just don’t see or have real trouble acknowledging, because they’re too threatening or not congruent with who I think I am. And I’m sure it’s the parts of myself that I deny that create the most trouble. Though readily apparent to others, they are invisible to me, and so almost impossible to correct for.
Memory is one of those fun house mirrors that often distorts more than it reports. Fifty years ago, in 1962, a psychiatrist named Daniel Offer interviewed 74 fourteen year old boys to gather their self-perceptions about a variety of emotionally charged topics: sexuality, religion, home life and parental discipline. Thirty-four years later, Dr. Offer interviewed the now grown men again, at age forty-eight, to see how their adult memories of adolescence matched the descriptions they’d provided when they were teens. Remarkably, there was almost no correspondence between reminiscence and reality. Men who recalled being bold and outgoing in their youth had reported feeling shy and awkward middle school. And having matured through the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies, most men recollected having been much more adventuresome than was actually the case. Nearly half remembered holding the opinion that having intercourse in high school was okay, for example, while when they were fourteen-years-old hardly any felt that way. Of course, we always knew that guys lie about sex. We just didn’t realize how much they lie to themselves. Memory is less a faithful photographic record, it turns out, than a photo-shopped portrait, colored as much by our current desire to look good as by anything that really happened.
Self-scrutiny and honesty are my topics for today. For this interval that the Jews call the High Holy Days, the span between Rosh Hashanah or New Year and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is traditionally a time for self-examination, taking a long, critical look into the mirror and asking whether we like what we see. In Judaism, among the orthodox, it is a time for repentance, the confession of sin and wrongdoing, whose purpose is to restore our lives to right relation with God. But I like to think that there’s another reason for this kind of self-appraisal, also. The reason to acknowledge our limitations, our mistakes and shortcomings is not for God’s sake so much as for our own, in my opinion—to gain a more accurate picture of ourselves. For atonement, as I understand it, is less a ritual of placation or appeasement than a process of at-one-ment, bringing our self-image into closer alignment with the face we show to the rest of the world.
After all, it’s only people who can see their mistakes who stand any chance of fixing them. For instance, there was a researcher at the University at Pennsylvania who did a study of what makes a good or bad surgeon. By talking to young doctors who had been fired or flunked their internships, he found that it wasn’t intelligence, or even steady hands that separated the successful sawbones from the unsuccessful. "When I interviewed the surgeons who were fired, I used to leave the interview shaking," this researcher said. "I would hear these horrible stories about what they did wrong, but the thing was that they didn’t know that what they did was wrong. In my interviewing, I began to develop what I thought was an indicator of whether someone was going to be a good surgeon or not. It was a couple of simple questions: Have you ever made a mistake? And if so, what was your worst mistake? The people who said, ‘Gee, I haven’t really had one,’ or ‘I’ve had a couple of bad outcomes but they were due to things outside my control’—invariably those were the worst candidates. And the residents who said, ‘I make mistakes all the time. There was this horrible thing that happened just yesterday and here’s what it was.’ They were the best. They had the ability to rethink everything that they’d done and imagine how they might have done it differently."
Surgeons, of course, do make mistakes fairly often. The one who removed my mother’s kidney when
she gave me an organ transplant
many years ago managed during that operation to accidentally take out her spleen at the same time. But there was no harm done and no extra charge for the service. I’m reminded of the old joke about the man who dies and goes to heaven. He’s on the orientation tour when suddenly a guy walks by wearing a white coat with a stethoscope dangling out of the pocket, striding down the golden streets like he owns the whole avenue, with an air of great self-importance. The man asks the tour guide, "Who does that guy think he is, God?" The guide replies, "Actually, that is God. He just thinks he’s a doctor." A doctor who minimized her mistakes or pretended to be infallible would be in danger of playing God, but by the same token, one who magnified or exaggerated her errors would be equally dangerous, paralyzed by a sense of perpetual inadequacy. The trick is to see our flaws and errors for what they are, to put them in proper perspective. Too small, and we can simply dismiss them. Too big and they become overwhelming. Seen properly, they become manageable, material we can work with, opportunities to learn and grow.
It makes me think that the old proverb ought to be reversed: "to forgive is human, to err is divine." Because too often we hold ourselves and each other to unattainable standards of perfection. We’re afraid to admit errors that might make us appear to be something less than omniscient or all powerful, having been taught that strong, intelligent, successful people don’t have vulnerabilities and don’t make mistakes. As the scriptures admonish, "Be ye perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect." But it’s interesting to me, at least, that these words from the Gospel of Matthew have probably been mistranslated and misunderstood. For the term that Jesus uses is teleios, a word usually rendered as "perfect" but which comes from the Greek telos, which if you remember your freshman philosophy means the the attainment of some inner goal or striving. So that this phrase from the Sermon on the Mount is perhaps better given as "Be complete, be all inclusive, be fully developed or mature," as creation itself contains the bad along with the good, as the sun shines impartially on the just and unjust.
Now it’s not easy to be mature, to own up to our failures and imperfections. Maturity would mean that the individuals in the middle of a divorce, for example, don’t put all the blame on the other party but accept that both sides might have contributed a little to the impasse. Maturity would mean not putting all the responsibility for how our lives turned out on our parents or dysfunctional childhood or other forces outside our control, but acknowledging our own part in determining whether we feel happy or frustrated by our fate. Being an adult, fully realized person would mean acknowledging that the world is big trouble, not just because of the corporations or the Tea Party or the media or the liberals, but at least in part because of things I’ve done or failed to do. Maturity would mean admitting our own part in the problem, and nobody likes admitting they were wrong or at fault in any way.
But it’s only people who know they have rough edges who also have growing edges. So author and activist Alice Walker, writes of "the futility of expecting anyone, including oneself, to be perfect. People who go about seeking to change the world, to diminish suffering, to demonstrate any kind of enlightenment, are often as flawed as anybody else. Sometimes more so. But it is the awareness of having faults (Walker says) and the knowledge that this links us to everyone on earth, that opens us to courage and compassion. It occurs to me often that many of those I deeply love are flawed. They might actually have said or done some of the mean things I’ve felt, heard, read about, or feared. But it is their struggle with the flaw, surprisingly endearing, and the going on anyhow, that is part of what I cherish in them."
So these are the questions I’d like to leave you with in these High Holy Days. Can we learn to see ourselves as others see us—wildly imperfect, but still works-in-progress? Are we mature enough to admit our mistakes and learn from them? Can we judge others as we ourselves would like to be judged, not only by our actions, which so often fall short of our intentions, but also by the ideals that guide us in our better moments? Do dare to change the world, beginning with ourselves?
May we find here the wisdom to know ourselves and the courage to become the people we were meant to be. And may we strive toward at-one-ment, that the inner self and the outward might grow to be as one.