Have you ever seen a picture of yourself and thought that you look strange or not like yourself? Did you think, “Is that really what I look like?”
You are not alone. There is a scientific basis for this phenomenon. The image of ourselves that we are most familiar with is the one we see in the mirror every day. But this is actually the reverse of what we really look like. The right side appears on the left and vice versa. Our brains are trained to prefer images that are familiar. That which is known is more attractive to us. So, when we see pictures taken by others — a seemingly “flipped” version of our own image — it can appear unfamiliar and therefore unappealing to us.
In the age of endless selfies and video conferencing, there is no shortage of opportunities to scrutinize one’s own image. Most apps have an “inversion filter” or “mirror filter” that automatically flips the screen when taking pictures or videos, because most of us think we look better that way. I used to think I looked great on Zoom calls until I learned that inversion is their default camera setting. But the person I see as “me” in the mirror is not the same Karen that others see.
There is an important spiritual parallel here. Do we ever truly look at ourselves with honest eyes? Do we allow ourselves to be seen as we are, or do we put on appearances for others? Do we see ourselves as God sees us?
As we approach the beginning of Lent later this month, we all have the opportunity to engage in honest self-reflection. It is a chance to “get real” with ourselves and turn to the truth.
The Scriptures of Ash Wednesday seem to me to speak in a particular way to social media culture, where many of the images put forth are a façade. These slightly distorted representations of the self are carefully cultivated to gain the approval of others or fit in with cultural norms. We often make great efforts to curate a desirable persona. In this way, we are so much like the hypocrites of Matthew’s Gospel, who put on pious public displays of their prayer and fasting.
To be a Christian disciple is to abandon such masks and put aside the false self. Rend your heart, not your garments. The outward show may look like holiness in the mirror, but it is the Father who sees what is hidden. It is the Father who sees us truly as we are.
Ultimately, to follow Jesus to the cross means to let go of the illusions of self-sufficiency and self-mastery and to instead ask: What does God want of me? What does God see in me? Who does God want me to be?
I hope that this season of Lent is a time to see ourselves more clearly, with genuine eyes of faith.