Friday, March 14, 2014

In Love With Our Own Reflection

"A Reflecting Pond"
-in a high desert canyon-

From time to time we enjoy driving up to the High Desert area not far from our house. I particularly enjoy one canyon there that contains a crystal clear reflecting pond where the water is so calm and so clear that when you gaze into the pond, you almost think you are looking into a mirror.

That pond always reminds me of the well-known Greek myth of Narcissus who gazed into a reflecting pond and saw the image of a beautiful, strong, young man.  He didn't realize that he was actually looking at his own image and falling in love with himself.  

Many people think that myths are untrue because they are stories about events that never happened. I think myths often contain even deeper truths than stories about real life happenings.  The myth of Narcissus is a deeply true story about human nature.

In this Lenten season, I have decided to re-read the writings of one of my favorite spiritual guides -  the mystic, Christian, Buddhist, monk, Thomas Merton. In my reading yesterday, I was particularly struck by something Merton once wrote in his well-known book, "No Man is an Island":

The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them. 

We only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.

I find great wisdom in this.

Narcissus managed to fool himself into thinking that he was loving someone else when in fact he was only loving himself. I think this is a danger any one of us can fall into.

Many relationships have conditional clauses attached to them. "I love you and I will continue to love you  if you behave the way I want you to behave. I will love you if  you think the way I want you to think, feel the way I want you to feel, look the way I want you to look."   

More than often this means, "I love you if you are a copy of me." Like Narcissus, we can fool ourselves into thinking we love someone else, when in fact, we are really in one with our own reflection.

I believe that this type of narcissistic "love" is not necessarily confined to interpersonal relationships. I think groups and cultures and societies can fall into the trap of narcissism -fooling themselves  into thinking they love others when they are really only loving themselves.

In my years as a priest I had many opportunities to serve as a consultant to various congregations who were assessing their mission and effectiveness as a church. In every single consultation I made, congregations would identity themselves as "warm, friendly and loving."  In particular they would claim that they readily welcomed new people and strangers into their midst. They even hung signs on their church doors: "All are Welcome!"

But after some deeper probing, I also discovered that in each of my church consultations there were some very clear conditions placed upon how warm and friendly and welcome that congregation would be.

Outsiders and strangers were only welcome if they were similar to the congregation. Similar in what they believed, similar in how they looked and dressed, similar in their politics and their socio-economic status.  Outsiders and foreigners either had to be similar to the congregation or at least be willing to get "cleaned up" - molded, formed and fashioned so that they would be like the congregation. 

I often thought that the sign on the church doors should read:  "All are sort of welcome."  All are welcome as long as you are a copy of who we are. 

Each and every one of the congregations I visited sincerely believed that they were "warm and friendly, welcoming and loving," but in fact, they were in love with their own reflection.

The same kind of narcissism can happen in families, in neighborhoods, in schools, work, organizations  or even in societies, nations and cultures. People can fool themselves into thinking they are friendly, welcoming, loving, open to embracing foreigners and strangers, but if they do so only if the others are copies of themselves, they are, in fact, in love with their own reflections.

I am going to spend the day today "reflecting" on my relationships.  I want to love others for who they are, and not for who I want them to be. 

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