Life of Brian

And so it goes with God.

The Imposter and the Looking Glass

I’ve never formally studied sociology, but I spent part of a summer traveling in Brazil with a sociologist, and picked up a few ideas along the way.  One of these ideas that has stuck with me is the “looking-glass self.” The main idea of the looking-glass self is relatively simple. In three central pieces: (1) we imagine how we appear to others, (2) we imagine and react to what we feel their judgement of that appearance must be, and (3) we develop our self through the judgments of others. I think we often realize that we easily perceive ourselves based on the opinions of others. But this concept introduces a layer that seems to edge closer to reality: we imagine these perceptions. Because of the fact that we rarely know how most people perceive us (if they are paying attention to us at all), we end up imagining both our appearance in the eyes of others as well as their judgement of such.

The role of imagination in the creation of our self-identity is striking. While our ideas of how others perceive and judge us are based on truth, and sometimes perhaps fairly accurate, they are not entirely true. The idea of imagination tells us that there is some gap between our constructed ideas and reality. We often live in a fictional world where people think and feel all kinds of things about us that they actually never have. And we make real-world decisions based on this fictional world, continually hoping that if we act or speak or move in the right way, it will enhance others’ judgements of us. Judgements that we rarely ever actually know.

A few days ago I encountered a chapter from a book by Brennan Manning that brought the looking-glass self to mind. Manning was an American priest, author, and speaker, known for his book The Ragamuffin Gospel. The chapter I read is called “The Imposter,” from Manning’s book Abba’s Child. Its central claim is this: we often live as an imposter of our true self. This imposter lives in fear of the rejection and disapproval of others, constantly working to maintain one’s image. As Manning writes: “The imposter is a liar.” When we live as the imposter, we pour our energy into managing what we think others perceive of us. We live fully into the looking-glass self in the worst kind of way. We live in fear that someone—particularly a someone whose opinion we highly value—might see in us something unappealing or unimpressive. We live as someone that we were never meant to be.

I found Manning’s words uncomfortable, not because I thought them untrue, but because with each sentence I increasingly felt that he was talking about me.

The other night—after having read Manning’s chapter on the imposter—I find myself scrolling through whatever snippets of others’ lives a Facebook algorithm has decided that I should be interested in. There’s really nothing interesting, but perhaps if I keep scrolling, something will be worth my time. I see that someone has changed their cover photo. It makes them look adventurous. It’s good to look adventurous. So I think: “Maybe I should change my cover photo. Perhaps that will make me appear more adventurous.” I begin to think about what picture might be best. And then Manning’s words come to mind, and I am astonished by my own thought process. While it doesn’t seem unreasonable to put some thought into which photo I might put on a social media site (because I certainly hope we think before putting anything on the internet), the fact that I base my actions largely on what others will think of me is appalling to me. I had sat and pondered how well others would perceive me based on one photo. This showed me to be, in both motivation and thought, an imposter.

I’m certain that I’m not the only one guilty of this kind of thinking. While Facebook and other social media outlets are not the only places (or even the main places) that we can act as a self-absorbed imposter, the process is perhaps clearer there than elsewhere. We will sit down to post a thought or photo, write a comment, or do whatever else, with the express intention of improving our image. And then we wait for the instant feedback, the likes and comments, particularly from those people we value most. Not only do we act in order to enhance our image in the eyes of others, but we care far more about what some people think than others. All of us have people in our lives whose opinion matters little to us, because we ourselves have assigned it low value. We live for the approval of those whom we ourselves approve. The same can be true outside of social media, from the way we dress to the way we talk to whom we sit next to on the bus. Dressing and talking and sitting on the bus aren’t the problem. It’s our constant motivation to be impressive, even in the smallest of things.

We don’t always operate this way, online or off, but we must not excuse ourselves too easily. Even when mixed with healthy motivations of relationship, community, and connection, the imposter so easily and often creeps in. And whenever we act out of hope that another will think highly of us, we also act out of fear that they won’t. Living for the approval of others becomes inevitably connected with living in fear of their disapproval. The imposter will tell us that we don’t actually live this way, that we’re not really all that concerned with others’ image of us. Yet this only brings self-deceit on another level: we easily pride ourselves on the fact that people think we don’t care about the judgements of others, that we have a healthy self-esteem. And the imposter sneaks back in, as we work to maintain this image of not being all that concerned with our image. The imposter is cunning.

It’s often easy to continue living in this way, as an imposter of our true self, constantly seeking the imagined approval of an imagined image. Yet there are some moments when living as the imposter is actually quite difficult. For me, these moments are most often marked by laughter. When we laugh so hard that our eyes fill with tears and we can hardly breathe, there isn’t much energy left to imagine the judgements of others. We find ourselves lost in joy. We don’t seek to analyze the moment; we simply revel in the experience of being alive. And the imposter is nowhere to be found.

The imposter flees in these moments of laughter, in times of honesty, in relationships of true depth and intimacy. The imposter flees when we consider others before ourselves, seeking the good in them, even when it takes work to find it. The imposter flees when we approach the world not as a minefield of judgement, but as a grand adventure waiting to be had. The imposter flees when we forgive and when we seek forgiveness. The imposter flees when we are lost in a good story. The imposter flees when we find ourselves really living.

And ultimately, the imposter flees when we understand who we truly are, and live in light of this identity. If the imposter thrives on imagining what others think of us, our true self thrives on knowing who we are. And who are we? Our true identity is still defined by another’s judgement, as posited by the looking-glass self. But not the judgements of our imagination. We are defined by the most true judgement of all, which requires no imagination on our part: the love of God. Manning says it well: “Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.”

Speaking Up

I rarely post anything on Facebook, and even less frequently on this blog. There are so many voices and opinions flooding our screens, one more hardly seems necessary. When it comes to the internet, silence is often my default approach.

Over the past year or so, our nation and our news feeds have been filled with anything but silence. Much of this has been discourse on race, sparked by events in Ferguson, Staten Island, and elsewhere. Now Baltimore. The subject of race in America has become difficult, perhaps impossible, to ignore.

Many in my community have been speaking up about race—supporting protestors, defending police, asking questions, seeking support, questioning logic, arguing over terms, standing in solidarity, demanding justice, pleading, debating, crying out for help. In the midst of this, I have been quiet, mostly silent. I have occasionally shared an article on Facebook, or expressed my concerns, questions, and thoughts to those closest to me. Nothing that one would call “speaking up.”

All that could have been said always seemed to be said by another. Why add my voice if I had nothing new to share?

My silence has also come from my cynicism. My emotions are generally filtered through my thinking (I am an INTJ through and through), meaning that I find it easy to discredit that which seems emotionally charged. My mind thrives on consistent and logical argument, so when articles or posts misuse terms, misrepresent ideas, or throw logic and evidence out the window, I struggle to consider the author’s perspective. For better or worse, I am difficult to convince.

With commentary on race abounding, and many arguments filled with gaping holes, silence was a comfortable option for me. I could read, evaluate, criticize, and form opinions without any real risk. Certainly I agreed with much that I heard and read. I desired a better reality for my brothers and sisters experiencing injustice and oppression. I knew that something was terribly wrong. The fact that some in our country are more likely to be pulled over, incarcerated, shot, or forced to live in fear because of the color of their skin is undeniable and unacceptable.

Yet silence remained comfortable, and a posture that didn’t seem to contribute to injustice or oppression. Yet at an event that my university hosted last fall, a professor shared three words that shocked me: “Passivity is violence.” Was my tendency to remain silent, fueled by my hyper-critical nature, a form of violence? It certainly didn’t seem to be.

I continued to be challenged by these words. Were my choices somehow contributing to violence? Or perhaps contributing to a lack of justice and peace? These questions haunted me. I had no clear notion of how to move forward. Unsure of what else to do, of what I might say, I began to listen.

And what I began to hear were people asking to be heard. Pleading for me to listen. Begging that we join their cause to create a nation that acts like black lives matter.

I still have the option of remaining silent, of analyzing the news when I have the time, and continuing on with my life. The status quo will treat me—a relatively wealthy, well-educated white American male—quite well. But not all my friends have this option of continuing in comfortability. For many born with a skin color different than mine, injustice, judgement, and inequality remain the status quo. Members of my community are calling for someone to help, and asking that I use my voice to do so.

My voice is needed in the struggle for justice. Your voice is needed in the struggle for justice.

I have remained silent for too long. To those in my community who have been asking for help: I am sorry that I have been so slow to speak. I am here for you, to listen, to advocate, to toil together for a community of equality, humility, and true justice. In so many ways I don’t understand what you experience and feel. I have many questions, and I am as cynical as ever. But I better understand that you need my voice, along with everyone’s voice, to speak up with you.

For those afraid to speak up, unsure of what to do, cynical like me: You are not being asked to abandon your questions. You are not being asked to give up logic and evidence. You are not being asked to agree with particular policies, religious or theological views, or social theories. You are not being asked to adopt any particular vocabulary that may be unsettling to you. You are not being asked to support violence, looting, or any particular verdict.

What you are being asked is simply this: To recognize that many of your brothers and sisters are treated unjustly because of the color of their skin. To see that this status quo is one that cannot remain. And to acknowledge that doing nothing, saying nothing, enables the persistence of this status quo.

If I do not speak up in support of a different kind of future, I remain a force in support of our violent reality. Tacit support is not enough. I must say something.

Silence permits injustice. Passivity is violence.

Baking Cinnamon Rolls Like Grandma

Last November I wrote about change. About how change comes even with those things that feel eternal. Change has come in my world; on September 7th my Grandma passed away, after a most incredible life of ninety-three years. Those family sunsets on the beach will never be the same. I wrote in November that I “want[ed] to marvel at the fact that we have gotten to watch sunsets together at all.” And how marvelous it is has been.

I won’t get to watch any more sunsets with my Grandma, but there are certainly more sunsets in store for me. And whatever context that sun is setting in, I hope to live in the same way that my Grandma did.

My Grandma used to bake cinnamon rolls every Saturday morning. For years and years and years, long before I was around. Not pre-made, store-bought cinnamon rolls, but hand-kneaded and homemade. Every Saturday morning, just as she finished frosting them, friends and family would happen to be in the neighborhood. These cinnamon rolls have become something of a legend in my family. Everyone has been talking about them in the days since my Grandma’s passing. While the cinnamon rolls themselves are worth talking about, it’s really something else that has kept them the center of our conversation: my Grandma’s love. Mother Theresa said that we shouldn’t “look for big things, just do small things with great love.” My Grandma might not have done very many big things, but she lived just like she baked cinnamon rolls: always with the greatest of love.

When I was little I had a sweatshirt that said, “There’s no place like home. Except Grandma’s.” And this was really true. As the little brother and the youngest of the grandkids, I always seemed to end up at Grandma’s house while everyone else was out on some kind of adventure. I never complained about this, though, because Grandma’s was the greatest place to be. It was home in every sense. No place could be more comfortable, more welcoming, or have such an endless supply of cookies. Grandma endlessly offered all that she had—her time, her cookies, her love—to make others feel at home.

The day of my Grandma’s memorial service I was able to see her signature on the church’s 1958 charter. My Grandma was a part of the church from its beginnings (my grandparents helped to literally build the church) until she died. In short, she stuck around for a long time. While the church moved through numerous pastors, members came and left, and the building was remolded, expanded, and remodeled again and again, my Grandma stayed put. When she told her family fifty-six years ago they were going to join the new Lutheran church in town, Grandma was in it for the long haul. She didn’t leave when the seasons changed, but remained faithful to her community by sticking around.

I miss my Grandma terribly. I want to see her, to hug her, and to tell her all about school and other things, but I can’t. She’s gone. But until the time comes when I do get see her again, I’ll be busy: faithfully sticking around in my community, making a home for others, and baking cinnamon rolls for all.

Grandma, I miss you a lot, but I love you even more.

Just thanks.

I read this in Donald Miller’s Through Painted Deserts recently:
“Thanks, Don.”
“Thanks for what?”
“Just thanks.”

So I wanted to say thanks to you all. Just thanks. But also for some particular things, and to some particular people:

Thanks for being gracious with me. I make a lot of mistakes.
Thanks for going to Joshua Tree with me. That might be my favorite week of this year.
Thanks for making me sign up for the half marathon.
Thanks for praying for me. I do my best to pray for you.

Thanks for being willing to cry in front of me. It lets me know that you trust me.
Thanks for sitting through those floor meetings. I thought they were boring too.
Thanks for sharing your story with me. That’s a brave thing to do.
Thanks for continuing to be my friend. I know I haven’t made the best effort to spend time with you.

Thanks for not accepting my flippant answers. I need people to look at me and ask, “really?”
Thanks for letting me eat your food and sleep in your house. I hope that I can be as hospitable as you.
Thanks for being my roommates. I really miss living with you.
Thanks for letting me lead you. I know that I’m not perfect, but I love the community we have created together.

Thanks for being exactly who you are. You and your friendship have meant absolutely everything to me.
Thanks for going hiking with me.
Thanks for listening to me. Even if you don’t have answers, it’s good to know that you want to hear.
Thanks for letting me play some part in your life. I know that you are busy and don’t have space for all that many people, but you continue to give me your time.

But mostly, just thanks.

This Place

This place.  This is my favorite place.  It may be hard at first to see why, so I will try to help you see.

You see that beach?  It may be rough and rocky, ridden with barnacles; nothing fit for a postcard.  But this shore is a treasure hunt.  Where my brother and I would hunt for agates, crabs, and clams.  This shore is a racetrack, a five-star restaurant with a view, a sanctuary.  This is the home of corn-on-the-cob, grilled salmon, and my mom’s legendary bean dip.  This shore has played host to endless campfires, the wind ringing with the melodies of Denver, Lennon, Peter, Paul, and Mary.  So while to you this may seem to be just another cloudy shore, not worthy of a second glance, this beach, it is everything to me.

You see that cabin?  Yes, it is small, old, crowded, and cluttered.  It carries a musty smell that would never make the Yankee candle lineup, and the furniture matches as well as a Goodwill sale.  But to me, this cabin isn’t small; it’s filled and overflowing with memories of all who have passed through its torn screen door.  Crowded with a history of never-ending breakfasts and of game nights creeping into the early hours of the morning.  Cluttered with the love of a family who has faithfully gathered year after year to eat, drink, and rest in each other’s presence.  This is the cabin where my brother fell out of the top bunk, where we have rested after long work parties in the woods, where Mozart plays every morning, and evenings are always by moonlight or candlelight.  So yes, this place may smell a bit strange and seem unremarkable, but this cabin, this is everything to me.

You see those trees, that boathouse, that driveway?  To you there are merely things and places.  But to me, these are the things and places that have been steady and constant, breathing life into me year after year.  As the rest of the world has shifted and become unfamiliar, these trees, this boathouse, this driveway, this place; these have been everything to me.

You see that family?  They don’t seem like much.  A hodgepodge bunch of Norwegians who return year after year to eat the same food, to watch the same sunset, to breathe the same air.  But this family, these people are the ones who have always shown up.  To every Thanksgiving, every Christmas, every birthday, every graduation, to any holiday we can invent.  These are the people who have known me, challenged me, laughed with me, and loved me longer than anyone else I know.  So while these people may not look like much to you, this family is everything to me.

So while this place, this cluttered cabin on a cloudy shore, frequented by a strange bunch of Norway-lovers, while it may not mean anything to you, this place means everything to me.

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