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In the mirror of others (part 1)

faces in frames on a wall

“Know thyself”. This is certainly a beautiful maxim, but how can we expect to achieve such an end when part of ourselves is resisting so vigorously and preventing us from seeing our own faults? It is a fact: we tend to systematically overvalue ourselves and we are much more sensitive to the ethical wrongdoings of others than to our own. This two-part article by Sandrine Duplessis suggests that the solution may well lie in the problem: it is by changing our behaviour toward others that we may come to achieve a more lucid knowledge of ourselves.

Our life in society constantly brings us in contact with others and to interact with them. These interactions manifest themselves in actions and intentions that are directed toward others and have an effect both on others and on ourselves. It is therefore legitimate to think about these interactions and to ask ourselves how to steer them in the direction of what is good; how to produce actions that are just—meaning both fair and correct—, useful or responsible. It is just as obvious that we cannot forge our own humanity without others. Others are at once an end (those toward whom our ethical actions are directed), and a means to this end (those through whom we can strive to perfect our ethics).

Given how our psyche is dominated by our ego, we naturally tend to pay more attention to ourselves than to others. We may even feel superior to them. This manifests itself in particular in a tendency to spontaneously notice things we do not like in others. We notice their weaknesses, their failings, and then we exaggerate them, or even bring them to light. Meanwhile, we ignore the true value of their qualities—that is, if we notice them at all—and we allow ourselves to act toward them with neglect, contempt, etc. We need only observe how often in the course of a day we comment on other people’s weak points compared to how often we mention their qualities; or the number of times we feel affected by the weak points of others (or by some of their qualities when we envy them) compared to the number of times we feel positively inspired and stimulated. It’s an exercise worth trying.

One of the basic principles that prepares us to take better consideration of others, in order to engage in the practice of ethics, consists in transforming the way we look at them. It is not about pretending the weaknesses we observe in them do not exist, or forcing ourselves to become stupid or naïve by persuading ourselves that there is nothing but love and kindness in this world. Ethics has nothing to do with naïve optimism. It is about turning our gaze 180°. We have to understand how to use the natural perception we have of others, of their actions, their behaviour, their dysfunctional ethics, their strengths, etc., but in order to work at our own ethical perfection.

To engage in ethical perfection, it is first necessary to know what aspects of ourselves need improving. We therefore need to know who we are, what our starting point is, what our weaknesses or failings are, how they manifest, in what circumstances, with what intensity, etc., as well as what our strengths are, because they can be a great source of motivation and support in our efforts. This is how the work on self-knowledge begins. It is no easy job, given the disguises and tricks pulled by our ego to conceal us from ourselves and lead us to look at the speck of sawdust in the eyes of others while paying no attention to the plank in our own.

How can we get to know ourselves when it is so difficult to see ourselves from within? We generally see ourselves through a haze. We may be conscious of some of our character flaws and even try to work on them. But there are (most likely many) others that we are completely unaware of, that we cannot even imagine having, or that we will not admit to having because there is something shameful about them. It is difficult to accept the image of ourselves as jealous, disloyal, opportunistic of others’ weaknesses and so on.

Our ego is very good at keeping us in the dark about ourselves or at justifying those actions we should be ashamed of. Recent studies in social psychology have demonstrated that we continually reconfigure the world so that it might correspond to our biased ideologies. “The human mind is a marvellous filter of information, capable of blocking facts that contradict what we prefer to believe.” (Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide, Houghton Mifflin, 2009.) This is precisely what our ego does when it manages to highjack our reason, making us blind to ourselves.

How can this situation be remedied?

The idea is simple. Just as we need a mirror to better see our physical attributes, we need to find something like a mirror of the soul to better see our ethical or unethical attributes. This mirror, or rather these mirrors, are others. From a perspective of ethical perfection, to see ourselves in the mirrors of others is to take everything that emanates from them (actions, words, behaviour, etc.) as means of self-knowledge.

Part two of this article will examine means to put this principle into practice. In the meantime, here is a question each of us can ask themselves: What recent opportunity have I had to learn something about myself through my contact with others?

Feel free to share your example(s).

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  1. A. Mar 31, 2017 2:15 pm 1

    Nice article !

    “What recent opportunity have I had to learn something about myself through my contact with others?”

    These past few days I have been overcome by negativity due an illness and (concomitantly) a lot of work. This negativity manifested itself in the form of negative thoughts against 2 friends of mine.

    One of them is hypochondriac. Interestingly, my negativity completely focused on this character trait without even considering for a moment that he is affectionate, has a lot of faith, loves people, is altruistic, etc.

    Also I did not take into account any of the numerous mitigating factors accounting for his being hypochondriac: he is in a wheel chair (cannot walk), has received multiple surgeries and has an overall fragile health. I believe that the underlying reason explaining my negativity is that he wants to come visit me and I know from experience that it will take a lot of my time, because (as I said) he is disabled, plus he does not speak the language (of the country where I live). Since he lives abroad, he would stay for a couple of days and requires all of my time. So, whilst analyzing my negative thoughts I discovered that my egoism was a contributing factor.

    The negativity against my other friend followed a similar pattern although the context was different. This is a person who is often in need of financial help and to whom I have donated/lent money a few times over the last months.

    Recently he approached me because he could not pay his rent and asked me to do some house works. As a result, my negative thoughts started focusing on the fact that he had not implemented my advice to look for work, that he had not really made enough efforts to look for a job, etc., despite the fact that he owed me money.

    Just like for my other friend, my negative thinking provided no room for mitigating factors (numerous in his case too!): he is sixty years old, his wife left to go to Japan with his only daughter and ceased all contacts with him, he has no more contacts with family or friends, he lost his job and had to live in a catholic parish for a couple of years, etc. Also, my imperious self prevented me from seeing his qualities which, in this case too, were important: he has faith, he is sincere and quite resilient/positive despite all that befell him.

    An analysis of my reactions showed me I was maybe not as generous with money as I thought I was, but even more so, my trust in the Source was somewhat limited: I am afraid to lose my job and to end up in a situation of need where I may regret the money lent to friends without the means to refund me.

    1. J Apr 06, 2017 5:37 am 1.1

      “An analysis of my reactions showed me I was maybe not as generous with money as I thought I was, but even more so, my trust in the Source was somewhat limited: I am afraid to lose my job and to end up in a situation of need where I may regret the money lent to friends without the means to refund me.” -A

      I can relate to this experience, as I have recently come to these very same realizations. In reading your description above I was able to really reflect on the problem at hand as it relates to my own lack of absolute trust in God and the attachment I have to my own finances in a similar situation I have been recently experiencing with my girlfriend.

      And yet at the same time, it is as if we have to keep two aspects in a form of balance: generosity, as well as discernment with regard to others potentially taking advantage of the former.

      As Ostad Elahi has stated: “Always remain mindful of the goodness of others and strive to reciprocate in kind; as for their wrongs, dismiss the idea of revenge, but do not allow yourself to ever trust, befriend, or be deceived by them either.” (Words of Truth, Saying 55).

      Perhaps if we can manage to find a way to apply generosity and discernment in a balanced way, we can take the words of Jesus to heart: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21, NIV).

      May God grant us generosity and discernment as to its appropriate application.

  2. Naghme Mar 31, 2017 9:36 pm 2

    I believe the “mirror theory”, according to which when we look at others we are looking at a mirror, up to a point. When we observe and analyze the behavior of other people we actually discover ourselves in them and the profile we create for others is shaped by our own personality. We all have our deficiencies and areas of personality that are underdeveloped and need work and we are often unaware of these flaws. Self-love often causes us to be in denial, preventing us from resolving and correcting these weaknesses. But not every fault we see in others exists in ourselves. Sometimes we just plainly see something we know is wrong in a person.. and it annoys us… and it is not because we have the same traits… but rather because that person is just plain wrong.

    1. Linda Apr 01, 2017 6:25 pm 2.1

      I like your phrase “mirror theory”! When I see a flaw, and don’t see it in me, I just tell myself: don’t you dare do that, ever… you see how horrible it is… don’t you dare!

    2. MR Apr 02, 2017 8:05 pm 2.2

      I think there might be a hidden wisdom in the phrase, we so often used in our childhood to respond to our adversarial friends: “It takes one to know one!”

      If I correctly recognize a flaw in people around me, it is certainly because I know the nature of that flaw deep within the realm of my own experiences. Whether the flaw, at this point, may be in different stages (mastered and dealt with, dormant, or active), is a different subject of conversation altogether.

      Once we face a weakness in people around us and we sincerely admit the above-mentioned concept, we will be equipped with superior tools such as tolerance and empathy.

      1. Fereshteh Apr 10, 2017 7:23 pm 2.2.1

        I totally agree. You don’t recognize what you do not know or are not familiar with. I have realized that I embody any and all flaws that I can detect in others, only with different degree of activity depending on the given situation.

  3. J Mar 31, 2017 9:40 pm 3

    As a high school physics teacher in a lower-income community, I often interact with students who pose a variety of challenges, especially since, by nature, I have struggled throughout my life with personality flaws that have caused me to be shy or introverted around others while secretly (and for the most part unbeknownst to me) harboring a form of superioritism towards others.

    This year I have tried to engage with some of my more difficult students by actively partaking in acts of altruism towards them. This has been difficult, as often my attempts are viewed with skepticism (perhaps because on some level those particular students can sense my disdain).

    This has been no “magic bullet” by any means. Despite my attempts to be consistent with my self-suggested perspective change, I cannot help but be cognizant that some of the students I interact with can be incredibly difficult personalities to contend with. Nevertheless, the crux of the matter, and the only one which I truly have any control over, is that my view of those students as “lesser” than myself, and the effects that this view has on the manner in which I’ve often interacted with them, has not been helpful either.

    I’ve noticed very gradual and subtle improvements in some of the students that, in the past, I had been completely unable to enter any form of a positive relationship with.

    They are still difficult to contend with, but in implementing efforts in vivo to ameliorate relationship strains, I find it a bit easier to be able to get them to work with me rather than against me. This is still a work in progress; I feel I have grown in this area, but there is still a lot of room for improvement on my end. I try to remind myself that I must be patient with my own imperfections, as well.

    All of this certainly isn’t easy, but the amount of growth one can make, if one tries to be as consistent as possible, is not comparable to anything else I’ve experienced personally.

    1. A. Apr 21, 2017 4:37 pm 3.1

      “This has been difficult, as often my attempts are viewed with skepticism (perhaps because on some level those particular students can sense my disdain)”
      This is so interesting – it is true that the younger one is, the easier it is to detect hidden flaws or attitudes in others. Chidren are an excellent mirror.

      “a high school physics teacher in a lower-income community, I often interact with students who pose a variety of challenges”
      This must be a really challenging environment. Congratulations for managing to cope with it and even being able to draw lessons. I have heard of many teachers working in difficult neighborhoods here in France and suffering from severe burnout.

  4. Azarmidokht Apr 01, 2017 3:31 am 4

    Sometimes I am very stingy and sometimes very prodigal, spending half of what I own to help people.

  5. B Apr 03, 2017 11:09 am 5

    “What recent opportunity have I had to learn something about myself through my contact with others?”
    Recently, I had an important task to do and needed help from someone to accomplish part of that task. As I am not organized, I asked that other person on rather short notice. Then this person was also disorganized and somewhat careless in accomplishing what I asked from him and I felt upset. But in reality he could serve as a mirror for my own neglect and teach me to be more organized next time.

  6. Nooshie Apr 13, 2017 5:30 am 6

    Thank you so much for such an eloquent and enlightened article. At this point in my life I could not agree more with what you’ve presented. I have always had a difficult time with the socialization requirement for ethical advancement.
    “The more I know people, the more I love my dog.” This message was printed on my favorite T-shirt years ago and it was a sentiment that I related to whole-heartedly! It wasn’t until recent months that I re-examined my long standing belief that I would be better off alone than to have any association with flawed and untrustworthy people. So, I chose a solitary existence and in that solitude I was content in my ignorance of my character weak points. I now recognize that I didn’t like people because they reflected my flaws back to me and I wasn’t prepared to admit to having any flaws.
    Divine grace intervened on my behalf yet one more time and circumstances compelled me to move out of my solitary life and into a house that I shared with six other women. This situation constituted my worst nightmare. In retrospect, however, it was the best thing that could’ve happened to me.
    While living and dealing with these women many of my character weak points came out of the shadow of my ego and into the light. I recognized my overinflated sense of self, thinking that everybody should behave as I’d like them to. I realized how egocentric, self-righteous, and judgmental I had been.
    One of my major self-misconception was that I could get along with anybody because I thought of myself as a sociable person. I now realize that indeed I can adapt to almost any situation as a matter of survival not because I’m very sociable! In dealing with others I used to try to keep my interactions to a minimum so that I wouldn’t ruffle any feathers or invest any emotion in a relationship. I would also show a lot of consideration for others not because I was such a great person but because I wanted them to like me. Having lived with other women for several months, I can honestly say that almost everything nice/kind that I have done for others had been for the most part self-serving. This behavior speaks to my insecurity and enormous expectation.
    Another weak point I discovered was my lack of surrender to and acceptance of God’s will. The symptom of this weak point has been how I have tried to control all aspects of my life even though most major events of my life have been completely out of my control. I always considered myself a “control freak” and I thought it was a good thing because after all I knew what was best for me! Upon further reflection I have concluded that what drives my controlling behavior is fear and what allows fear to thrive is the lack of a strong enough faith in my creator. These are just some of the things I have learned by looking into the mirror of others.

  7. V Apr 21, 2017 5:00 pm 7

    This article reminded me of this quote “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.”

    I’ve been working on seeing things the way they really are versus the way I’d choose to see them. “Selective perception!” The more I dig in, the more I notice how self-centered I am. How I justify all my wrongdoings and mistakes just because my intentions are ALWAYS good but the same flaw in others is an unforgettable sin!!
    Thanks for the nice article!

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