The Looking Glass Self

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by Michael Bos

I imagine your mind, and especially what your mind thinks about my mind, and what your mind thinks about what my mind thinks about your mind.

This sounds like a line from a Will Ferrell movie, but these are the words of Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929), a sociologist who proposed the concept of the “looking glass self.” He believed that it is hard for us to see ourselves, so we gauge ourselves by how we perceive others evaluate us against society’s standards. Therefore others become the looking glass through which we see and measure ourselves.

This has me wondering. I wonder how many people will wander into worship seeing themselves through a cracked and distorted looking glass. I wonder how many people show up believing that they don’t measure up in a society that worships achievement.

The bad news is that there is no way to get rid of the looking glass. God created us as relational beings, and we’ll always use a looking glass to gauge whether or not we’ve realized our deep yearning to belong.

The good news is that our faith challenges Cooley’s assumption that there is the looking glass. Faith awakens us to the realization that we can change the looking glass through which we see our lives. Faith guides us in how to put away our old self and to be renewed in the spirit of our minds (Ephesians 4:22&23).

For many of us this is needed. I remember being with a family in which there were two teenage daughters. The older sister was accomplished and outgoing, and the younger sister was unsure of herself and struggling. The younger sister had an epiphany about what she wanted to do with her life and proudly announced to her family, “I know what I want to do. I really want to help people, so I want to be a psychologist.” Her father started to chuckle, and the daughter asked why. He replied, “You? A psychologist? You’re too stupid.” Those words still haunt me, and they weren’t even directed at me. In that moment her looking glass was being shaped.

We all carry the wounds of words and actions that have hurt us. Some have even had faith used as the weapon that authorized such harsh treatment. And as much as we say it doesn’t matter and that we’re “ok,” it’s hard not to use these things as the looking glass through which we see ourselves.

Maybe that is why love is held as the essence of what faith in Jesus helps us experience and express. If we don’t love, we don’t know God. But if we love one another, God lives in us… and we’re able to trade in our cracked and distorted looking glasses for new ones (1 John 4:7-12).

Michael Bos is a pastor, author and interfaith proponent. He is senior minister of West End Collegiate Church and president of The Collegiate Churches of New York. He and his coauthor, Dr. William Sachs, have recently published A Church Beyond Belief: The Search for Belonging and the Religious Future, and Fragmented Lives: Finding Faith in an Age of Uncertainty.

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