‘Life for him was a mirror in which he saw only himself, rather than a window through which he saw other selves.’ (Martin Luther King)
I heard a psychologist once ask, ‘When you see a group photo with yourself in it, which face do you look for first?’ There are various theories that seek to explain why we seem instinctively to scan for our own face; for example, ‘Do I look how I want to look?’; ‘How do I look compared to other people in the photo?’; ‘If someone else saw this photo, would they think I look interesting and attractive?’ Perhaps it’s sometimes borne out of anxiety, sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes out of vanity.
Some psychologists believe this phenomenon may be rooted in the idea that, for each of us, our self is the essential locus of our direct experience. After all, everything I perceive and experience is from my own standpoint and filtered through and influenced by my own senses, beliefs and values etc. Although different philosophies and cultures hold different notions of self (an intriguing theme explored further by Vivien Burr in Social Constructionism, 2015), it’s still I who am typing this blog.
Martin Luther King (Strength to Love, 1963), reflected on this question of self in relation to Jesus’ parable of a rich fool. He interpreted it spiritually and ethically as a problem of self-centredness and hard-heartedness to God, and to the needs of others. Alexander Betts & Paul Collier (Refuge, 2018) use similar language in their critique of certain dimensions of refugee policy, the product of a ‘heartless head’. The core issue here is not of seeing ourselves. It’s a risk of seeing only ourselves.
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