Being Real Is a Real Problem

Sep 20, 2007 |Greg Spencer

In an age of modern media, our comfort with illusion has worked its way into our souls.

When I was a boy, I spent many afternoons with my legs straddling a wide white branch of a walnut tree. I fingered the dials and wheels of the plywood instrument panel I knew would one day take my brother and me to Mars.

During dreamy summer days, we might pose any number of profound questions to each other, but our favorite was, "If you had to choose, would you rather go blind or deaf?" The answer could not have been more obvious to me then. I would rather go deaf, sight being too precious to lose. For the sighted, seeing is usually the most defining sense.

How much more so in an image-saturated culture. Unfortunately, in our times, we have come to believe that seeing is all that is necessary for experiencing. This is what I call the Gospel of Sight: What the eye values is the most important truth; the image — our image — is what matters most.

Though I don't dislike the media (I love movies. I watch TV), I take what I have assumed to be G.K. Chesterton's observation to heart: "The thinking person always resists the most dominant thing in his culture because the most dominant thing is always too dominant." I see "the most dominant thing" as the way images have influenced the way we think and behave. In light of our longing for and our need to develop authenticity (a virtue I define as "the courage to love with a rigorous inside-out consistency"), two consequences seem especially important.

The Gospel of Sight teaches us that appearances are all-in-all. We are image-driven, image-obsessed, image-conscious to a fault. The obvious needs to be asserted: We have defined "being attractive" in visual terms. Most commercials tell us that all that matters is being as beautiful and young and thin and fit and ripped as possible. That and being rich.

How can we be deeply authentic if we think that "how we look" is top priority? Of course, caring about our appearance is not unimportant or "beneath us." God made us to notice beauty and appreciate style. We each have our own personal "way of being," our God-given uniqueness, much of which is related to our image. Everything has a kind of style: dresses, cars, sermons, governments. If we wish to communicate well, we must attend to what sounds pleasing to others and to what our body "says." But our culture has grossly overstated the role of the image. As exercise guru Jack LaLanne says: "I can't die. It would ruin my image."

We are outside-in focused, instead of inside-out. Parents have said for years that it's what's on the inside that counts, but their voices get drowned out by the thousands of voices we hear every day to the contrary. We need better skin, brighter teeth, more glowing hair. We hear that everything in our future rests on our attractiveness. A woman admiring herself in an ad for Avia shoes wants it both ways: "She knows true beauty comes from the inside — but she doesn't mind finding it in the mirror."

Inevitably, this outside-in orientation makes our sense of self dependent on external forces. We need to be noticed, to be praised for our image — and we conspire to get that attention. Over a century ago, Henry Ward Beecher got it right: "Clothes do not make the man, but once he is made, they greatly improve his appearance."

We suffer a perfectionism exacerbated by the manipulation of pixels. Every commercial photo of a face or body is altered, enhanced, made more visually stunning. Yet the more perfect the image, the greater the distance from our imperfect lives. This disparity discourages and corrupts us, especially women. I have watched my three daughters struggle with these issues. It's hard enough to live up to a good friend's beauty; but how does one compare to a digitalized "perfection" that even the supermodel doesn't possess?

And analysis is not enough. Though I know the supermodel's skin is not impeccably unblemished, that her original image might have a pimple or tired eyes, I still say, "Wow, she's beautiful." Perfectionistic words are also associated with the images: "For flawless looks, spotless skin," etc. We cannot measure up so we bury ourselves in the guilt of starvation diets and persistent self-deprecation.

We may be paying a higher price as well. Recently I asked one of my classes why so many of their generation were committing suicide. Their responses surprised me. They said that because so many resources were at their disposal, they had no good reason not to make the world better. And they should be able to make themselves better as well — perfect even — and they couldn't bear the weight.

The resonance in the classroom seemed profound to me. Yes, the world's problems overwhelm them. But the depressing tipping point is that they feel they should be dramatically other than they are. They have no excuse not to live up to the consistent messages that they ought to be perfect.

The Gospel of Sight presents "illusion" as preferable to the authentic. When my family is on vacation, someone often says, "Ooh, look at the scenery! That would make such a good picture." My typical response is, "Yes, but isn't it a good landscape? I mean, isn't it worthy without being a photograph?" It's not that I dislike photographs or images — really. It's just that they have changed the way we experience the world, and we ought to do our best to understand these ways.

The illusion becomes the standard. This last Christmas, my wife and younger daughters and I visited my eldest daughter who, at that time, was living in St. Petersburg, Russia. After getting robbed in the Metro and negotiating the somewhat uninviting city for eight days, I was delighted to spend the next five days in London before returning home to California. I said, "Ah, London is wonderful; it's like Disneyland." Ouch. Shouldn't I have said that Disneyland was like London? For shame! Somehow, the faux-reality of Disneyland has burrowed into my head as the higher standard of excellence.

This "standard of illusion" can be seen in everyday life. If the norms for the speed of romance are adopted from film, we may think our own plodding efforts ought to be pumped up. And nature television has become the norm for nature. Real nature just doesn't measure up. It is not populated with enough "cute" or "fierce" beasts, nor do the wild things perform for us as they should.

Perhaps our declining participation in authentic experiences makes being authentic more difficult. We're uncomfortable in the wilderness of genuineness. We tend to be either too blunt or too evasive. At any rate, inexorably, the standard of illusion leads to my next point.

We prefer illusion. As a freshman in college, I had on my wall a newspaper photo of my girlfriend as she was receiving her crown as Homecoming princess. To this day, I am convinced that I broke up with her because she failed to live up to the photograph. You may think me shallow, but I had constructed my fantasy and I was sticking with it. When we were together, she didn't look as idyllically beautiful, nor did she treat me as I imagined she should: with that radiant smile, those perfect eyes, that facial expression that let me know I was the center of her life. In person, she was, well, a person, and I preferred my image of her.

Journalist Kiku Adatto says this choice makes a curious kind of sense: "In a media-conscious environment, authenticity means becoming the master of your own artificiality." Why would a fake authenticity become preferable? Charles Williams' cautionary thriller Descent into Hell provides some insight. He tells the story of middle-aged Lawrence Wentworth who has a romantic crush on a much younger woman, Adela. In Williams' supernatural scheme, Wentworth's desire for Adela is so strong that, once Adela rejects him, he "creates" an illusion of Adela who caters to his every desire. Once, during a torrential rain, the real Adela shows up at his door and asks to be let in. Wentworth looks at the phantom Adela in his room and then out at the real one, wet and needy. Williams' says, "He recognized well enough that the real Adela might have given him considerable trouble to lift, but his whole damnation was that he would not choose the trouble to lift the real Adela."

I have been haunted by this line for years. What and who are the "real Adelas" in our lives that we refuse to lift? When do we dwell in our imagined ideal and ignore the plain truth in front of us — or inside of us? In order to live a rigorous inside-out consistency, we have to be willing to face, among other things, tragic realities. If we pretend that we don't have problems or that the world is "just fine," we will be more deeply shaken when tragedy comes our way.

Perhaps this explains some troubled marriages and divorces. Newlyweds can be shocked when they discover the darker sides of their spouse.

At my college, I sometimes hear students say (after the revelation of some terrible event on campus), "I can't believe that could happen at Westmont." I think, "Why? Do you not know that Westmont is inhabited by people?" Many of us prefer the illusion that followers of Jesus lead outwardly better lives, that they always have superior marriages, more fulfilling jobs, less tragedy. We would be better off telling the truth about our humanity, even the difficult, tragic truths. Jesus says that "the truth will set you free" (John 8:32).

As we grow increasingly comfortable with illusion, we may find that we are more concerned with creating ourselves than with knowing ourselves. We alter our outer selves incessantly: our hair color, facial features, body shapes — anything to keep looking young. And we also alter our inner selves. We affirm a version of "the Good Life" that keeps our souls in a gated community, safe from the need to deal with uncomfortable realities. We may also distance ourselves from friends who tell us disagreeable truths, especially truths about ourselves. And since we know how far we are from the image we present, we know others are distant also and so, ironically, we don't trust them.

Living in the age of the image is often thrilling and pleasing. But when its qualities dominate all others — when the Gospel of Sight reigns supreme — authenticity is threatened. The loud and flashy world shouts down this quiet virtue. A sincere effort will be required of us if we hope to be more genuine.

Copyright 2007 Gregory Spencer. All rights reserved.

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