Sunday, 18 October 2015

Self Portrait

“How could anyone ever tell you

You were anything less than beautiful

How could anyone ever tell you

You were less than whole

How could anyone fail to notice

That your loving is a miracle

How deeply your connected to my soul”

We sing these words in one of the song chants during the “Singing Meditation” I lead. I think that they are beautiful and yet deeply sad. Why sad? You may well ask. Well because there are many people who fail to see this truth. They believe that they are less than beautiful, they believe that they are less than whole, they live disconnected lives.

I suspect that this is why so many of us constantly crave attention and approval from others; why so many of us so desperately need to have ourselves and our love acknowledged and recognised. What’s even sadder though is that often when it is, it is still not enough. By the way I am not immune from it myself, I know this only too well. Got to keep an eye on this need for approval from others.

Every couple of weeks I have been updating my weight loss progress on Facebook. I have now lost 4 and a half stone in just 12 weeks and I feel fabulous. The encouraging replies from friends has been wonderful. Some, who haven’t seen me for some time, have asked if I would take a picture of myself and post it for them to see. My response has been “I don’t take pictures of myself”. Now some of my friends have mischievously replied claiming I have hundreds of pouting images of myself and that’s all I ever do all day long. Now while this is wholly untrue I have noticed a little vanity creeping into all of this. I am enjoying the positive comments made both through social media and real face to face contact. I am also aware that people only want to see pictures because they are interested, they care.

That said I do not take pictures of myself. I find the whole concept a little strange and self obsessive if I am honest and perhaps a sign of our ever growing preoccupation with ourselves in negative ways. It’s not just about posting pictures either, it seems to be about eliciting a response, a need for approval.

Where does this come from? Well I suspect that is comes from this deeply ingrained sense that there is something wrong with us. This feeling that we are in fact less than beautiful, that we are not whole.

This “Selfie” obsession of continually taking images of ourselves reminds me of the Greek Myth of Narcissus. The story of the boy who fell so in love with his own reflection that he fell into the water and drowned. I get the feeling that the “selfie” phenomenon is very much a modern day version of this “mythos”, but on a mass scale. That said, rather like in the original tale there is no real love at the root of all of this, more a need that we will recognised as beautiful. Why? Well because deep down in the core our being so many of us do in fact feel less than beautiful, do in fact feel less than whole.

Some say that the solution to this need for the approval of others is to no longer care what other people think of you. Now to me this seems just as unhealthy and lacking in a real sense of loving connection. Indifference has little or nothing to do with love and to a large extent is not real at all. There is a world of difference to not being ruled by the need of the approval of others and not caring, of becoming indifferent.

Now of course this taking pictures of ourselves and displaying them for the world to see is not a modern phenomenon. There really is nothing new under the sun. All that has happened is that this has now grown to mass a scale, we can all do it today. In days gone by only the artist could do so, as they painted pictures of themselves. The great artist all created self-portraits, many became utterly obsessed with it, it seems. Frida Kahlo being one, who explained why she did so saying "I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best." Maybe there's a little bit of Frida in all of us. Some of the great works of art are self-portraits. Perhaps the most famous of them all is the one of Van Gough, just after he has cut part of his ear off and allegedly sent it to a woman he believed he was in love with. A powerful image of unrequited love if ever there was one. Here Van Gough is making himself somehow less than whole, somehow less than beautiful and yet somehow in the image that he paints of himself there seems little self-pity, he just gives us the facts in stark imagery. Another destructive image of the self-portrait. I have seem similar images of friends on social media showing too much of themselves, that the world really doesn’t need to see. Images they no doubt regret publishing afterwards.

The “selfie” is not for me, I don’t really like taking images of myself. I have very few pictures. I was recently askrd by someone who came to speak with me in my vestry, where my picture was? They had noticed that all my ministerial predecessors adorned the walls all around me, but they could not see one of me. I could not answer their question. I am glad there isn’t though as I’m not sure I would want to see a picture of myself, staring back at me each day. There is a mirror in my vestry. If I want to know what I look like I only need to look into it.

Isn’t that a living breathing self-portrait?

Below is a wonderful poem “Self-Portrait” by my favourite poet David Whyte. He wrote it after seeing an exhibition of Van Gough’s portraits in Amsterdam. He was deeply moved by the images, particularly the one with his bandaged ear. After visiting the exhibition he returned to his hotel room, looked at himself in the mirror, got out a piece of paper and wrote at the top of it "Self Portrait" what followed was the poem below which just flowed out of him. Hie self portrait were the questions that he believed really mattered, were important.

"Self Portrait"

It doesn't interest me if there is one God
or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel
If you know despair or can see it in others.
I want to know
if you are prepared to live in the world
with its harsh need
to change you. If you can look back
with firm eyes
saying this is where I stand. I want to know
if you know
how to melt into that fierce heat of living
falling toward
the center of your longing. I want to know
if you are willing
to live, day by day, with the consequence of love
and the bitter
unwanted passion of your sure defeat.

I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even
the gods speak of God.

David Whyte from "Fire in the Earth"

The poem is addressing someone he knows very well, himself. In so doing he is inviting us to do the same. The questions being asked are universal ones; questions we ought to be asking our true authentic selves. Not questions about the nature of God or God’s or even if there exists a greater reality, more about what it is to truly live, to be alive. Questions that most of us struggle with. Perhaps the most profound is the struggle to come to peace with trying to live up to the world’s expectations of each and every one of us whilst also trying to live authentically. How do we live authentically? How do we live freely? How do we live without being ruled by what others think of us, while not resorting to indifference to no longer caring about the opinions of others?

Whyte asks:

“I want to know if you know how to melt into that fierce heat of living falling toward the centre of your longing.”

The poem is asking for absolute honesty here. For it is the longing that brings about transformation in the human soul.

Finally the poem asks the ultimate question about love and how we live with all that love brings, not just the joy but the suffering too. This is the Love that is at the core of all the great faiths and is the highest goal of humanity

“I want to know if you are willing to live, day by day, with the consequence of love and the bitter unwanted passion of your sure defeat.”

Finally, at the end, the poem he does return to God question, the question the poem seemingly rejects in its opening.

“I have heard in that fierce embrace even the gods speak of God”

Here I suspect is the real beauty of the poem. Here through love and loss, joy, pain and suffering. Through living and growing through these experiences we can truly explore the mystery and the unknown and perhaps the unknowable that is the transcendent.

Whyte’s Poem always brings me back to those opening verse from Ecclesiastes chapter 1

"Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity."

Perhaps vanity is one of the things that makes us human. I’m not just talking about the vanity of Narcissus or the “selfie” generation. There’s also the vanity that the world needs to know what I think about everything, my opinion on all and sundry. Often my opinion on things I know little about. It’s not just about expressing opinion either, there is also this need for the world to agree and validate this very same opinion. Again I suspect that this comes from this sense that there is something wrong deep within us, that we are somehow less than whole, that we are something less than beautiful. I suspect that it is this that leads to either the total consumption with the opinions of others or their total rejection and the statement “I don’t care what other people think of me.” Not caring what others think about us is in my view just the other side of the vanity coin.

“Vanity, vanity, all is vanity”

The biggest problem with vanity, whichever side of the coin we are referring to, is that it stops us truly living the life we have been given. The preoccupation with the need for validation from others or the total rejection of what others think of us stops us truly living our lives. There is an unhealthy self-absorption in and a rejection of the love waiting to be expressed through us. “Vanity” stops us being fully alive. It is not about love at all and more about fear. In the second century AD the theologian and philosopher Irenaeus said “The glory of God is the human person fully alive” To be fully alive is to recognise that each of us are beautiful and whole and all that we really have to do is allow our loving to be a miracle and ensure that we are connected soul to soul.

The key to bringing this love alive lies in living the questions expressed in that wonderful poem “Self-Portrait” by David Whyte

The key I believe is to give ourselves fully to the love that lies deep within each and every one of us and all life. The key is to melt, holding nothing back, into that fierce heat of living that feels like nothing less than falling toward the centre of your belonging, living day by day with the consequences and the commitments we have made in our lives. With that love that both nourishes and tears at our hearts, knowing that one day we will return to the dust from which we came.

Love is what really matters and recognising that love in each and every one of us. For if we do we will not need to seek it from others or reject it when others recognise it in us. What really matters is that we bear witness to the love, beauty and wonder of life, that love that connects everything and rejects nothing.

“How could anyone ever tell you
You were anything less than beautiful
How could anyone ever tell you
You were less than whole
How could anyone fail to notice
That your loving is a miracle
How deeply your connected to my soul”


  1. I'm not sure I've ever written a poetic response to a blog post before, but there's a first time for everything! Trying to explain why we feel the need for pictures, and to do so in a way that's in keeping with the spirit of this post...

    We want to see you smiling,
    Read your lips when you are calling,
    We want to see your hands reach out
    To catch us when we're falling.

    And even when you're hurting,
    It's a way to see your sorrow
    And look you in the eye and say
    There's a better day tomorrow.

    And it's not about your weight,
    And it's not about your vanity,
    Not to judge or form opinions
    On your size, your strength, your sanity.

    It's because your words are beautiful,
    And help us to feel whole,
    But it's when we look into your eyes
    We feel we've touched your soul.

  2. Gosh Stephanie thank you...That is beautiful

  3. Thank you Danny. I did feel a bit odd posting a poem as a comment, but I thought it only fair to let you see what you'd inspired!

  4. Thank you Danny. I did feel a bit odd posting a poem as a comment, but I thought it only fair to let you see what you'd inspired!