5. Your Image of Yourself
I have been reading a very useful book, with the forbidding title of Psycho-Cybernetics. Its author, Dr. Maxwell Maltz, is a plastic surgeon. People come to him with facial deformities, extra large ears or noses, birth marks, accident scars. They usually show symptoms of extreme self-consciousness, which manifests itself either as shyness and timidity, or, in reverse, as pushfulness and aggressiveness. He corrects the deformity, trims back the ears or nose, removes the scar tissue by surgery; and usually (not always) there is a corresponding personality change, the patient becoming easier to live with and pleasanter in every way. He wondered why? - and came to the conclusion it was not the surgical operation which made the difference, but the changed IMAGE which the patients had of themselves. This has led him to take a new line with his patients, and to try to persuade them to change their image of themselves without the surgical operation, accepting their facial abnormalities as attractive to other people rather than repellent; and, if he succeeds, the personality change follows, just as if the operation had actually been performed.
We all have some sort of an image of ourselves and tend to become what we think we are. If we regard ourselves as unlovely, rejected by the world; if we go around saying, "Nobody likes me," then we shall take on that character, and people will really have some reason and excuse for shunning or disliking us. Or you may think of yourself as weak-willed, inadequate, a failure. Psychologists have made quite a study of the failure-image and have found that it inevitably brings failure with it. Similarly, the accident-prone person is always tripping over himself and getting involved in some sort of accident or disaster, because he expects it, and unconsciously plans it. The same applies to catching colds, which some people do continuously all winter and feel very proud of it; it's their "thing." Or you hear them speaking of "my bad back," or "my arthritis," as if it were a specialty, something to boast of. Not that everyone who has an illness comes into this category; but it is an undoubted fact that if we associate any particular kind of illness or disorder with ourselves, and visualize ourselves suffering from it, or if we are especially afraid of it, then we are more likely to get it than someone who ignores it, or does not think of it in connection with himself. Doctors and nurses rarely catch sicknesses from their patients; why? - because their thoughts are positively engaged in trying to help and heal other people, and this gives them immunity.
There is an inner reason for all this. We are living as to our spirits in the spiritual world, surrounded by good spirits or angels on the one hand, and evil spirits on the other, who are all eager to influence us if we let them. Positive thoughts of outgoing love attract the angels and repel the evil spirits, whereas negative thoughts, especially about ourselves, permit the evil spirits to get a hold over us. Changing the image you have of yourself may lead to a rearrangement of your whole spiritual environment, and with it a corresponding character change or personality shift.
You may be one of those people of whom I have been speaking, secretly obsessed by a sense of weakness, failure, guilt, inadequacy. You may think nobody understands you, nobody likes you. And you may be over-compensating, forming an image of yourself not as you think you are, but as you would like to be. You project yourself as a super-man, a master-being; you are incapable of making a mistake or being at fault; someone else is always to blame if things go wrong. You voice your opinions, whether anyone wants to hear them or not. You must be conspicuous, the center of attention; you must dominate every situation. This is the ego-image many people have of themselves today. In order to keep up this ridiculous fiction, they have to subject themselves to a great deal of stress and strain, which produces nervous tensions of all sorts and even physical sickness: headaches, stomach ulcers, digestive upsets, gall stones, cancer. And the irony is that they derive absolutely no benefit from it. For the image they are struggling so hard to project is, in fact, a very unattractive image, from everyone else's point of view. Nobody likes it, or admires it, or is impressed by it. If only we could quit boasting, and showing off, and putting on an act, and be simply ourselves, people would like us much better, and we should achieve a far greater acceptance in society than we can ever get by struggling for it.
If I were to ask you, "what kind of a person do you like to have as a friend?" - I am sure you would say: Someone with whom you can be quiet, with whom you can relax, one who is not always pushing forward his own ideas, or trying to attract attention to himself; someone who is interested in your affairs as well as his own, and is prepared to listen to you as well as have you listen to him. And if it were a question of being either clever or kindly, you would far rather have your friend kindly than clever. Yet the image many of us put out is just the opposite. We try to hide the good and kindly qualities which are developing in us, and which our friends would like so much, and pretend instead to be smart and successful, unscrupulous, aggressive, carrying all before us. And then we wonder why we are not liked!
Taking into account all that I have been saying, wouldn't it be better if we dropped this image-making altogether, and presented ourselves to the world "just as we are, without one plea?"- if we accepted ourselves for what we are, realizing that everybody is different from everybody else, and we are each of us valuable for what we are? - and that there is absolutely no need for us to try to impress anyone, or compare ourselves with anyone, or compete with anyone? Wouldn't it be better, perhaps, if we didn't have the ability to deceive or play a role? - if everyone could always see us, just as we are? - if we lived in glass houses, and were transparent right through?
Animals are like that. That is why I like them so much. They live the life God set for them, day by day, without recrimination or guilt for the past, or fears for the future. They are extravert and unself-conscious. They do not suffer from feelings of inadequacy, nor do they have psycho-somatic diseases - which means they are scarcely ever ill at all! They don't suffer from neuroses or alcoholism, nor do they commit suicide. They never degenerate . . . but then, they never improve! They are all on a level, and you cannot appeal to the highest, or lowest, in them. You can say to man, "Be a man!" and he is stimulated by this appeal to his better nature; but it would be meaningless to say to a pig, "Be a pig!" for he is a pig already. The world is like a farm. The animals are the stock on the farm. But we are potentially sons and daughters of the Farmer, who is God. So, we alone of God's creatures have been given the power to put on an act, and can have an image of ourselves which is different from ourselves. We have been given it for the sole purpose that we can become better than ourselves; or rather, that we can switch from a lower self to a higher.
Even common sense will tell us that we must be able to dissemble a little bit, if we are to live satisfactorily in the mixed conditions of this world. We are thrown together with people very different from ourselves, some of whom we dislike, some we cannot trust. We have to get along with them. We cannot be telling them all the time what we think of them; in fact, the Bible warns us to keep a guard on our tongue. Being frank and open is not necessarily a virtue. It can be cruelly hurtful; charity often requires that we should conceal our true thoughts and feelings. In some situations, frankness can be misleading, even dangerous; discretion requires that we should not bare our souls to all and sundry. We don't have to wear our hearts on our sleeves. There is a privacy in such things; we are entitled to draw the drapes and protect ourselves behind a reserve.
At death, Swedenborg tells us, this reserve is taken from us. We can no longer play a role; thereafter, we have to appear exactly as we really are. This process of "stripping bare" results immediately in a screening and separation and regrouping of spirits into harmonious communities - "like attracting like." This is the JUDGMENT. To abolish all role-playing here on earth would be to precipitate the Judgment before any of us are ready for it.
But the main reason why we have been given the ability to act a part, is so that we can have an image of ourselves that is better than ourselves, and then grow into it. This is the main process of spiritual growth. If we could not do this, there would be no hope for us. But we all can! And the fact that so many of us have such foolish images of ourselves, 'is proof that we can. If you can play the fool, thank God you can also play the angel!
Conversion, of which theologians speak, is nothing but substituting a good image for a bad; and regeneration is simply being re-created into the new image. We put aside the old image, which our ego projected in order to impress people in one way or another, and adopt instead the model of the perfect life of our Lord Jesus Christ. God created mankind in His own image and likeness. We fell. But each of us can get back again. It is said human nature cannot be changed. But of course it can be changed! It was changed for the bad, and it can be changed back again for the good. But the change must first be made in the image we have of ourselves.
Here are some examples of how the change-over of images can work. You find yourself in a situation where you can commit a desired sin without being found out. Under the old image, your ego would say: "You are in luck, boy! Do it, and get away with it!" But, under the new image, you think: "This is not the kind of person I want to be. I want to be in the image and likeness of God. This is not how Jesus would have acted." And so the temptation is broken. Again, someone has hurt you, and the opportunity comes when you can get your own back. Your old ego says: "Go ahead! Get your revenge! Vindicate your honor!" But under the new image you think: "Do I really want to be that kind of a person? Was Jesus that kind of a person? Didn't He tell us to love our enemies, and not try to get even with them? I want to be more like Jesus."
What a relief of tensions when we try to live up to the highest within us, instead of being tied to some fancy image with no reality in it! What an increase of mental energy, mental health, even physical health! But perhaps the greatest reward is, seeing other people open up to us in a new way, as they recognize that the change is taking place in us.
Hypocrisy? Play-acting? Call it what you will! All I know is that this kind of "playing a part" brings us more and more into alignment with the person we are trying to copy . . . until the very thought of acting ceases. We are what we were pretending to be! And as we pass up the steep pathway to heaven, people looking at us will not see our ego at all. They will only see our likeness to our heavenly Father.