To See Ourselves as Others See Us
Years ago a coworker made the remark to me that false self-perception is the basis of all humor. It’s an interesting idea. I’ve given it some thought over the years. I don’t think it’s exactly true. I would agree with a revised statement that false self-perception is the basis of much humor—more than I would have supposed.
A misperception of self can be comical. I think of some of the funnier characters in old movies or television shows: Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy, just about any episode of Laurel and Hardy or The Three Stooges, Jason Alexander as George Castanza in Seinfeld, and the brainiacs in The Big Bang Theory).
In reality it’s often more maddening than funny when others see themselves differently than they really are. Isn’t this what Laura Branigan’s song Gloria is all about? ("If everybody wants you, why isn’t anybody calling?") The same with Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain.
False self-perceptions are also the cause of much unreached potential in life as well as much sorrow in this world. The Eagles’ song, Desperado, paints a picture of how someone can miss out on so much due to a gross misperception of himself. Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables was a tragic figure for the first 45 years of his life—much like the character in Desperado—until a wise and merciful priest changed Valjean’s self-perception.
Misperceptions of self may be funny, maddening, wasteful, and sad. Ultimately they never do us any good. The devil does his best to rule this world, including our individual lives, with lies and deception. He’s alarmingly successful. We would do well to strive constantly to come to a better realization of who we are and what our role in life really is. Whenever life offers us a clearer vision of ourselves we ought to be grateful.
In his poem, To a Louse, Scottish poet Robert Burns reminds us that it’s a blessing to have our false self-perceptions shattered.* That’s not how he put it. Here’s exactly what he said.
O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us,
An' ev'n devotion!”
I suppose a translation is in order. Here’s how I’d rewrite it for our time:
O, would some Divine Power give us the gift
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would free us from many a blunder
And foolish notion:
What prideful ways of dressing and walking would leave us,
And even prideful ways of expressing our devotions!
I am blessed to have a few special people who I know love me much and who are nonetheless willing to shatter my false self-perceptions. A month ago I had one of those weeks where everything fell apart. I had my feelings hurt deeply. I felt underappreciated. Instead of keeping my hurt to myself, I spoke out about it to a couple of my closest friends. On that Saturday night my good friend and bishop said to me, “Dan, the world doesn’t revolve around you.” I thought he obviously missed my point and underestimated my hurt.
The next night my friend, Austin, said this to me: “Dan, the world doesn’t revolve around you.” Ok. I got it.
More recently, when I was on another negative streak, the same two friends told me (hours apart), “Dan, stop it.”
Apparently, ‘some Pow’r’ wants to liberate me from ‘many a blunder and false notion’. And that’s a good thing.
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Bellevue, Nebraska 16 July 2012 ©2012 Daniel Kemper Lubben
*Robert Burns wrote To a Louse after seeing a louse (singular of lice) on the bonnet of a well-dressed woman (who was apparently putting on airs) as she was sitting in the pew in front of him in church.