The hall of mirrors by Peter Corney
In the past some of the great houses of Europe were built with the special feature of a hall or room where all the walls are lined with mirrors so that as you enter all you see are reflections of your own image. No doubt an interior design feature that their wealthy owners found pleasing! They have also been reproduced in some modern buildings with the ceiling lined with mirrors as well.
Also in the past a feature of the travelling circus or carnival was often a tent of mirrors but these were designed to distort your image for fun. Some made you look short and fat, some thin and tall, others gave you a rippled effect or showed your image out of focus. The effect was comic and amusing. I remember as a boy spending some of my precious pocket money on a side show tent of “fun mirrors” at the Perth Royal Show!
One of the features our Post Modern world has embraced is an attitude of mind like the hall of mirrors where the self is constantly reflecting on itself. We all have a tendency to be preoccupied by our – selves, how we feel, how we look, what others think of us. Self – interest is a perpetual preoccupation! In our teenage years it becomes an obsession, one that has now been facilitated by social media to levels dangerous to youth mental health.
But our Post Modern world has embraced an attitude of mind that has taken our natural tendency to a new level in the realm of ideas, values, truth and meaning. The individual’s subjective view and perspective has become the primary authority, particularly in matters of meaning, purpose, ethical values, right and wrong. Now the individual’s subjective view is unmodified by, nor subject to, any external authority or notion of objective truth, let alone by any concept of transcendent values. This is further reinforced by an idea of personal freedom where the individuals will and choice is primary and sacrosanct, an idea reinforced daily by living in the consumer/ marketing society of unlimited personal choice. The sense of obligation to some common good or community responsibility is being overwhelmed by this trend.
Hyper individualism has also been reinforced by a fashion in parenting and education that has overcorrected some negative elements of the past and substituted them uncritically with the language and emphasis of the Self Esteem and Human Potential Movements – “You can do anything, be anything”, “anything is possible if you believe in yourself.” Self-control and concern for the feelings of others is also pushed aside by the closely related Self Expression Movement – with the encouragement to “be yourself”, “don’t repress your feelings”, “ be authentic, say what you feel”, “be true to yourself”, “you have a right to say what you think”, your opinion is as good as anyone else’s.” * All this has fed an overinflated sense of entitlement and an ugly narcissism. Also weak and overindulgent parenting has lowered the bar for children on facing the tough side of life, its limits on self interest, its requirement for accountability for our bad decisions and selfishness.
This kind of radical individualism that is self- authorising is like the hall of mirrors, in the end you are trapped in a room of reflections of yourself. In fact it may be more accurate to see it as the side show tent of distorted mirrors as our individual inner worlds are so often distorted by our own desperate needs, desires, dysfunctions, past hurts, ignorance and self-interest. The hall or tent of mirrors cuts you off from the wisdom, experience and knowledge that is greater than your own.
The fact is we can’t be anything we want to be; only people with a certain kind of physical make up can be an Olympic sprinter! The fact is an individual’s knowledge is limited! The fact is our individual capacities vary! The fact is that at 17 or 18 years your life experience, wisdom and skills are limited!
This cultural fashion has set up a whole generation for a great disappointment and the evidence is now coming in. All the recent surveys on the mental health of young people in Australia are telling us that they have poor resilience in the face of failure and the inevitable difficulties that life throws at us all; they have high levels of depression and anxiety. The alarming fact is that one in four suffers from some serious mental health issue.
Radical individualism is a problem for the individual’s health; it is a problem for building healthy marriages and families; it is a problem for our communal and social health; it is a problem for the political health of our democracies. The solutions are not very palatable for a Post- Modern and materially prosperous society like Australia as they take us back into many of the very ideas and values that so called progressives have rejected and ridiculed.
Christian communities have to now redouble their efforts to faithfully and alternatively live out the values that have been rejected by a section of our society, or in many cases just been worn down by our prosperity, the contemporary media and an over reactive education system captured by fashionable ideas. This places a high priority on Christian parental teaching and example and Church youth ministry that must work harder and more creatively at Christian education and discipleship training. At tertiary level education Christian young people will find themselves in a context where the world view framework is allegedly neutral but in fact is frequently aggressively ‘progressive’, secular and often anti-Christian. They need to be equipped to understand the ideas behind what they are facing and how to respond. Those entering higher education or any level of political activity need to understand the intellectual, ideological and cultural contest to which they will be exposed and prepared for significant ‘soft persecution’. To some it may sound extreem to say that Christians are now in a new cultural war but that is the reality! (2Tim 3:1-5)
The upside of all this is that there is an increasingly dissatisfied and growing group of people in our community who are unhappy at the results of what our contemporary society has produced. They are concerned with: our mental health crisis, particularly among the young; with marriage and family health; with the alarming number of children now in State care; with the loss of values and ethics in business and finance; with the state of our political processes and the level of public discourse. These concerns may develop into a groundswell of desire for a recovery of those values and ideas that we have turned away from.
( * Note: Some time ago the US Christian Psychologist and academic Dr Paul Vitz wrote an outstanding book that traced the roots of the so called Human Potential Movement entitled ”Psychology as Religion – The cult of self worship.” [ Pub. Eerdmans 2nd Ed. 1994 ] It traces its origins in a form of secular humanism based on worship of the self and its most influential and well known theorists. For anyone wishing to understand the academic and theoretical origins of the psychological theories behind the popular versions of the Self Esteem, Self Expression, Self Actualisation, etc., movements it is an excellent guide. The range of popular books and training seminars has multiplied over the years and widely influenced parenting, education, staff training and therapeutic practice.)