If you’re anything like me, you care far too much about what other people think of you—your intellect. Your humor. Your physique. Your brilliant and underappreciated blog.
Insecurity often leads us to craft images of ourselves that we think will be accepted and admired by our peers. This can involve wearing the right clothes, laughing at the right jokes, and making the right comments with friends. Better yet, this obsession with image manifests itself in our attempts to appear humble without bragging about it, hardworking without overexerting ourselves, or polished without being disingenuous.
Such a way of living gives rise to a whole host of problem, but one of particular concern is the vanity it engenders.
To only ever think of what I look like, how I sound, or what I do is to elevate the self at the great expense of others. Even as we are terrified of what others think of us, we take time every day to admire ourselves—our intelligence, our looks, our status.
The season of Lent, then, is an important one of correction for the vain, for it is a time in which we are asked to give up those things, such as a constructed image, to which we most often look for sustenance.
So, how might those of us who think about ourselves a little too much take up a practice of self-denial, as Jesus did for forty days?
Some renounce chocolate, Netflix, or Facebook as a means of practicing self-denial, and I applaud such endeavors. But for those of us who struggle with vanity, I have a recommendation for this Lenten season that may seem a bit unorthodox: give up mirrors.
If you think about it, we spend a not insignificant amount of time every day looking at our own reflection. In the morning getting ready for school. While walking past a building with a window. After using the restroom at work. When getting ready for bed.
With each glimpse in the mirror, we give ourselves an opportunity to correct anything out of place and assuage any concerns about the image we’ve constructed. With each stolen glance at our reflection, focus is directed back at the self.
Not to look at mirrors, then, is a practical way to relinquish one’s hold on a constructed image; it is a practical way to actively reject vanity. If you don’t always know what you look like, you’re not in control of your image. If you’re not looking in the mirror, you’ll have fewer reasons to think of yourself. Such a project is, arguably, impractical. But it’s well worth the effort.
Interested? Here are the rules:
- Don’t look at your reflection. Not in a mirror. Not in the window of a building you’re walking past. Not in a puddle of water. Not in a computer screen. Avoid reflective surfaces.*
- Not looking at your reflection takes some getting used to, so every time you do (especially early on), make a physical tally of it, either on paper or a phone. This is not for shaming purposes but rather to keep your mind engaged with the task of actively avoiding your reflection.
- Sundays are off days. Use them to get a haircut, shave, or just make sure you look OK.
- Exceptions are a first date, job interview, or formal occasion such as a wedding. Normal workdays are not an exception. If you need to be sure your shirt is tucked in, ask a roommate to sign off before you leave the house or find a colleague once you arrive at work.
- Don’t tell anyone you’re doing this during Lent unless directly asked. The point is to think of yourself less, not more. Don’t give yourself a reason for an unnecessary pat on the back.
If we are to be people who take seriously Jesus’ calls to humility, to other-centeredness, and to a dependence not on ourselves but on him, there is perhaps no better place to start than the source of the problem.
So this Lenten season, try looking at yourself less. It may be frustrating or even frightening to do so. But you just may find that exchanging vanity and image control for the freedom of your own skin is significantly more life-giving—and a heck of a lot less work.
*If you don’t think you can quit mirrors cold turkey, limit yourself to one glance in the mirror each morning before you leave for the day. Rules 2-5 still apply.