A weak stomach and a lousy head for heights rules out quite a lot of attractions at the Mop Fair for me. Indeed, if pressed I would probably pay NOT to go on some. However, one of the attractions I do enjoy is the Hall of Mirrors with its quirky and ridiculous distortions of the human body’s face and shape.
No matter, how many times it happens, I am always surprised by the effect that looking at a particular image can have. One of the mirrors makes the onlooker appear broader, stronger and shorter than they are, bestowing on them the build and physique of a prop forward.
When I look at this image of myself I am always amused by it, but if I spend too long in front of the mirror, I find myself almost beginning to believe in it. Then a strange sensation begins – I start to feel slightly differently about myself, as if I really could muscle my way around.
How we see ourselves, in this case quite literally, can have a great impact on how we feel and on our own self-understanding.
If a fleeting image in a distorting mirror can begin to work in the way I have suggested, how much greater will the impact be when all sorts of other messages are transmitted to us. In particular, the kind of language that is used to describe certain people or specific situations can have an insidious effect and be heard very differently from the way a speaker may have intended.
As it has been put: ‘If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn. If children live with hostility, they learn to fight’. And of course it’s not just children – it’s all of us.
In a short, but well known incident in the Gospels, some of the religious leaders ask Jesus whether or not it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. It’s the kind of trap that George Osborne would be proud of. If Jesus says ‘No’, he would be accused of sedition, if he says ‘Yes’, he appears to be colluding with the occupying Roman forces.
He slips out of the trap by saying ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.’
Jesus is saying that people give back what they receive. When someone who has been surrounded by hostility in turn becomes aggressive, they are ‘rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’. This doesn’t mean that we are victims of the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but it does suggest that our surroundings influence us.
Of course the distorting mirror of the Mop Fair is an illusion - but even its ephemeral influence can remind us of the care we need to take when the words and images that we use about others might bounce back at us.