beauty Chesterton

The Mirror of Madmen

6:00:00 AMGrace Davies

I and my preoccupations are not all there is in the universe.  

I wish I could remember that.

I can remember the million and one things that I have to do in a day, but I can't seem to remember the reality and importance of the world around me.  The world outside the narrow limits of my self. 

Self-centeredness is a sneaky perpetrator of loneliness.  It is a terrible form of solitude to look out at a world of others and meet only my own self.  To see the whole world colored only by my own ends and wants.  That is a pervasive isolation.  And it's frightfully dull, too.  

My to-do list expands, glazing over my entire field of vision.  I look out at the world without really seeing it.  It flickers by me in a blur.  It's like I'm looking out at the world through a dirty window.  Actually, more accurately, it's like I'm trying to look through a mirror.  

Sometimes, I do see the outside world, but then I try to change it to fit - you guessed it - myself.  I don't accept situations or people as they come; rather, I wish I could change them to suit my preference.  I say to the world, in the words of Shakespeare's The Twelfth Night: "I wish you were as I would have you be!"  

Trying to shape the world according to my own image is a hopeless project.  But that's actually a good thing, because it would be dreadful if I succeeded!  If I alone were in charge of painting the world, the result would be dreadfully dull.  

This egotistical mindset was in fact one aspect of the evil of Nazism.  Hitler wanted to remake the human race according to his vision of what it should be like.  He attempted to accomplish this ultimate vision of humanity through the horrific genocide of an entire demographic.  He tired to blot out the beautiful diversity of the real world and repaint it in his own colors.  
The result, had he ultimately succeeded, would have been horrific.  Hildebrand saw this when he stated: "National Socialism and Hilter as its leader represented the epitome of kitsch -- a flat, gloomy, and incredibly trivial world, a barren and ignorant mindset." (1) 

Consider the following poem by G. K. Chesterton, entitled The Mirror of Madmen.  The poem masterfully shows what terror would result from the isolation of truly seeing oneself everywhere:

"I dreamed a dream of heaven, white as frost,
The splendid stillness of a living host; 
Vast choirs of upturned faces, line o'er line.
Then my blood froze; for every face was mine.

"Spirits with sunset plumage throng and pass,
Glassed darkly in the sea of gold and glass.
But still on every side, in every spot, 
I saw a million selves, who saw me not. 

"I fled to quiet wastes were on a stone, 
Perchance, I found a saint, who sat alone; 
I came behind: he turned with slow, sweet grace,
And faced me with my happy, hateful face. 

I cowered like one that in a tower doth bide,
Shut in by mirrors upon every side; 
Then I saw, islanded in skies alone
And silent, one that sat upon a throne. 

"His robe was bordered with rich rose and gold,
Green, purple, silver out of sunsets old; 
But o'er his face a great cloud edged with fire,
Because it covereth the world's desire. 

"But as I gazed, a silent worshipper,
Methought the cloud began to faintly stir' 
Then I fell flat, and screamed with grovelling head,
'If thou has any lightning, strike me dead! 

"But spare a brow where the clean sunlight fell,

The crown of a new sin that sickens hell.  
Let me not look aloft and see mine own
Feature and form upon the Judgment-throne.'

"Then my dream snapped: and with a heart that leapt
I saw across the tavern where I slept,
The sight of all my life most full of grace,
A gin-damned drunkard's wan half-witted face." (2) 

With a world as diverse and beautiful as ours, we really have no good excuse to see only ourselves in it.  So once we finally get tired of looking in a mirror all day, we can make a choice.  We can toss the mirror aside and clear away the self-centered glaze from our eyes.  We can stop painting the world with our dull, lonely colors and try to see the real, rough, beautiful ones.  We can stop wishing things were otherwise and start living in the stubborn, beautiful reality of how things really are.  

It's time to break out of our room full of the mirrors of self-centeredness - to wake up and see the other faces around us.  

(1) Dietrich von Hildebrand, My Battle Against Hitler, 33.

(2) G. K. Chesterton, The Works of Chesterton, 265. 

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  1. I just found an excellent Hildebrand quote which should have been written into this post. It is from his work entitled Fundamental Moral Attitudes, page 6, and is a description of the irreverent man:

    “He never gives situations, things and persons a chance to unfold themselves in their proper character and value. He approaches everything in such an importunate and tactless way that he observes only himself, listens only to himself and ignores the rest of being.”


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