Give us the strength to see ourselves as others see us—not a good idea

Robbie Burns argues in this poem To a Louse, written when he saw a louse on a woman’s bonnet in church, that being able to see ourselves as others see us would save us from blunders and pretentious ways:

O wad some Power 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!


He may be right, but there would be a considerable downside—as George Eliot explains in the piece below from Scenes of Clerical Life. I read it this morning and was convinced by her argument.

Most of us never have the experience, but I’ve had it in a mild and amusing way. Lin and I went years ago to the fancy wedding of Shaun Woodward and Camilla Sainsbury (as an aside, he’s now left her for a male partner), and we chatted to some upper class girls. Afterwards Lin was in the loo when the two girls came in. They didn’t know she was there.

“What did you think of that Richard chap?” asked one.

“Quite nice, but a bit gorblimey.”

She was right, and if I ever write an autobiography I’ll call it A Bit Gorblimey.

My other insight into the effect of seeing ourselves as others see us was when we had a gifted photographer, Nick Sinclair, photograph a collection of elderly doctors. I knew the doctors and was hugely impressed by how Nick captured their characters although meeting them for only an hour or so. But at the launch of the exhibition I discovered that almost every doctor hated his or her photograph. The pictures told them more than they wanted to know. (The picture here is of John Crofton, a wonderful man and doctor, who was about the only one to like his picture.)

NPG P671; Sir John Crofton by Nick Sinclair

by Nick Sinclair, bromide print, 1996

So perhaps Eliot is right:

“It was happy for the Rev. Amos Barton that he did not, like us, overhear the conversation recorded in the last chapter. Indeed, what mortal is there of us, who would find his satisfaction enhanced by an opportunity of comparing the picture he presents to himself of his own doings, with the picture they make on the mental retina of his neighbours? We are poor plants buoyed up by the air-vessels of our own conceit: alas for us, if we get a few pinches that empty us of that windy self-subsistence! The very capacity for good would go out of us. For, tell the most impassioned orator, suddenly, that his wig is awry, or his shirt-lap hanging out, and that he is tickling people by the oddity of his person, instead of thrilling them by the energy of his periods, and you would infallibly dry up the spring of his eloquence. That is a deep and wide saying, that no miracle can be wrought without faith— without the worker’s faith in himself, as well as the recipient’s faith in him. And the greater part of the worker’s faith in himself is made up of the faith that others believe in him. Let me be persuaded that my neighbour Jenkins considers me a blockhead, and I shall never shine in conversation with him any more. Let me discover that the lovely Phoebe thinks my squint intolerable, and I shall never be able to fix her blandly with my disengaged eye again. Thank heaven, then, that a little illusion is left to us, to enable us to be useful and agreeable— that we don’t know exactly what our friends think of us— that the world is not made of looking-glass, to show us just the figure we are making, and just what is going on behind our backs! By the help of dear friendly illusion, we are able to dream that we are charming and our faces wear a becoming air of self-possession; we are able to dream that other men admire our talents— and our benignity is undisturbed; we are able to dream that we are doing much good— and we do a little.”




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