October 26, 2011
A few years ago I was able to hear Hans Reinders, a Dutch theologian and ethicist, talk about a friend of his with profound mental disability. As I remember the lecture, his point was that his friend, who had to be dressed and taught anew each day to eat along with other basic functions, was made a person by the community around her. People would stop and comment on how nice she looked or how they had missed her if she was not sitting in the corridor of her nursing home or make a comment to her about the weather. I was struck by the idea that we are, in a sense, made human by community.
I found myself recalling this lecture during a recent ‘transformational journey’ to the Diocese of Western Tanganyika. I had not previously noticed that there are no mirrors to speak of in that part of Tanzania. What was an insignificant inconvenience while shaving in cold water from a bucket or brushing my few remaining hairs and hoping I looked OK, became quite significant as members of our team enjoyed taking pictures of people on digital cameras and then showing them to their subjects. I will not soon forget one elegant and older woman being shown what she looked like by Della Wells. It is likely from her reaction of what looked like a combination of awe and amazement, it seems likely that she was seeing what she looked like for the first time in her life.
What would it be like to grow up and live in a world without mirrors? I realize that people have long been able to see their own reflections, but it is my impression that in the Western part of Tanzania, that is a rare experience for most. How would it be if we were really dependent on each other in order to enjoy a sense of who we are? I know that I don’t think I sound to the world like I do when I hear myself on a recording. I wonder if I know what I look like to other people, what assumptions they make about me, how I act based on their responses and so on? In a way, it is already the case—mirrors or no mirrors—that we are creatures of our villages, our communities and our tribes.