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The Lens of Self Reflection

On filters, passions, and who we really are

“Will you look in the mirror?”

Galadriel’s evocative challenge is a question that comes with risks. It’s an offer to look deeply, beyond what is in front of you and to see visions of your past, present, and future. To see how your choices impact not only you, but those you love and the world around you.

We wish for this kind of clarity, don’t we? To see where our lives are going. To know what the future holds and how (or if) it will be connected to our pasts. We want to feel settled, to know.

Yet when faced with the offer to look at the truth with the tools available in this world, many of us turn away. We know intuitively that the visions of self-discovery are not all good ones. There are truths and there are possibilities, whether we change or stay the same. Do we want to know, really? Because once we look, we can’t unsee, and the seeing will change us.

Early in life, the yearning for self discovery comes naturally, but many people abandon it once they become adults. The process is painful and emotionally draining, the risk high and the payoff uncertain. Better to keep the focus outward, set goals, do things. Achieve, follow Ayn Rand's philosophy of life, and let the sleeping dogs of our inner selves lie undisturbed.

We All See Eventually

Whether we choose to look or not, our inner selves reveal themselves over time in the tapestry of our life journey.

And there’s no better place to see an assortment of life tapestries being created right before your eyes than on LinkedIn. Since it's a professional networking platform, most of our connections are people who work for a living. Since most of us have to work and we Americans also define ourselves by that work -- what we ‘do’ -- we can learn a lot by looking at the choices and changes people make or don’t make in their careers.

Many of my connections on the platform have been working for decades. As time passes, we all encounter one or more life-shaking milestones that invite us to look in that mirror.

Over the years, some colleagues have carved distinctive paths in the fields they’ve chosen, while others changed direction and pursued new interests in different fields. I have admired and envied those with clear goals and the discipline to achieve them, the drive to build upon them for a goal of some greater good in this world.

I also know what lies beneath some of the those carefully-crafted LinkedIn profiles: a disconnect. Our society has created an expectation that we must declare and follow a professional passion, but most people don't feel they have one. So even when profiles document an impressive path, what appears to be a series of well-considered choices is really just "lensing.” Sometimes it is intentional and superficial, and sometimes it runs deeper, where we actually lens ourselves into a filtered self-perception.

Filters vs. Reality

Even before the tools of Snapchat and Instagram were invented, creatives applied filters and lenses to photography and to philosophy (as in rose-colored glasses). They were used as overlays and manipulations applied to images or information we consumed.

In today’s virtual digital world, lenses and filters are no longer only for changing how we see the world. Snapchat, Instagram, and many other platforms have turned the tables so that each of us now may use them to change how the world sees us. And the message to all of us is clear: keep that view of yourself fresh, polished, branded. Be new, but not too new. Be yourself, but not too far from relevance and relatability. We can choose myriad lenses and filters to mix it up, glow up, level up. In the words of Lorena Page’s cat, “So much funs.”

But for all its creative potential, what does self-lensing and filtering mean for our journey of self-discovery? Choosing to show an authentic self as a naturally-aging woman, for example, is broadly judged as undesirable, a sign of giving up, of moral failure. But when we manipulate the way the world sees us, we also affect our view of ourselves. It begs the question: is self-discovery becoming a quaint, old-fashioned notion? The idea that there is a unique, true-north self, in an era of re-invention when politicians, celebrities, influencers change selves as instantly as they change clothes in trending reels?

No matter how filtered we are, the truth of our selves reveals itself over time in the patterns of our lives. Professional careers, however passion-inspired we believe them to be, inevitably give way to personal choices about how we work, how we stop working, and how we live, until we die (we haven’t figured out a good filter for that one yet).

Self discovery -- learning on a spiritual level who we are, who we always were, who we were born to be -- can be gratifying work that results in a rich inner life. And it is a privilege. As existential as our angst may be at times, it is a luxury to feel it. It means we are spared from the primal battles for survival that are still being fought by so many people on our planet. But it raises some very ticklish questions about how we see ourselves versus how we present ourselves to the world.

Choosing to Look

So, will you look in the mirror?

You may see things that disturb you or inspire you, that confirm your worst fears or your greatest hopes. You will see the reflection of who you are to others and who you have been in this world. You will see the results of your actions of the past and the future.

I wouldn’t blame you if you said no. There’s a lot to be said for the safety of the filtered self. Employing the lenses of perception lets us retain a sense of control, which is probably important for the baseline levels of denial and desensitization required to function day-to-day.

Still, if we choose to look, despite the high risk, we open the door to something amazing. To the hidden truth that “even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” While that prospect can be terrible and frightening, it is also where all our hopes lie (of transcending the existential despair offered by the world in 2022). And I believe that deep down below all the filters and lenses, behind the meta goggles we are offered, every one of us does have a true self with an exciting part to play, if we let her.


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