When my son, Nehemiah, was a toddler, he would generally wake up around 5:30 a.m., run into our room and yell, “Wake up time! Wake up time! Do you want to play with me?” Occasionally, he would try to contain himself. My husband, Andrew, would open his eyes and find Nehemiah standing right next to the bedside staring at him, just waiting for him to wake-up. He needed our attention!
This is true, of course, of all of us from the moment we are born. We need to be seen. We need to be held. We need to see ourselves reflected in the loving gaze of an other. Infants who are not held and spoken to, die. If they are not comforted when they cry or otherwise feel abandoned, they find it much more difficult to bond with others and handle trauma as adults.
Toddlers who do not receive positive responses to their “high quality” attention seeking behaviors (pointing at things, sharing objects, laughing and smiling), will turn to “low quality” attention seeking behaviors (also known as melt downs). “Look at me, look at me” isn’t self-centeredness in a three year-old. It is simply how we come to know who we are and where we are in the world. If you do not pay attention to me, my self-worth – even my sense of existence – will come into question.
How vulnerable we are to the perception of others! I was reminded of this last week during our preschool chapel service. As the children gathered, four year-old Elle brought me a picture of herself she had drawn and carefully colored. She handed it to me with a huge smile. Her actions were communicating, “Look at me! What a gift it is that you can see me!” And she was right. After the service, little Bella came up to me and, without saying a word, just gave me a hug: “I exist, I’m safe here!”
We never really outgrow the vulnerability of childhood, the fragility of being seen. We know all too well the danger of receiving unwanted attention, of seeing ourselves reflected in the malevolent, or even simply indifferent, gaze of an other. Both being ignored and receiving unwanted attention leave us feeling very insecure about our identity. In response, we either engage in attention seeking behaviors to shore-up our sense of self, and not always in “high quality” ways, or we seek to disappear to protect ourselves. We become adults who find ourselves on a treadmill of continually trying to prove our worth, often at the expense of others, or we retreat into an interior world to shield ourselves from harm.
We need to be seen, but this being seen is a tricky business. It can leave us feeling like we are never good enough, either trying all the harder or just giving up. We engage in an adult version of hide and seek with one another, and even with God. We need to be seen, but we are afraid to be vulnerable. I want you to pay attention to me, but only if I can control your response.
It is with this in mind that I hear a certain childishness in the plaintive tone of the prayer of the people that Isaiah records: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”[i] “Look at me, God, look at me!”
The people of Israel are shocked that their fasting isn’t getting them the attention they want. They delight to draw near to God, but they don’t know how. They are caught in the loop of “low quality” attention seeking behaviors: self-interested self-seeking, exploitation of workers, and violence. The prophet, speaking on God’s behalf, suggests trying some “high quality” attention seeking behaviors instead: loosing the bonds of injustice, freeing the oppressed, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked.[ii]
“Don’t ignore your own kin! Give them the attention they need. Then your light will shine,” says God. “Then I will see you!” If we want to draw near to God, we have to become willing to draw near to those who need our attention. It is hard to see them, because it makes us aware of our own vulnerability, our own fears of being seen or being invisible. We must become willing to see what we’d rather ignore, and to reveal what we’d rather hide. Only then can healing spring up quickly. Only then will God say, “Here I am!” I see you! I’ve got you! No more hiding. Just seeking and finding.[iii]
This isn’t about earning God’s attention through good works. It is about moving into the flow of compassion so that we can see and be seen, rather than hiding from our own kin, from our neighbors, from our Beloved, God. It is about becoming willing to risk being seen by God, just as we are – not hiding behind a mask of pseudo-piety – so that we might be given to see ourselves truly and whole, reflected in the eyes of the Beloved.
Jesus picks up on this theme from Isaiah in his subtle teaching about being seen. “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who sees in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”[iv]
Jesus understands the fragility of being seen, all the ways we are tied into negative feedback loops of fear, envy, rivalry, and shame because of our experience of being seen by others in ways that reinforce a negative identity. We settle for the reward of receiving our identity from the social other, become attached to securing that identity, and surrender our freedom in the process.
Jesus invites us instead to become willing to receive our identity from God, and to allow that identity to shape what we value. Then we will find real treasure, the reward of receiving our heart’s true desire.[v] As we allow ourselves to be seen by God, we grow in our own capacity to perceive reality, unimpeded by the cultural lenses that obscure our vision. “If the eye is healthy,” Jesus says, “your whole body will be full of light.”[vi] Then our light will shine, and we will see and be seen in ways that allow health to spring up. And we will be free: free to serve God rather than being slaves to wealth – to the culture’s source of value and identity. As Jesus put it, “No one can serve two masters.”[vii]
Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving help us to detox from the cultural values, perceptions, and loyalties that inhibit our ability to see and be seen. They open up some distance between our true selves and the false self we have internalized, to make space for God’s slow work of restoring his image within us. They nurture our freedom to respond to God’s invitations to love, to allow ourselves to be seen as God sees us, and to see others as God sees them. They help us to recover our freedom to love and serve in ways that offer healing attention to a broken world.
Today, we will be marked with ashes. It is, in one sense, another way of saying, “Look at me, God! Look at me!” If it is simply a mask for our “low quality” ways of getting attention, it will not provide much of a reward. But it can be a genuine mark of vulnerability, a sign of our willingness to be seen by God in our brokenness and mortality, accepting the fragility of being seen trusting that God will handle us with great care and tenderness.
In accepting the sign of ashes, we acknowledge all the ways we play hide and seek with each other and with God, settling for the reward of social approval or disapproval, whichever best reinforces the mask that we hide behind. We take off the mask, and allow our selves to be seen. These ashes are also a sign of our mortality. Life is short, and we don’t have time for playing games that reward our false selves. See, today is the day of salvation.[viii] Now is the time to receive the reward of God’s loving gaze, the reward of the Mother/Father who sees in secret, who knows our secrets, and loves us anyway. It’s time to play a different game.
We need to be seen. Our God comes to us in Jesus shouting, “Wake up time! Wake up time! Do you want to play with me?” Do you?