Frederick Buechner on the Confusion of Faces

A great section from Frederick Buechner’s The Hungering Dark, a book of meditations on the […]

Ethan Richardson / 8.27.14

A great section from Frederick Buechner’s The Hungering Dark, a book of meditations on the light that can be found in the darkness of doubt. Reminiscent of a staircase invention we’ve heard of before…

There is a silly little jingle that goes something like this:

My face I don’t mind it
For I am behind it,
It’s the people out front get the jar.

But, on the contrary, the person inside gets the jar too. You catch sight of your face in the mirror when you are brushing your teeth in the morning or combing your hair, and often you say, in effect, “Well, there it is again, the same old washed and slept-on thingĀ  I saw yesterday and will see again tomorrow–no better and no worse.” But sometimes, I believe, there is another response which is deeply jarring and which involves your asking in effect, “Is that really me? Am I my face?” And although the answer of course is Yes, the answer of course is also No. I am my face, and I am not. A strange and confusing business.

Bild 1Beneath the face there are many layers of self, and the deepest layers are for the most part hidden from us. You read a letter that you wrote or you remember something that you said or did, maybe even as recently as yesterday, and you think, “How could I ever have written such a thing, said such a thing? Is that even who I once was, let alone who I am now?” And because of the way the world goes, the sad truth seems to be that the face that you disclaim responsibility for is more often than not apt to be worse than the person you feel that you know yourself to be beneath the face. There is a self beneath the self, and the language that the inner self speaks could well be the language of St. Paul when he wrote to the church at Rome:” I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” In other words, I am confused by my own face. Poor Paul. Poor all of us.

…”Look now. As a nation or as an individual, you get what you fight for in this world, and if you don’t fight for it, nobody’s going to hand it to you on a silver platter. If you don’t fight, people are going to walk all over you–any fool knows that. If you want to get ahead, you better start pushing ahead. Certainly you’re going to have to step on a few people’s toes, people are going to get hurt. But you can’t be everybody’s friend, business is business, war is war. It’s a hard world.”

This is the face that each of us wears in some measure. It is a face that we know well: something a little remote about the eyes; the lines of the jaw a little hard; disguise it as we will, the expression is at best indifferent or vaguely troubled, at worst pitiless, as we look out at the suffering and need of the people around us. It is a face that in part we choose to protect ourselves from the world by. It is a face that in part the world chooses for us, perhaps to protects itself by. And it is a confusing face just because there are other layers of self beneath it…Fathoms down into the mystery of yourself you go–into the darkness of guilt and beyond, into the darkness of loneliness and need and beyond.

…The voyage into the self is long and dark and full of peril, but I believe that it is a voyage that all of us will have to make before we are through. Either we climb down into the abyss willingly with our eyes open, or we risk falling into it with our eyes closed–a point on which religion and psychiatry seem to agree…And whatever your religion is, or your lack of religion, in this sense I think that soul of every man is Christian and that the man on the cross who finds peace and fullness and true life is at the very least a symbol of the deepest truth about every one of us. I believe that by God’s grace it is our destiny, in this life or in whatever life awaits us, to discover the face of our inmost being, to become at last and at great cost who we truly are.



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