I’m going to tell you a secret. A powerful secret. It will sound strange at first, but I have it on good authority (the best in fact) that if you use it well, it will change not only your life, but the lives of many of the people you meet. Are you ready? Here it is:
Learn to pretend.
That’s right. Pretend. If you learn how to pretend, then you will be able to turn iron into gold and beggars into kings. Let me explain.
In the early centuries of Christianity, few things about the Christians irritated the pagans more than the Christian habit of trying to turn sinners into saints and rabble into royalty. Christ’s command to treat the poor, weak and sinful as though they were each Christ Himself sounded positively insane to the typical, upper class pagan. For many pagans, a poor man’s poverty and sinner’s sinfulness weren’t injustices that needed to be corrected, they were simply reflections of that person’s weak, inferior nature. Treating a poor man or a prostitute with the sort of respect you would render to a king or a priest, as Christians did by Christ’s command, was like talking to a statue and expecting it to talk back. In treating paupers like princes, the Christians seemed to be playing a ‘pretending’ game. Pre-Christian societies would have generally preferred that sinners be treated like sinners, and that Christians cease their silly make believe which made them treat the foulest sinners like good, worthwhile people.
Now let’s be frank; modern popular culture is considerably more ‘pagan’ than we usually bother to appreciate. In some ways, arguably, we moderns are even crueller and more brutish than the pagans of Rome, because although we certainly enforce standards of social worth, we don’t seem to think that we do. School children know this far better than adults. In a schoolyard, the social hierarchy is fairly clear: ‘cool’, ‘popular’ and ‘pretty’ at the top, ‘loser’, ‘freak’ and ‘ugly’ down the bottom. Those at the top are worth your time, the others aren’t. Adults are no different. Apart from obvious social outcasts (criminals, the homeless, prostitutes), our appearance/success-obsessed culture strongly implies that each person’s worth depends on their financial success, their social skills (usually synonymous with their ability to sleep with whomever they choose) and their physical appearance. Those who do not possess these qualities are viewed as, in a very real sense, inferior members of the human race. And like the pagans, to justify our cruelty, we often blame these people themselves for their ‘inferiority’. That fat person would be thinner if they could stop shoving food down their gullet. That nerd would have more friends if he would just stop being so weird. That drug addict would have his life together if he would just develop some self control. There’s no point denying it – we are all pagans deep down. In the deep, dark closets of our minds, there is a part of all of us that wants to blame those less fortunate than us for their own misery, and thereby free ourselves from any responsibility to help them. This tendency is not only ‘pagan’, unfortunately. It’s also essentially human.
At all times and in all places however, Christianity goes against this tendency.
We refuse to see what the rest of the world sees. Where the world sees beggars, losers, failures and sinners, we see only Christs, and we treat them as such (or we ought to, at least). We ‘pretend’ that the poorest, most broken and tortured members of the human race are glowing with the glory of God Himself. We are pretending just as Christ pretended when He said “Blessed are the poor” (for the poor certainly don’t seem blessed.) We are playing make believe. Or at least, that’s what it looks like when worldly people see us bowing to beggars as though they were kings, and admiring the ‘ugly’ as though they were beautiful. The strange thing is, our make believe has a strange tendency to come true.
But how does it work? What is it about this ‘pretending’ that is so powerful? By way of explanation, here is a beautiful passage from a rather beautiful novel:
“You see, there’s a fundamental connection between seeming and being. Every child of my race knows this, but you mortals never seem to see. We understand how dangerous a mask can be. We all become what we pretend to be.”
Chronicler relaxed a bit, sensing familiar ground. “That’s basic psychology. You dress a beggar in fine clothes, people treat him like a noble, and he lives up to their expectations.”
“That’s only the smallest piece of it,” Bast said. “The truth is deeper than that. It’s …” Bast floundered for a moment. “It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”
Frowning, Chronicler opened his mouth, but Bast held up a hand to stop him. “No, listen. I’ve got it now. You meet a girl: shy, unassuming. If you tell her she’s beautiful, she’ll think you’re sweet, but she won’t believe you. She knows that beauty lies in your beholding.” Bast gave a grudging shrug. “And sometimes that’s enough.”
His eyes brightened. “But there’s a better way. You show her she is beautiful. You make mirrors of your eyes … It is hard, very hard, but when she truly believes you …” Bast gestured excitedly. “Suddenly the story she tells herself in her own head changes. She transforms. She isn’t seen seen as beautiful. She is beautiful, seen.”
(Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind)
Just as “we all become what we pretend to be,” we also become what others pretend we are. You see, there is a very real, very tangible sense in which human beings have ‘creative power’ – our voices, our eyes and our intellects are incredibly potent things; God made them so. They are the spiritual and physical ‘power lines’ that connect us to our fellow humans and the natural world, and they can be used to literally refashion the world around us. When we admire gravel as though it were gold, we oughtn’t be surprised when we find that it transfigures in our hands. When we show a murderer that God forgives him, or a depressed teenager that she is beautiful, we shouldn’t be surprised that when they see the worth in themselves, they suddenly begin to glow with Christ’s own Light. If we treat them like Christ, very often, they will become Christ. He will come and live inside them. They cease being merely seen by us as Christ, and become Christ, seen by us.
Orthodox authors often speak of something called a ‘spiritual intellect’, which lets human beings see Creation as its Creator sees it. That means that we become aware of the reason why each and every thing was created. That’s especially true of how we see other humans. Our ‘spiritual intellect’ shows us the beauty for which all humans are destined, no matter how much darkness obscures it to the rest of the world. But we don’t merely ‘see’ that beauty, we apprehend it directly. We touch it. We don’t simply see through the layers of darkness and corruption that have covered up the Christ within them; for us, those layers cease to exist. We don’t see beggars, we see Christs. And once we have seen the inner beauty of some fallen man or woman, the next step is to begin acting as though that beauty were fully visible to everyone. We show them that they are gods. Now to worldly people, whose spiritual intellects are dull and rusty from misuse, this step looks like ‘pretending’. We seem to be making believe, talking to dusty old beggars as though they were some sort of deity. We feed and clothe and care for the weak and ungodly as though they were Christ Himself, even though to all appearances, they are as un-Christ-like as they could possibly be. But soon, stunningly soon, they realise that they are Christ. Christ has come to live inside them, and when that happens, everyone sees it. Our make believe has become real.
That’s why it’s so important to pretend; to see the divine destiny of all created things, and to act as though that potential were already fulfilled. Often, we will look silly; we will look as though we are pretending. But here is the secret within the secret: it is not the Christians who are pretending, it is the world. When a businessman ignores a drug-addled beggar on the footpath, or when a ‘popular’ student empties a ‘loser’s’ backpack into a toilet, they are unknowingly snubbing a being potentially so powerful and radiant that it would bring them to their knees if he could see it properly. The potential Christ within every loser and beggar is truer and more real than their current, physical meekness, which amounts to little more than a temporary mirage. In C.S. Lewis’ words:
“It is a serious thing, to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship …”
So the next time you meet someone dull and unassuming, tortured by low self-esteem or material difficulties, do them (and yourself) a favour. Pretend. Pretend that their glory and beauty were so obvious as to be undeniable. Treat them as though they were glowing and radiant with the power and love of Christ Himself. Pretty soon, you will realise that you were never really pretending at all. And one day, everyone else will realise it too.