First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
“An Unflattering Mirror”
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore February 13, 2005
How many of you enjoyed what you saw in the mirror this morning? I know I didn’t. We have a huge bathroom mirror I must face after I get out of the shower. My beard keeps getting grayer. I see new wrinkles getting started. The shape of my body is never exactly the way I’d like it to be. Mirrors often tell us a truth we resist seeing about ourselves. I can avert my eyes and hide from that truth under these attractive clothes but the harsh message of the mirror remains in my mind.
There are other sources of reflection, not always as precise but just as revealing and, at times, unflattering. At a class I attended this fall called, From Idolatry to Grace: The Spiritual Work of Marriage, Dr. David Olsen, director of the Samaritan Counseling Centers, called marriage “an unflattering mirror.” Most of us who have been married or partnered a few years intuitively know what Dr. Olsen is talking about. That intuitive recognition is bitter sweet. When the relationship began, there was little about it that was unflattering. Having this person by our side made us feel wonderful and complete. Committing to our partner promised to make our life better and increase our self esteem and make us happy.
So what happened?
Understanding the rhymes and reasons of relationships is a challenging business that calls for similes, metaphors, examples and stories. I have the good fortune to be married to a woman who is a psychotherapist and does relationship counseling. I asked her if she could think of a good, well-known movie that demonstrates the unflattering mirror theme effectively.
One of the flattering dimensions of our relationship is the creative energy we have between us. As we were talking, the example I’d like to use this morning jumped into my mind. A delightful movie that deals with ugliness in relationships is Shrek.
For those of you who have been living in a self-imposed media isolation chamber or don’t have young children, Shrek is a Dreamworks, state of art, animation film that draws on fractured fairy tales to tell a humorous and touching story of a romance between an ogre and a princess. Shrek, the ogre, lives in blissful self-isolation in his swamp enjoying his disgusting ogre pleasures like bathing in mud and eating slugs and eyeballs. Lord Farquaad, the small of stature prince of the nearby castle, seeking to create perfection in his kingdom, rounds up all the strange and enchanted fairy tale creatures and relocates them one night to Shrek’s swamp. When Shrek shows up to confront Farquaad, he is persuaded that Farquaad will restore his swamp to its original state if he brings to him princess Fiona.
Retrieving the princess is non-trivial as she is shut up in a high tower of a castle surrounded by molten lava and guarded by a dragon. Shrek and his persistent companion donkey manage to rescue the princess and defeat the dragon’s attempts to stop them. As they bring her back to Lord Farquaad, Shrek begins falling in love with the princess. Yet the princess has a secret. At sunset she is transformed into an ogre and remains in that form until sunrise (requiring costumes that stretch considerably). This spell was cast upon her when she was but a young girl:
By night one way, by day another
This shall be the norm
Till you find true love’s first kiss
and take true love’s form.
The story is not only heart warming and entertaining. It uses stories refined and honed through many generations of oral transmission. At the core of even the most innocuous fairy tales are potent truths about human nature. Layered into the Shrek story are powerful metaphors for human relations that we can draw upon this morning to bring more love into our marriages and partnerships.
The transformation of a loving relationship from a flattering to an unflattering mirror feels a little like a betrayal. Sadly, this is the byproduct of making commitments. When the ring goes on the finger it is soon followed by expectations. This is why I encourage couples to write their own marriage vows so they can make these expectations explicit. But for every explicit expectation, there are a hundred-fold unspoken ones tagging along. Perhaps this is why we’ve developed the tradition of the honeymoon to ease the shock.
My generation thought living together before committing to marriage would solve that problem. And it is true that many expectations of relationships do appear while co-habitating. Unfortunately the biggest expectations remain withheld until lifelong commitments are made.
These expectations extend far beyond picking up socks and replacing the cap on the toothpaste tube. These expectations embody our vision of happiness, meaning and fulfillment involving career, home, children, travel, service, retirement and religious faith. Sadly these visions may not exactly match up with our partners.
The four main characters in Shrek can stand in for four human drives for seeking meaning. Farquaad wants power and perfection. The enchanted mirror informs Farquaad that he cannot be king until he marries a princess. He chooses almost randomly between pursuing Cinderella, Snow White or Fiona. Which one he picks doesn’t matter to him as what he seeks in relationship isn’t love but the throne. I find Farquaad wonderfully symbolic of the rational drive of the mind in relationships calculating the best way to achieve its ends by using the other.
Fiona wants perfection of a different sort, she craves beauty. The esthetically pleasing experience of being a Princess rescued by Prince Charming silently inhabits the heart of many girls. When she grows up that little girl remains in her heart longing for fantasy rather than reality.
Rather than longing for perfection or beauty, Shrek doesn’t believe he can have either. He rejects them and descends into his ogre element of sense pleasure. For him the highest good is just to be left alone to enjoy his disgusting delights. I think of Shrek as symbolic of the hedonist, only concerned with his own enjoyment.
Donkey on the other hand, craves stimulating relationship. Being a talking animal limits his ability to be a normal donkey. His highest good is to talk non-stop and feel connected, symbolic of the human social drive.
These drives toward perfection, beauty, pleasure, and companionship get transformed into expectations once the knot is tied. These expectations just don’t fit very well when they are projected on the other. Some of the best humor in the movie comes from the mismatch of a donkey hungry for any kind of relationship and an ogre who would rather have none of it. It strikes home because balancing time apart and time together in a relationship can provoke all kinds of conflict. But expectations of perfection and romance can be just as unrealistic. Our pleasure seeking ogre nature mightily resists the drives of the mind and heart. The result can be disappointment and disillusionment.
As princess Fiona is being heroically rescued from the dragon, she wants to play out the Prince Charming script with poetry and flourish. Shrek shows no interest because he is focused only on his goal of getting his privacy back. She’s an alien in his world. Only when she begins to demonstrate some ogre like behaviors such as belching, fighting off Robin Hood and his merry men with martial arts moves, and blowing up a frog and a snake and turning them into balloons do they begin to recognize their similarities. The wide gulf between them dissolves as they see their reflection in each other’s eyes.
If we could just be happy with a few expectations being satisfied by our partners, a lot of marriage counselors would be out of work. Sadly, people crave more from their partners than they can or are willing to deliver. They only see that there is something wrong with their partner that needs to be fixed. Often unknowingly, they have projected their expectations on their partner and wonder why they don’t measure up to what a relationship should be rather than exploring the territory of what the relationship can be. Many often don’t recognize they are the source of the expectation problem.
One of the reasons princess Fiona and Shrek fall in love is because they have no expectation of having any kind of relationship. It is by the accident of their being thrown together that her ogre nature begins leaking out and attracts Shrek’s interest. I’ve always thought Philomena and my unexpected meeting was a strength of our marriage. Carl Thichener, former co-minister in Williamsville, New York, arranged our first contact. We met and had dinner at a Thai restaurant in Rochester not knowing anything about each other save that Carl thought we should meet. The core of our attraction to each other grew out of talking and discovering each other for the first time. We’ll be celebrating our 15th wedding anniversary next month.
The problem with having personal rather than mutual expectations of relationships is that personal expectations are idolatrous. Their satisfaction may not be the fruit of the growth of the relationship. They see the other as an object to satisfy their personal desires. Farquaat cannot perfect his theme park kingdom without marrying the perfect queen. Fiona will not escape her ogre nature by marrying Prince Charming and creating her own version of a theme park existence. Shrek’s deep wounds from society’s rejection of his ogre nature will not be healed by building a ten foot wall around his swamp. Getting every last desire fulfilled will not bring happiness because desire is endless and unquenchable. The lives of the rich, powerful and famous give testimony to this again and again.
Marriage promises something more than the fulfillment of desire. It promises the means to self-acceptance and self-realization, to wisdom and love through the process of intimacy. The opportunity for intimacy is greatly magnified in committed relationships because of the level of trust that develops through making and keeping promises. In a healthy marriage, expectations and projections can be recognized, and examined to discover their sources. The most difficult ones may spring from past wounds still unhealed. Our patterns of expectation and projection are built on our families, our core beliefs, and our cultural and maybe even our genetic inheritance. Until we can loosen our identification with them, we don’t even recognize those expectations as a choice we are making.
Donkey is particularly skillful in wearing down Shrek’s resistance so he can start to see himself. They have a moment of intimacy looking at the stars together that allows Donkey to probe why Shrek resists their relationship so strongly. Shrek recognizes the emotional pain associated with other’s rejection of him that lies behind his resistance of having a friendship with Donkey. Shrek laments, “the world has a problem with me. They judge me before they even know me.” Rather than experience rejection again and again, he walls off his heart from further pain. Yet once he can recognize that pain and see how it controls him, he can open up to being Donkey’s friend, a touching moment as they sit together looking at the moon.
The great goldmine of relationships hidden below the attraction of getting expectations met is encountering our limitations in a way that promotes self-awareness. The unflattering relationship mirror can show us the side of ourselves we’d rather not look at. The natural inclination to ignore its unpleasantness runs into our partner’s resistance to putting up with our denial. Few people can see our faults and foibles like our partners do.
When partners in a relationship bring self-awareness to the emotions that being in relationship generate, compulsive patterns can be recognized and changed, ignorance can be sensitized, and new opportunities for connection can emerge. Through her encounter with Donkey in her ogre form, the princess begins to question what true love might look like. Through his relationship with Donkey, Shrek begins leaving his social exile and recognizes his love for Fiona.
The opportunity to encounter truth compels us to look in that unflattering mirror and seeing our reflection. If our commitment in life be to the pursuit of truth and not the perfection of ourselves or our partner, what we see reflected will guide us well in our journey toward wholeness. If we stop seeking a reflection of ourselves in the mirror and begin seeking a reflection of the nature of existence, we will create the possibility for finding the peace Fiona finds as she kisses her true love and assumes true love’s form.
True love seeks not a soul mate
True love longs not for a perfect rose
True love hungers not to be reflected in a lover’s eye
True love only wants to be discovered
In the place it is least expected.
In the hand of the homeless man
In the face of the ignored domestic woman
In the eye of the rejected child
As we leave this place
may we open our senses
and find true love, all around us.
Copyright © 2005 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.