Moment of Recognition

I have heard that self-esteem in children is related to their parents “seeing” them.

That is, a child needs a care-giver to see something in him or her that the child does not or cannot yet see. When I said to my little daughter many years ago, “what a beautiful picture of a horse, you are such a great artist!” I was planting a seed of possible self-definition.

Later, as adults, we find ourselves looking for our own talents, gifts, and directions — no longer able or willing to let others define us. This, to me, is a natural process of individuation, of growing up to be ourselves.

As an adult, the process often seems to be like sorting through the millions of patterns of which we are made, patterns of thinking, behavior, emotion, and motive. Occasionally, there is a glimpse of something that stands out, that is real and true, that has gone unnoticed and that is an affirmation. It is like suddenly noticing a face in a pool of water from which the leaves had been brushed aside. Visions of the Narcissus myth notwithstanding, the moment of recognition is not about falling in love with oneself so much as simply remembering and appreciating the good within. Very helpful for making essential decisions.

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A favorite statement by photographer, William Guion about one of his photographs, Leaning Oak and Reflection (available here) illustrates this point.

On a hazy, chilly December morning, I walked, camera and tripod balanced on my shoulder, through a stand of oaks toward he edge of a pond. The water was silver-gray and still like a mirror hung in an empty, unlit hall. A thin mist fell, or more accurately, hung in the air. Rain had soaked the landscape during the night, and mud at the water’s edge sucked at my shoes. In the yawning light, I saw an oak leaning at a precarious angle over the water. The soil had eroded over time, dissolving much of the tree’s foundation, yet the oak’s roots were locked tenaciously into the receding land. Against the threat of drowning, this tree survived through an elegant dance of balance, perseverance, and heroism. Almost in praise, the pond mirrored the oak’s profile creating a beautiful mandala-like wheel with spokes of water, leaves, earth and light.

As I set up and focused the tree on my camera’s ground glass, I thought how often in my own life I have lived just on the edge of heroic acts. How I’ve operated within safe, comfortable boundaries that defined the limits of what I could accomplish. At this time in my life, I was considering leaving a comfortable, secure job to follow my heart’s urging to photograph and write. I stood on the edge of an uncertain future, mud sucking at my shoes, and stared out through the mists across silver-gray water at this leaning oak. Through its example, I saw clearly through the mists of doubt separating me from a decision. I stood for a long moment and imagined the worst that could happen if I stretched too far over the edge of my fears. Then, in that second when I snapped the shutter recording this moemnt on film, I stepped across an imaginary line in my mind. In the pond’s dark mirrored water I saw a face. It smiled back at me.

We see ourselves and know what we are to do. There may be no more vulnerable moment of recognition in a lifetime. For from it we may build an unexpectedly rich, affirming, and enduring identity — or if we choose to hold back, deny it forever.

No one can tell you what to do. But circumstance itself may conspire to yield the moment of choosing in just the way you have been looking for it. If only you notice the reflection and respect the mystery.

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