I sat down at a coffee shop today, opened my computer and absent-mindedly clicked Photo Booth. Before I realized what I’d clicked, I was looking at myself. I hadn’t intended to take a picture. I’m not sure why I’d opened the app. But there I was, me looking at me.
I fixed my hair, adjusted my shirt, and took a picture.
Now I’m looking at this picture and wondering what to do with it and why I took it in the first place…
If you’ve been on facebook lately or instagram or the internet at all, you’ve likely noticed the emerging art of the selfie. A selfie is a picture of oneself taken by oneself.
I have yet to post a selfie, but I’m not going to lie and say I don’t take them. I take them, feel weird about them, and delete them.
My daughter London is less self-conscious:
(After this one, I forbade the taking of selfies by five year olds.)
There’s something about selfies that makes me feel uncomfortable, like I’m seeing something I shouldn’t be seeing, something too private, too earnest.
If all pictures say, “Look,” selfies say “Look at me” as there’s nothing else in the picture to look at. And while we may be tempted to see these pictures as brazen assertions of identity—“Look at me. I am.”—or vanity “Look at me. I’m great.”—I wonder if more often they’re not desperate inquisitions—“Look at me. Am I?”
Selfies, particularly the ones on Instagram accompanied by hashtags, #40likesplease or #awkward or #amipretty, explode like flares on my phone, and as my Facebook feed (and camera roll) fills up with self portrait after self portrait, I feel more and more like we are a desperate people, desperate to be seen and known, desperate to be affirmed and loved.
There’s this story in Genesis. It’s not like most of the other stories in that epic book. It’s not about a man. It’s not about war or wonders. It’s about a girl, oppressed and mistreated, who finds love.
In Genesis 16, we read about Hagar, a slave forced to carry the son of her master Abraham. Not surprisingly, Abraham’s wife Sarah hates the idea of another woman carrying her husband’s child, even if it was her idea, and she mistreats Hagar. The word for mistreat in the text is the same as the word used to describe the Egyptians’ treatment of the Israelites in the book of Exodus. Hagar is undeniably suffering.
So she runs away. And while Sarah and Abraham are content to let her go—a slave girl, dispensable and replacable—God isn’t. He chases her.
At a spring in the desert, the angel of God, believed by many to be a pre-human manifestation of Jesus the Christ, appears to Hagar. He tells her she’s pregnant with a son who will not be a slave, that she will have descendants too numerous to count. He tells her to go back and he’ll bless her.
In case this isn’t totally blowing your mind, remember that God appears to only a handful of people in the Old Testament and remember that Hagar is a woman and a slave. She’s the kind of person no one notices.
And so it makes sense that Hagar would say, astonished, “You are the God who sees me… I have now seen the One who sees me.”
In middle school I wasn’t the most popular girl. I didn’t have cool clothes. I read a lot of books. I was enrolled in the nerdiest eschalon of an already nerdy magnet program.
Boys at school never noticed me, except to make fun of me. In sixth grade they called me “goat girl” because I wasn’t allowed to shave my legs yet.
And then my mom threw a party at my house in eighth grade and this high school boy from a church down the road came with his friends. I thought he was interesting and cute. I prepared to be ignored.
But I wasn’t ignored at all. All night, in fact, he watched me. I kept noticing him noticing me. Sometimes, I’d look right at him and he wouldn’t look away. We watched a movie that night and he sat close to the television screen and I sat toward the back of the room and ten, twelve times, he looked away from the movie to look at me. My friends kept asking, “Why is that guy looking at you?”
And I had no idea, but I liked it.
For the last eighteen years, he hasn’t stopped looking. He knows the shape of my face, the way my brow furrows when I disagree with something I’m reading. He knows what kinds of movies I’ll love and which ones I’ll hate and which songs to play when I’m sad. He knows my favorite color and my favorite smells and how I like my coffee. He knows when I want company on the couch. And when I don’t.
After all that looking, he sees me.
Being seen feels like connection, like even if you’re an astronaut floating in the depths of space, someone knows you’re there and won’t forget to pull you in when the spaceship leaves.
It feels like affirmation, like the pull of gravity. Like when you say something and a friend says, “No way; that’s not true,” and you look it up on Wikipedia and there it is in print, true. Being seen is like seeing yourself, the realness of you, in print.
It feels like being held, hugged longer and harder than is socially appropriate. It’s intimate and binding.
Sometimes we’ll get lucky, like I did with Justin, and a person—a friend, relative or spouse—will actually and fully see us. But a lot of the time we’ll strike out, because people, even people trying to love us, are inconsistent, unreliable, and bad at looking.
Sometimes I feel like even Justin doesn’t see me, Justin who’s trying so hard. I want him to compliment me on a haircut and he won’t notice. I ask if he’s read my most recent blog post and he hasn’t.
He’s a person, and people get distracted. They look away.
When we require the attention and affirmation of the people around us, valuing ourselves based on the number of likes we receive, the assurance of having been noticed, we will eventually and inevitably find ourselves feeling invisible.
We cannot expect others to really, deeply, and consistently see.
But we can depend on God.
He sees behind our glasses, beyond our dyed hair, underneath our pulled-up hoodies, and despite our duck faces. The psalmist says He “knows the secrets of the heart.”
God sees you. You, uncovered and unfiltered. You don’t have to ask Him to look, and you don’t have to wonder what He’ll think once He does.
When I’m not my best self, God sees me. And He doesn’t flinch or look away.
When I’m feeling alone and different and misunderstood, God sees me. And He walks beside me.
When I’m feeling like a mess, like no one would ever choose to love me, God sees me. And He loves me still.
Jesus says, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
Like He appeared to Hagar, an invisible girl, God appears to us, speaking to us through scripture, through friends, through His provision, through a chalky purple-pink sky or a perfect blueberry pancake. He knows our favorite tastes and smells and the words that most perfectly calm our hearts.
Of all the names for God in the Bible—El Shaddai (Lord God Almighty), Jehovah Raah (The Lord My Shepherd), Jehovah Jireh (The Lord will Provide)—my favorite might be Hagar’s: “the One who sees me.” I say it and am reminded…
I’m not alone.
I’m not invisible.
I’m living in love with the God who sees me.