As I’m sitting in the booth, facing the corner, there is this sad little evergreen plant on a shelf high above the dining room. It looks like something you’d find in a methadone clinic (not that I’ve been to one) but I feel like I know the place. Somehow, in these clinics, everything ends up looking really greenish, and there are sliding windows between you and the receptionist who sits all smug behind the fingerprint-smudged glass. You know the place: vinyl chairs with hideous patterns that must have been gleaned from a special “Corporate Catalogue of Hideous Patterns” and the floor is this weird, speckly tile, and the walls are almost always white with a pale green tinge, or pale green with a white tinge…anyway, I digress.
This plant looks like it could have been in one of those places that attempts to appear sterile, but only succeeds in looking depressed. Above this plant’s mylar-wrapped pot, there is a light shining down, casting its shadow onto the wall. The point is this: there, in all its reflected glory, was the shadow of this evergreen plant against the beige wall. This shadow was almost as tall as the distance between the floor to the plant– a good six or seven feet. And the shadow looked like this beautiful, needly, full fir tree.
I imagined then that this plant spends hours during the evening looking at this shadow and thinking that this is truly what he looks like. In his own mind, he’s tall and luscious, and completely full. Pondering this tree, I learned two lessons:
First of all, we all have an image of ourselves as we think we are, which is usually nothing like we actually are. This image sometimes keeps us from learning awful truths about ourselves– namely, that we’re not perfect– okay, so that’s not exactly awful, but it feels that way to some of us (me)– and such a knowledge usually creates the awareness that, in spite of our imperfections, people love us anyway. (This is hard for some *cough* people to grasp, but that doesn’t make it less true.) This image can be a setback because we become completely unable to see who we really are and all our glaring faults (like trying to see yourself as beautiful while looking at your reflection in a mirror with fluorescent overhead lighting) and thus fixing them. But, in another way, this false image also protects us from constantly thinking about all the ways that people find us absolutely intolerable. At least through the image, we can see good things about ourselves and appreciate them.
The second thing I learned from this little plant is that this image that we think defines us is not only an illusion, but it is also lent to us through the particular lighting cast upon it. Without the light overhead filtering through its leaves, this evergreen plant would see nothing at all remarkable about itself. It would just be a potted plant, its view of itself only gleaned from people’s reactions to it, which in most cases, is to completely ignore the plant or to find it insignificant. I mean, really– who pays attention to a little green plant with no flowers, no scent, no ornament? Why in heck should it have a good self image? But does that failure to be recognized mean that this little plant has no value? Nope. It’s sitting there in the corner, high above people’s heads, doing what it was born to do: eating light, photosynthesizing, making oxygen so that people can breathe. You know– living.
But this potted evergreen also teaches us (and when I say us, I mean me) to always try to cast ourselves in the best light possible for others. We should always try to show our best work, and treat any compliments with humility. (“Oh,” the plant says, “this pot? It’s just mylar. I know it’s shiny, but…this old thing?”) And, even if no one but me ever notices that plant, or its shadow, or even appreciates it for what it does for me, personally, and for my entire biological species, it can still look at the wall during the darkening hours between 6:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. and say, “Hey! Look at that! I’m lookin’ good! Yep. Not bad. Not bad at all.”