The Man in the Mirror

In Others
June 28, 2009

I have been more touched by the death of Michael Jackson than I would have anticipated. Which is to say that I would not have expected to be touched at all, and I find that I am, somewhat.

I suppose the reasons are the same as anyone else of my age: his songs were the background soundtrack to my youth, and his personal life was too bizarre and sad not to call for some reflection at its end.

So, like everyone else in the world, I’ve found myself listening to Michael Jackson songs the past couple of days. And while listening to Man in the Mirror – a song which hit the charts at the height of my Smash-Hits-reading period – I had a thought which I suppose is as close as I’m likely to get to a meditation on Jackson’s passing.

It’s a deeply and cruelly ironic song, of course. As far as one can tell, Jackson seems to have suffered from appalling body dysmorphia, and apparently therefore had lifelong problems with “the man in the mirror”.

But it also seems to me to be a song which reflects a particular obsession of my generation – perhaps of the post-Second-World-War generations – to see ‘working on yourself’ as being as good as, if not more important than, working on the world.

The song’s lyrics do make some reference to “Kids In The Street,
With Not Enough To Eat”, but don’t get as far as suggesting what could be done for these starving children. Instead, the focus is this ‘man in the mirror’ and the song’s primary force is the repeated refrain:

“If You Wanna Make The
World A Better Place
Take A Look At Yourself, And
Then Make A Change”

On the surface it’s quite an inspiring thought, bringing to mind Ghandi’s saying “you must be the change you wish to see in the world”. But in fact I think it’s just the opposite.

I appeared on a panel a few months ago in Bath with Sarah Dunant and Joan Bakewell (very thrilling) where we talked about women and their relationships to their bodies. In that conversation, and in what I’ve read about Susie Orbach’s new book the issue of being ‘sidetracked’ by the body came up several times. That somehow we – perhaps women more than men, although I’m sure men are catching up – have been duped into believing that it is more important to improve our bodies than to improve society.

As William Leith says in that review: “capitalism works much better if we hate our bodies. If we’re anxious and needy, we are better consumers; if we’re anxious and needy when it comes to something as fundamental as our bodies, we are putty in the hands of marketeers and diet-merchants”.

It used to be that people were exhorted to ignore their own desires and act for the collective good (remember ‘lie back and think of England’?). And that wasn’t a great way to live. But obsessing with achieving perfection in yourself, thinking that you can only do good in the world if you’ve become a perfect person isn’t great either. In fact, as there’s no such thing as a perfect person, it’ll only lead you down ever more terrifying, anxious roads of self-loathing and fear. As one can see from Michael Jackson’s horrifying, fruitless quest for some strange physical goal.

There is a middle ground, and it’s up to each of us to find it. It’s OK to want to improve yourself, but you are good enough *right now* to start trying to improve the world too.

If you want to make the world a better place, stop staring at yourself, go out and make a change.

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