In an episode in Season Three of the Showtime television series “Dexter,” the ghost of the father of the “good” serial killer (trust me, I know the complexities of that sort of qualifier, but it’s the central premise of the program and the primary identity of the protagonist), Dexter Morgan, tells him “you only see two things in people: what you want to see and what they want you to see.”
There is great wisdom in this statement — Not because we should stay in the realm of cynical worldviews that cloud our ability to trust in human relationships, but because what Dexter’s father names is a truth we encounter daily: we more often than not deal in the realm of what Thomas Merton calls “the False Self.”
It is true that so much of what we see in others or what we desire to reveal about ourselves comes not from our “True Self,” the identity created and known by God deep within ourselves, but from our “False Selves,” those images or projections of what we think we should be, what we desire others to see and what is, ultimately, not who we are on the most significant level.
So what is the wisdom in the words from Dexter’s father? What I sense in his words is encouragement for us to maintain an awareness of the masks that we project for others and the ones that are presented to us. This is not an admonition to be skeptical or distrustful, instead it is a clarion call for all people of good will to look beyond what we might first see and try to view others (and ourselves) as God views us.
Thomas Merton wrote that God does not recognize and therefore cannot know the False Self because it is not of God, but rather a creation of our own. These masks through which we engage one another likewise blind us to each other and precludes authentic relationship-building. As true as it is about God it is true about our relationships with one another. Most of what we know about others is what we want (or do not want) to see and what they want (or do not want) us to see.
Instead of succumbing to the very natural and predictable pattern of convincing ourselves and others of what and who we are, perhaps we should follow Merton’s advice to seek God and therefore come to accept better our true identity, the one that God so lovingly brought into this world. We owe the same to others.
Despite the rather dark and morally knotty storyline of the TV show “Dexter,” there are many redeeming qualities of the program (including the frequent negotiation of complicated narratives that reveal the complexities of human identity and moral agency). That, and the show is very entertaining. Thanks to my brother’s loaning me several seasons on DVD, I’ve been able to watch the narrative arc unfold and appreciate the originality of the foundational novel and the subsequent cinematic interpretation. I do not, however, endorse violence of any sort, particularly murder, as a solution to anything, nor does Christianity find itself compatible with such an approach to “justice.” But latently present throughout the screenplay one finds little nuggets of wisdom such as that of Dexter’s father and the notion of the True Self.